The Valley of the Shadow of Death: Caleb’s Birth and My Emergency Surgery

I realize this is not the typical title for a birth story, and before you assume this is a horror story that will persuade you that the process of birth is something to be avoided at all costs, let me set one thing straight. This is not a horror story, it’s a story of God’s protection, grace, and provision. Also, nothing I experienced is “normal.”

My whole pregnancy I planned on an unmedicated birth center birth. After my success in treating Vaginismus (click for that story), I had a lot of confidence in what my body could accomplish. To my surprise, the more I researched birth, the more I became convinced that unmedicated vaginal birth was best for me and baby. The closer we got to my due date, the more I was actually looking forward to our “birth” day and the birth experience, since it was what my body was made to do. I read books, including Ina May’s “Guide to Childbirth,” “The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding,” and “Holy Labor” by Aubry G. Smith. We took the class at the birth center, I made sure to steer clear of horror stories, and I prayed through my fears. I was convinced that Caleb would come on his own, that my plan was fool-proof, and I was prepared to stick to my guns to make sure my birth plan happened.

The 41 Week Change of Plans

The birth center policy is that you can give birth there up until 42 weeks (after which a hospital induction is scheduled), but they require a series of tests to be run at 41 weeks to ensure it’s medically safe to wait. I didn’t think there was any chance we would have to run those tests at 41 weeks, but Caleb decided not to come on his own.

Just before we hit 41 weeks, I had an ultrasound. At that ultrasound, the doctor informed me that I had elevated levels of amniotic fluid, but said there was no reason for the elevation (gestational diabetes or the baby not swallowing in utero are typical causes- neither of which were present). He called it “idiopathic,” strongly suggesting I be induced closer to 41 weeks than 42 weeks. I totally brushed him off, thinking “of course that’s your opinion- you’re a cautious doctor that wants to medically intervene.” This was on Thursday October 4th, and I had an induction scheduled for the following Thursday the 11th. The next morning, I had an appointment with my midwives. The baby was high, I wasn’t effaced at all, and I was barely dilated. They told me that my levels of amniotic fluid might risk me out of my birth center birth and they’d get back to me. I didn’t hear anything the rest of the day, so I relaxed and thought my plan would still happen. The next day, I woke up from my nap to a voicemail from my midwife. She said that because of my elevated levels of amniotic fluid, and because my body wasn’t showing any sign of going into labor on its own, she and the director had decided to transfer my care to the hospital, and they had scheduled an induction for Monday night.

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I was so desperately ready to have that baby!

I had a lot of feelings, but mostly I was terrified. To me, induction was the worst case scenario. I spent the rest of Saturday, all day Sunday, and most of Monday walking, bouncing on my birth ball, or drinking raspberry tea desperately trying to jump-start labor. When I wasn’t trying to encourage labor, I was trying to mentally prepare for labor. Despite my best attempts, labor did not spontaneously begin. On Monday evening Josh and I went to Outback for dinner and then went to the hospital to start induction. 

Induction

Due to my high levels of amniotic fluid, I was considered high risk. The concern was that the umbilical cord could slip out before Caleb, which would cause major issues. I was on constant fetal monitoring, which was extremely annoying and uncomfortable. Annoying, because I have a hyper-active baby and he kept swimming away from the monitor. Uncomfortable, because the monitor was strapped right on top of my extremely itchy PUPPs rash I developed over the weekend. I was put on an oral dose of Cytotec, a drug that encourages dilation, and had to have an IV. I remember thinking how miserable that IV was, and telling myself “it’s just for a few days and then it will be a SUPER long time before you ever have to have one again.” (Spoiler: it wasn’t.) I only got a few hours of sleep on Monday night, despite the sleeping pill they gave me, and figured it would be ok because I told myself “today will be the day I meet my baby!” (Spoiler: it wasn’t.)

Labor was long, starting with mild contractions on Monday night that continued all day Tuesday, but it kicked into high gear at midnight on Tuesday. My nurse had given me Benadryl to help me sleep, but I didn’t get any rest. At midnight I had another round of Cytotec, and within 10 minutes the contractions were on top of each other. As soon as I hit the peak of one, another one would come just as intense. It took me a while to be able to even talk to wake Josh up. At 1 am, I went to the bathroom, threw up, and there was a giant gush of liquid. I was worried, because it was grayish brown, and it didn’t look like what I expected my “water” to look like. I proceeded to leak said liquid and blood, so I called the nurse. She tested it and it was in fact my water. The color was from meconium- meaning at some point Caleb had been in distress in utero and had a bowel moment. That totally freaked me out. The midwife came in and explained that I had a high leak, and this wasn’t ALL my water. She said “you have enough water in there for a pool girl. You’ll know when your water starts breaking because there will be SO MUCH you might float away.” (Later the midwife broke my water, and she was right… I thought I was going to float away.)

The midwife checked me at 3:30 am and I was 4 cm dilated, 100% effaced. I was SO exhausted, and knew Pitocin was the next course of action. Looking at how intense it had been thus far, and how long I still had to go, and the fact that I hadn’t slept at all (and barely got any rest the night before), I decided to get an epidural around 4:45 am. I thought it would be horrible, but I honestly don’t remember it being painful at all. I remember being relieved, and I remember finally being able to catch my breath.
I got a few hours of sleep, and we started Pitocin around 9 am. I spent the day breathing through contractions, and Caleb’s heart rate crashed twice. The first time, I had been alternating laying on my sides with giant peanut ball between my knees trying to open things up. We decided to try me sitting up straight for a little bit. When I did, I started gushing liquid, Caleb’s heart rate dropped drastically, and next thing I knew the room was full of nurses and the midwife turning me on my side, hooking me up to oxygen, and making sure the umbilical cord hadn’t slipped out. It was terrifying.
By 7 pm I was dilated to 9 cm, but Caleb crashed again while the midwife was checking me. This time it was even more intense. It happened right in the middle of the nurse shift change. Suddenly the nurses were shouting instructions and the midwife started talking about considering a c-section… all while I was trying to move the way the nurses wanted (with a numb lower body), with a giant oxygen mask inhibiting my hearing and sight, and no one telling me if my baby was ok.
I had a complete breakdown. I couldn’t stop crying, I started hyperventilating, and I asked them to give me a minute to discuss it with Josh. I remember feeling exhausted and like my all my dreams were being crushed. Not only was I two days into an induced labor, I was coming to the realization that I might not get the vaginal birth I had wanted and planned.
By the time the midwife and nurse came back, Josh and I had decided that the c-section seemed like the best option because Caleb was still so high and I wasn’t progressing very much. However, while Josh and I were discussing the c-section, the midwife had been conferring with a doctor. The midwife said that they would like to give it a few more hours and see if I could progress and still pursue a vaginal birth. I was exhausted, but agreed – because that’s what I really wanted.
When the initial discussion of c-section started, my mom came to the hospital. I’m SO GLAD she was there. The labor I experienced after the 7 pm crash was totally different from everything I experienced up until this point. It was back labor, and the contractions were intense. Seriously… thank God I had the epidural, because I don’t think I could have made it as far as I did. Somewhere around 10 pm, I was checked again. There had been no change in that couple of hours. My midwife suggested the c-section again, and after conferring with my mom and Josh I concurred that c-section was really the safest option. I was completely and utterly exhausted, it didn’t look like Caleb was going to engage in the pelvis, and if he crashed again it would become an emergency situation. A c-section wasn’t what I wanted, but I felt like I was making the best decision for both of our safety.

The Unplanned C-Section

By 10:15 pm I was being prepped for surgery. By 10:44 pm on Wednesday October 10th, Caleb James Cornelissen was coming into the world screaming his head off and trying to open his eyes right away. I had an excellent surgeon, a very kind anesthesiologist who stood by my head the whole surgery and told me what he was seeing (“Wow there’s a head full of hair— I can see him coming out!— WOW that’s a big baby! He’s already trying to open his eyes and check out the world!”), and they let us do cheek to cheek contact as soon as they cleaned him up.
Reflecting on this whole situation, I’m extremely thankful for two things. First, my epidural. If I hadn’t gotten the epidural, I would have been completely knocked out for the c-section. Instead, I was fully conscious and I’m very thankful for that. Second, I’m very thankful that the birth center sent me to the hospital. I think that even if I had been able to labor at the birth center, I would have ultimately had to have a c-section either way due to the insane amount of amniotic fluid I had. The fact that we were already in the hospital meant that I got to make the choice to have a c-section instead of being forced because it was an emergency.
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First family photo!
Josh and Caleb headed back to our room for recovery while they finished closing me. When they went to transfer me back to my bed, the only thing I could move was my head and my right arm. My left arm was completely dead, which was terrifying and it took an hour to regain control of it. In that hour, I held my baby for the first time- but I needed help doing so because I had one arm. I felt so out of control of my body. I remember bits and pieces of what happened before we were transferred to our recovery room, but most of what happened after his birth is a blur. I clearly remember my mom coming in and meeting Caleb, which was so special because they share a birthday!
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The next several days in the hospital were terrible, and I thought it was all related to my long labor and complicated delivery. Looking back, we know that what I was experiencing was complicated by an underlying medical issue that had yet to be discovered, which is part of the whole story. In the hospital, I developed a blistering rash over my entire body, most likely an allergic reaction to the anesthesia used during surgery, but everyone who came into my room had a different theory about my rash. It was exhausting listening to everyone’s theories about my rash, and dealing with more and more doctors trying to diagnose it- all without any definitive answers. I couldn’t keep food down. I couldn’t sleep. I could barely move. And my legs and feet inflated like balloons. On top of all this, the recovery wing was completely booked. Lactation consultants were available, but literally told me that I was going to be at the hospital for a longer stay than everyone else so they needed to help the other patients first. After surgery, my whole body was swollen. Caleb and I did our best to breastfeed, but he had an improper latch and by the time we got real help I was in excruciating pain from trying to figure it out on my own, and any pressure on my abdomen was absolutely excruciating. I kept trying, but with each feeding my pain increased, and so did my frustration. I had to fight with the doctor to get discharged. They were concerned about my rash and the vomiting, but I thought the vomiting was the result of extreme sleep deprivation and stress, which were two things that would be remedied by being in my own home. By the time we were discharged from the hospital on Saturday night I cried at the very thought of feeling Caleb, because it was so painful. My plan was to use my breast pump at home, but we started using formula that night just to survive. I felt like such a failure. Not only did I not get my vaginal birth, breastfeeding was turning into a nightmare too.
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The Week After Birth and The ER Visits

We got home, and I continued having issues keeping food down. I starting working on pumping instead of breastfeeding, because I really needed to heal, but I didn’t want to close the door to breastfeeding. I hoped to pump until I could try again under the guidance of a lactation consultant that actually had time for me. I have never felt more discouraged, trying to pump while not being able to keep down food. I grew physically weaker each day, I had no desire to see – let alone hold – my baby, and even if I did want to, I was too nauseous and too sore to do so.
On Tuesday afternoon (October 16th), I was taken to the hospital by EMS. I had sharp pains in my abdomen, trouble taking deep breaths, and I was in pain more severe than labor. Unfortunately, my experience in the ER was a nightmare. After ten hours of being ignored, given a CT and ultrasound, fluids and meds, they concluded that my bowels were backed up and that was the cause of my pain (spoiler: it wasn’t). They gave me an enema, and sent me home in the middle of the night.
On Wednesday, I felt like I was dying… and that’s because I was. Over the next few days, my abdomen grew more and more distended. I felt fluid sloshing around in my abdomen, and moving caused excruciating pain. Not moving also caused excruciating pain. And honestly, there was no relief because I threw up everything, including medication. All this time, I was still trying to pump. Talk about major mom guilt. I was laying in my bedroom, absolutely drenched in sweat, unable to keep anything down, feeling insane because the doctor in the ER told me that the only thing wrong with me is too much poop, and I was trying to pump around the clock because I was feeling like a failure as a mother. 
I’ve struggled with depression in my past, but I have never experienced darkness like I did during that week. I sobbed almost constantly and I was absolutely consumed with anxiety. I listened to worship music and pleaded with God to give me the desire to live, because there were moments that I honestly believed that Caleb would be better without me. I thought that I was experiencing postpartum depression, but I was literally walking through the valley of the shadow of death. 
Friday came, and so did my mom. My mom has a unique gift and ability to care for people. Diane Crutchfield doesn’t just take care of physical needs; somehow she is able to assess and treat all needs – physical, emotional, and spiritual – simultaneously. She’s also an incredible problem solver. So, in typical Diane fashion, she formed a plan and helped me process all the things that were going on with me emotionally- including my struggle with pumping.
Saturday morning I decided that the best thing for Caleb, and my mental health, was to have Caleb on formula exclusively. It was so kind of God to give me the opportunity to surrender this, because later in the day the choice would have been made for me. By Saturday afternoon I was in super rough shape (feverish, full body sweats, not super with-it, and extremely distended) and nothing we did improved my situation. We went to Urgent Care, where we explained the whole c-section and ER saga and the Doctor ordered an X-Ray. After reviewing it, he sent us to the ER and made sure they knew we were coming. Once we got to the ER, things happened very quickly. I don’t remember much, because I was extremely out of it, but I remember my mouth being super dry and desperately wanting water, I remember the incredibly kind nurses, I remember getting an IV, I remember getting a CT scan, I remember crying when the doctor told me I was going to be transferred to have emergency surgery, and I remember the kind EMS guys who gave me morphine. I know now that the doctor suspected that I had a perforated bowel, and that they suspected I had sepsis. I know now that I was dying… and that God spared my life.
I remember the ambulance ride, and thinking that I was so relieved to finally have a respite from the pain, thanks to my new friend morphine. I remember joking with the EMS guys, and telling everyone prepping me for surgery about my adorable baby Caleb James, and my amazing husband – who I referred to as “Super Dad.” (Guys, he literally is though.) I remember meeting the surgeon on call, Dr. Alleman, and him telling my mom all the scenarios from worst to best case. I don’t remember what he said, because a man that looked like the Black Panther was taking blood out of my hand. I do remember looking at my mom to see how she was reacting to what Dr. Alleman said, and she seemed ok… so I was ok. 

Emergency Surgery and Ten Days in The Hospital

On October 20th, I had emergency abdominal surgery, just ten days after a c-section following a 48 hour labor. I don’t remember coming out of surgery, but I do remember waking up in ICU and being so happy because I finally felt better than I had in two weeks.
By God’s grace, I didn’t have sepsis and I didn’t have a perforated bowel. Instead of the worst case scenarios, which included a six month hospital stay and my bowels being in a bag outside of my body so my abdominal cavity could be rinsed, I had the BEST case scenario. I had a perforated stomach ulcer. Basically where my stomach and intestines meet there was a hole. So all the fluid from my stomach was leaking into my abdominal cavity. They pumped five liters of fluid out of my abdomen. (That explained the sloshing feeling every time I moved!) Instead of a six month hospital stay, he estimated a ten day stay.
It took several days for me to realize what all had happened to my body. When I woke up, I had two surgical drains, staples down my incision, a central line, an NG tube, a catheter, and I was on oxygen. My new incision went from my breastbone to my c-section incision.
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My “trunk,” aka NG tube
The next week-and-a-half in the hospital involved another surgery (third surgical drain), physical therapy (lots of walking the halls), lots of blood draws, lots of bird baths, lots of people helping me to the bathroom, and no food or drink. Because I had a hole in my stomach, I couldn’t have anything by mouth for over a week. I got all my nutrition from TPN, an IV through my central line. Every time I closed my eyes, I had these mini dreams (thanks to morphine). I had many, many dreams of drinking a big, ice cold Coke or enjoying Five Guys Cajun fries (my fave!). Unfortunately the closest I got was a mouth swab (a piece of foam on a stick) in ice water.
Every day I walked the halls, tried to spend time sitting up in the recliner instead of bed, and tried to be a ray of sunshine to everyone that walked into my room. Not to brag, but I succeeded in that last goal. I called my surgical drains “honey pots,” my NG tube my “trunk,” and I was known by every nurse on the floor. By the end of my ten day stay, I had at least five nurses a day that would stop in to say hi, not because they were taking care of me that day – but because they wanted to see how I was doing, and if I had any new pictures of Caleb. Two days before I got discharged, I got to meet Caleb and my mother-in-law outside! It was so nice to finally see my baby, but it brought so much pain to the surface. At that point, I had the NG tube out, but we didn’t know how much longer I would be in the hospital. I cried a LOT that day. 
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Obviously the stomach ulcer is the craziest thing about this whole ordeal. The number one question we all had was WHY didn’t we know about the ulcer? The answer is that the symptoms of the stomach ulcer were masked by pregnancy symptoms. I had INSANE heartburn (to the degree that I had TUMS with me at ALL TIMES and called it “my candy”)… common symptom of an ulcer. I couldn’t eat a lot of food in one sitting… stomach ulcer. I had nausea… stomach ulcer. See? SUPER common pregnancy symptoms. Our other question was WHY NOW? Why did it burst when it did? Dr. Alleman said that during major (or traumatic) life events, the body shows its weakest part. For me, the major life event was having a baby, and the weakest part of my body was the stomach ulcer.

Life After Being Discharged

On October 30th, I was discharged from the hospital – and I thought that meant life would get back to normal. The truth is that I didn’t start feeling normal (in any sense of the word) until Thanksgiving. The first few weeks I was home were filled with nausea, vomiting, another trip to the ER, another CT scan, and another surgery to put in a (fourth) surgical drain. Thanks to the nausea, I still couldn’t spend much time with my baby. The smell of his formula (which I was thankful for but simultaneously hated – because it was a constant reminder of the fact that breastfeeding was taken away from me) turned my stomach and almost guaranteed that I would lose whatever food, liquid, and medication I had been able to muster down.
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Me and Caleb on Thanksgiving
 
Through this whole ordeal, it has become so obvious how blessed Josh, Caleb and I are. Our families have sacrificed their time and sleep to care for us; Josh’s mom was here for two weeks, and my mom was here for almost a month. Our friends have provided meals, visited me in the hospital, have cleaned our house, brought us groceries, and come over to hold Caleb. Our pastors have come to visit, provided financial support, and prayed for us.
 
During my pregnancy, I took a postpartum course by Angie Tolpin (which I highly recommend). Her last lecture addressed the fact that her course – as many issues as it addressed – would not prepare the viewer for every scenario. She teared up as she shared her heart, saying that God allows hard things to happen and allows challenges because they give us an opportunity to grow. Motherhood is an opportunity to grow as a person, and as a Christian, and we can praise God for these things because they grow our character. We can praise Him because He cares about our character.
Lying in my hospital bed, separated from my newborn, unable to go to the bathroom without holding onto two people, God brought those words to my mind. God cares about your character. I’ve prayed many times that He would mold me to be more like Him, and this is one way He’s chosen to do so. I’ve prayed that God would use these experiences to encourage others, and I’ve prayed that God would let me see why He allowed these painful circumstances to be my reality. 
 
I have a precious eight week old baby, who is healthy, happy, and so loved, and I’ve only spent 16 days as his primary care giver. It would be so easy for me to become a bitter, angry person… but I don’t do things the easy way. Yes, I wish I could have experienced the birth I planned for. Yes, I wish that I could have fed my baby with my body. Yes, I wish that I had gotten to experience life with my newborn. But I am way more thankful for the modern medicine that preserved our lives during my stalled labor, and my emergency surgery.
Even though I walked through the valley of the shadow of death, He was with me.
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Like anyone who has experienced trauma, I have a lot to work through. I am on medication to suppress my stomach acid production, and will have to be closely monitored for the foreseeable future. My abdominal muscles are essentially non-existent, so I will be working on rebuilding them, hopefully in physical therapy. Primarily though, I’m loving my new job and role as mom.
Takeaways
  • If you have a fear of birth, I believe the best weapon is education. Do research. Our bodies were made to give birth, and it’s important to have a positive view of how our bodies are made. At the same time, birth doesn’t always happen the way we hope. I think I had a lot more fear about having a c-section, and lot more to work through afterwords, because I didn’t research how c-sections worked, or what the recovery was would be like. 
  • If you had a traumatic experience, be wise. Don’t share every detail with every person. Work through the raw emotions with someone who won’t be traumatized by you processing your trauma. I strongly recommend reaching out to a mentor and seeking counseling. Don’t use your trauma as an excuse to isolate yourself! It will be tempting to avoid people, because it feels like no one understands what you went through. Even if that’s the case, it’s important to stay engaged in community and let others bear your burdens. Let people love you, and remember that it’s ok to not be ok. 
  • If you know someone who had a traumatic experience, don’t avoid them. Show up. Your presence is a gift. Allow them to share as much or as little as they want. Pray for them. Find ways to love and serve them. It’s extremely likely that they are overwhelmed and simple things- like dropping off a meal or doing their grocery shopping- will be huge blessings.
Resources (Birth, Pregnancy, Positive Motherhood):

 

One thought on “The Valley of the Shadow of Death: Caleb’s Birth and My Emergency Surgery

  1. I’m so sorry you had to endure this! I thought my own labor with my first child….38.5 hours, an attempted home birth which also went awry into a hospital delivery with an epidural to give me rest, and then Pitocin when labor completely ceased…Was horrible. (BTW, we were having our first baby in the same year as your parents and I believe with the same medical practice….The Brunsmans and their certified nurse-midwives…)

    I have never read of a story such as yours. It does sound deeply traumatic. I am so very sorry. We know that women used to die in large numbers in childbirth. I used to wonder how it was so common. Between my story and definitely yours, it seems clear that a perfectly planned birth is nothing we can take for granted, and that without modern medicine, many of us would, indeed, die.

    Caleb will sure know how very beloved he is because his parents endured so much to have him. Your husband, I’m sure, has also gone through his own trauma and fears for his wife’s life. Praise God for His tender mercies that you were able to finally obtain a correct diagnosis and be treated. I pray any future births for you, if you have more children, will be much smoother sailing, whether VBAC or C-section. And that you can breastfeed at that time.

    Formula has come a very long way. I was adopted at 6 weeks, and I was fed formula back in the 1960s. I ended up in good health, decent enough brain development, good immune function; and all the things they say can be detrimental with formula vs. breastfeeding haven’t happened to me. (And I was in La Leche League, so am well-versed in the benefits of breastfeeding!) I think that lifestyle choices (good nutrition, exercise, sleep, clinging to Christ, although faith is a gift!) definitely mitigate the possible negative impact of formula. My mother told me when I was older that she never used bottle-feeding as a way to be separate from me…In other words, she never propped me with a bottle in my carriage or infant seat. She always held me closely while feeding me, as though she were breastfeeding me. She was so instinctive a mother! I absolutely adore her and she is all I could ever want a mother to be.

    I realize I’m just one person’s voice in a crowd of many, but wished to offer you this reassurance that Caleb need not suffer due to not breastfeeding. He has wonderful, loving, godly parents who will help him in every area, and has the Lord, and he will not be lacking in anything he needs. Have faith in this and in your ability to wisely parent him! May God bless you both as you continue to recover from all this trauma and find ways to assimilate this story into your and Caleb’s lives and use it to minister to others. And as you raise him in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

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