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The baby was gray and motionless; the cord was wrapped around her neck and she was not breathing. A nurse carried her to a corner where two pediatricians began to give her CPR. The report said that at birth, she had only a faint heartbeat and lungs full with meconium.
The silence seemed to last for hours, then finally, I heard my baby girl cry. Relief sparked the whole room back to life.
This definitely wasn’t what I expected delivery to be like. The only other new mother I knew was my sister, and she had had her daughter when I was deployed to Iraq two years earlier. So all I had were images and scenes from movies and TV. Women in full make-up slightly sweating and screaming at their husbands for getting them into this. A few onscreen minutes of pushing before a completely clean baby comes out. A waiting room crowded with friends and family anxiously awaiting the Lion King-like scene where the new dad comes out and presents the new baby minutes after delivery.
Instead, I got over twenty hours of induction attempts with trainees surrounding me. I got a cold nurse convinced I was unfit to judge when my body was warning me. And I got a bad epidural that failed at any pain management eventually sending my body into shock, and me into a “non-emergency” c-section.
I hadn’t expected so much turmoil. Even if it was a military hospital, it was still “The President’s Hospital.” I ignored people’s warnings about delivering at a VA hospital. My worst run-in with an Army hospital up to that point was at a field hospital in Iraq where a medic flushed my eye with iodine instead of saline. This wouldn’t have been so bad if I wasn’t allergic to iodine and had just told the medic so right before the procedure. He figured it out eventually and after he drenched me in liters of mineral water, it all worked out—it’s not like I went blind or anything.
But after the frightening, unexpected drama, Ivy was doing great. She had a grumpy old man wrinkly face and was pink and perfect. She had ten fingers, ten toes, and a set of squeaky lungs that announced her to this world. The postpartum nurses were like night and day compared to my labor nurse. They were attentive, and filled our room with smiles and laughter. They drew hearts and smiley faces on our room’s white board tracking mine and my daughter’s vitals. And they play-fought over who Ivy looked more like, Hayden or me.
My parents surprised us and took last minute flights cross country to meet their new granddaughter. My mom had already made the flight out once during my first bout of Braxton Hicks contractions four weeks earlier. I wasn’t sure she could afford another flight out, and my dad was working in Afghanistan, so I wasn’t very hopeful that any of my family would be able to make it out.
Right after I had Ivy, Hayden called to tell them the good news. Within 24 hours they figured out the logistics and were knocking on our hospital room door with flowers in their hands, and tears in their eyes. They could only visit for a few days and had to leave before we were discharged. Even though I was heavily medicated for a post c-section infection, and throwing up almost hourly, I was so grateful they had come to meet their granddaughter.
When discharge day finally came, our room was a flurry of activity. In came my doctor to remove my staples and give me prescriptions and discharge instructions. Next, the pediatric team of med students with their attending physician arrived. They oohed and aahed, pinched and prodded, and jotted notes in their little notebooks. The pediatrician gave us forms to sign, and appointment cards for Ivy's follow-up appointments. Then came the lactation consultant who was very familiar with my breasts at this point. She gave me one last fondling, a few packets of formula, and well wishes as she kissed Ivy on the head and waved goodbye.
While we were waiting for the green light to finally take our baby home and begin our new life as a family of three, in came an unfamiliar nurse asking if we had watched the shaken baby video yet. It was a requirement for discharge from this military hospital for all new parents.
I said we had, and she nervously flipped through some papers looking flustered, and I told her we would watch it again if she needed us to. She looked relieved. She came back into the room with a TV and VCR on a roll cart and we rewatched the horrifying ten-minute video. At the time, it didn’t seem strange to me that she waited in the room until the film was over.
About a half hour later, in came a blonde lady with a clipboard, a pencil, and an air of entitlement. The TV was on and she looked at it, then at me, clucked, and asked if I could turn it off. Confused, I turned off John & Kate Plus 8. Satisfied, she pulled out a chair and sat with perfect posture.
Then she turned to Hayden, who was was playing a game on his PSP as he nestled a sweetly sleeping Ivy against his chest. She was wearing her brown and blue polka-dotted homecoming outfit. Our visitor loudly cleared her throat to grab Hayden’s attention, and when he looked up, she asked if he could “just stop doing that.” He gave her an equal look of annoyance and put the PSP down. She looked back at me and said, “Well, I guess you know why I am here.”
“No, I don’t know.”
“I am Ms. Smith.*” Hayden and I both looked blank. “The military’s version of Child Protective Services.”
“Okay,” I said, thinking this must just be another check box for discharge. She let out a sigh and said, “Could you please sit up, this is important.” All of my possible responses were dulled by the amount of Percocet coursing through my veins, so I just sat up stiffly against my still healing C-section scar. My internal alarms began to ding as loud as those surrounding my bed in the labor room.
She began to rush through a story about a night nurse seeing me shaking the baby while she was crying. The nurse said she confronted me and I supposedly said I was just so tired and she wouldn’t stop crying. The woman went through the steps we would now have to go through so she could release our child into our care. She threw a look over to Hayden and called him “obviously too immature” because he had been playing a video game.
With all of the resolve I could muster, I told her that did not happen. She retorted that yes it had, and began to barrage us with questions about our preparedness to take a baby home. Do you have somewhere for the baby to sleep at night? What is your network of people to help since you had a baby with no family around? Did you even have any diapers in the house for the baby? How about clothes? These questions were so rapid fire, I just answered them and tried to wrap my foggy mind around what was happening. Hayden sat still, holding our daughter. Tempering the rage towards her insulting insinuations.
Despite all of the trauma so far with having our daughter at this military hospital, this was the worst part. The ineffective epidural, the terrible labor nurse, and the lack of consideration for my modesty and opinions in a military hospital meant nothing compared to this. She was accusing me of being an unfit mother before I even had a chance to leave the hospital with my daughter.
And even worse, she was causing me to question myself. Had I done that? Did I take too much Percocet and not remember? The doubts began to pile up. Could I be a good mom? I was overwhelmed.
After she had exhausted her checklist of questions, she determined there was no reason for her to prevent us from leaving the hospital with our baby. “Spell your name,” she said with her pen poised over a form to forever label me. This turned my brain back on for a moment. I looked at her checklist where she had scribbled two first names in the parent section with no last name.
“Who are Amy and Ray? These aren’t even our names.”
Flustered she said, “Just give me your names so I can write them down.”
It dawned on me that she must be in the wrong room. “I don’t think you mean us. I think this is a big mistake,” I said.
Balking at the insinuation that she could be wrong, she told us she didn’t trust the baby in our care. “I already notified Maryland CPS of your case,” she said.
“Before you even talked to us?”
“I had the nurse’s statement, that is all I needed,” she defended.
After her inability to find a tangible reason to keep us at the hospital, she said we could leave and began to huff out of the room. She stopped at the door and through a wicked smile said, “CPS will be visiting you soon.”
Hayden and I stared at each other trying to figure out what just happened. I was trying so hard not to cry. I didn’t want to stay in this hospital another second and I thought if I showed any sign of weakness I might be forced to stay for another condemning evaluation.
We got our gear together and fumbled as we strapped Ivy into the car seat for the first time. I stood in the doorway awkwardly holding the carrier and Hayden went to the nurses’ station and asked if we could leave. The ladies who just hours ago were all smiles and excited cooing now stared at us like we were already the worst parents in the world. The head nurse glowered at me and said in a huff, “Well, the discharge papers have cleared.”
We collected the rest of our things as quickly as we could, and walked out of the maternity ward to our car. Again, it was nothing like the scenes in the movies where the nurse rolls you and the baby in the wheelchair down the hallway. All the other nurses are smiling and they help you get into the car, both parents smile, wave and then drive away to start their new lives.
For us, all of the nurses glowered at us. No one said goodbye, or good luck, or offered us any more of the sage wisdom they had been showering us with just hours before. The just stared at us as we turned to walk down the long hallway toward the elevator.
When the door opened to our parking level, I began crying. I was trying to hold back full-on sobs until we were outside of the gates of the military base. We fumbled trying to get the car seat in place and the whole time our sweet girl stayed sleeping. As Hayden drove the 40 miles to our house, and we tried to figure out what the hell had just happened.
We pulled up to our house, so engrossed in talking about what had happened we totally missed the moment of carrying our baby across the threshold. I pulled Ivy out of her car seat and set her in the swing my sister had sent us. Instantly, there was a knock on our front door. It was a Maryland CPS case worker. She gave us her name, showed us her credentials, and asked if she could come in. I knew she was coming, but I had no idea it would be the minute we got home.
She came in and did a quick glance around the living room, then at me, then leaned over Ivy in the swing. I held my breath knowing what havoc this lady could wreak on my family if she so chose. An almost audible sign escaped her lips. Ivy cooed at her and she squeezed Ivy’s little fingers. “She is just beautiful,” she said. I felt myself relax just a bit.
She sat on the couch and asked, “You know why I am here, right?”
I bit back the tears as I told the whole story of what I was sure was a terrible mistake.
The caseworker listened silently then looked at her papers. She frowned and told us that our names were still wrong on the report Ms. Smith had filed. "It also says here you had no visitors in the hospital and no support structure in place.”
I told her that not only had my parents visited for three days, staying at the on-post military lodging to be close to us, multiple groups of our Army friends had come to meet the baby.
She sighed, closed her folder, and said, “What a mess.”
She asked if she could check out the baby’s room. Hayden walked her up the stairs to prove to her that we had the necessary diapers, clothes, and a place for the baby to sleep. When she came back downstairs and passed Ivy, she gave her a tickle on her belly before she sat down on the couch.
“I don’t know how this happened, but I agree, this seems like a case of mistaken identity.”
Relief flooded over me and I tried to hear through it as she explained to us how she was going to mark our case as unsubstantiated and close it.
“Normally, this would be the end. But because you had her at a military hospital, she has already reported the incident to your unit. You will have to be evaluated on post and they will make their own independent judgement.” She gave us a phone number to call and told us that as far as the state was concerned, our case was closed.
In the following weeks, every time I took Ivy to an appointment, I worried about what it said her file. I was hyper-aware of how people looked at us. Were they checking her for jaundice or for bruises? Probably both.
We did have to go to a military social worker on the base the next day to explain the whole story again to convince her of our innocence. This social worker seemed doubtful of our story at first, but eventually came around and sent us home with a baby bag full of new-parent pamphlets, hotline phone numbers, and suggestions for new parents' groups we could join on base.
A few days later, our platoon sergeant called to let us know that a board consisting of our unit Commander, First Sergeant, and three other officers had convened to listen to Ms. Smith’s incorrect second hand version of events and decide what further action was to take place. I was humiliated when I heard about this. After all of our years of service, to the Army and to this unit, we were being judged based on an outsider’s word and we weren’t even allowed to be there to defend ourselves.
Luckily, at the end the board members, armed with the CPS and the social worker’s report, said they knew Hayden and I too well to believe it and that there would be no further military action. I heard Ms. Smith fought very hard to try to ruin our military reputations and career. To this day, I still don’t know why.
Movies had me expecting a collection of fond memories for bringing my first child I into the world. But for me, there are so many terrible parts to this story, it is no wonder why I don’t tell people a fairy tale. I don’t have the story I thought I would come home from the hospital with. Instead, I don’t tell them anything. I don’t want to tell them how my body couldn’t handle the pain of labor and went into shock, almost costing me my and my baby’s life. I don’t want to tell anyone how Ivy was not alive when she was born and that only after two resuscitation attempts could they get her breathing again. I don’t want to tell them the horror of being accused as an unfit parent before I even left the hospital.
Instead, I have a cautionary tale to add to the thousands about having a baby in a military hospital. But mostly importantly, I have a beautiful six-year old who is happy, healthy, and the best part of our family of three. I hold on to these new memories tightly and try to not let them be diminished by such a terrible beginning.