LONDON, ONTARIO – Well, we’ll see if the increasingly alarmist weather forecasts of the last week fully bear their frigid fruit. It might seem perverse to say so but our hearts were actually warmed by one particular headline which read, “Arctic Blast this Week Brings the Coldest Christmas in Nearly 40 Years”. That old record-holder was thirty-nine years ago to be precise, the Christmas/New Years’ axis of 1983/1984, when we carried our second child and only son home from St. Joseph’s Hospital in a pre-warmed car with my father-in-law at the wheel, my wife decked out in her mom’s fur coat and the world’s newest Goodden wrapped up in enough blankets to approximately double his circumference. His older and younger sisters had the good sense to be born in the spring (of ’81) and the summer (of ’86) when such precautions were not called for.
We’d only been resident in our rattly wooden cottage about fourteen months by the time the boy was born and had really just begun the decade-long campaign of weather-sealing or upgrading all the doors and windows and installing batts of insulation as we tore down all of the interior plaster walls – some of which still bore subtle high-watermarks from the 1937 flood – and replaced them with fresh drywall. The only room that never did get reworked in this way was my study where floor-to-ceiling rows of books have always done a pretty effective job of repelling the cold.
My wife has alluded a few times over the past thirty-nine years to the perishing chill of her at-home nursing sessions in the middle of those January nights; reports that our son has hyperbolized further with dramatic little details about clouds of exhaled breath hovering in the air and diaper lotion starting to harden in its jar. But sentimental fabulism at this time of year is no crime; when herds of reindeer haul sleighs across the sky and the oxen kneel at midnight "In the lonely barton by yonder coomb / Our childhood used to know". His narrative extravagances are perfectly in tune with the simultaneously gaudy and tender spirit of Christmastide.
In this darkest and coldest time of the year, we celebrate the brightest and warmest of holy days. We mark the moment when our hopes for salvation began to be realized, not by the arrival of some thundering army that was going to crack some heads and put things to rights, but by the quiet wayside nativity of an utterly vulnerable baby with a miraculous capacity to melt and remold hearts.
The story of Jesus Christ’s birth calls all of us back to our own equally humble beginnings, our arrival in this awful and beautiful world in a gush of blood and pain and love and hope. For all of us who’ve chosen to raise a kid or two or twelve, the act of giving birth itself is shot through with the same paradoxical magic. A pregnant woman sets aside all the usual notions of comfort and beauty and personal autonomy and submits to a frequently grueling process over which she exerts precious little control. And no matter how uncomplicated her pregnancy has been or how well equipped that maternity ward might be, when the day of delivery finally arrives, she and everybody who loves her, brace themselves for a confrontation with the very deepest mysteries of life and death.
It is frequently observed that in comparison to the utterly immersive experience that a mother-to-be goes through, most husbands can’t help feeling a little stepfatherly – like St. Joseph – in their strictly secondary role of helpmeet. But do you know who else is usually able to overcome the trauma of the birthing ordeal in a trice? The mother, about one second after her bawling babe is laid upon her breast.
The other day my wife and I got reminiscing about those chilly weeks when 1983 went tunneling through snowbanks into 1984. We were decorating our tree and it's not unusual for such reveries to get set off when hanging up all those memory-drenched ornaments; some of them fashioned by our kids themselves. We recalled the obstetrical nurse who was on duty throughout our son’s birth – and compared to our firstborn, he popped out like a well-greased bean – and what a wonderfully competent and calming soul she was.
And later that night I went rooting through my filing cabinet in search of the interview I did with her in March of 1985 for the Encounter supplement of The London Free Press. So here for your Christmas delectation is my refreshingly old world chat (there’s no hooey here about a plurality of genders) with Sharyn Cummins, otherwise known as The Nurse Who Delivers.
DURING THE BIRTHS of our two children, between waves of panic and anxiety, I would dimly perceive the reassuring presence of the obstetrical nurse who was assigned to watch over my wife’s labour and assist in her delivery, and think to myself, “What a remarkable way to earn a living.”
You no sooner say ‘hello’ to this nurse, then she is suddenly made privy to human regeneration in all of its terrifying, intimate and miraculous aspects. Firemen called to burning houses deal with clients who are more composed. The proverbial one-armed paper hanger doesn’t have half as much to attend to in so short a time. The patrons of holy-rolling faith healers aren’t nearly so demanding of an immediate miracle of deliverance.
So it was a strange experience to walk through the labour and maternity wards of St. Joseph’s Hospital with obstetrical charge nurse, Sharyn Cummins, and not be preoccupied with the imminent arrival of some newly formed stranger bearing my own last name. It was almost like seeing the place for the first time. When I came upon an all-too familiar waiting room filled with furiously pacing, smoking dads-to-be, I empathized completely but was able, for once, to resist their contagious nervousness.
Now forty years old, Sharyn Cummins started at St. Joe’s as an obstetrical nurse in 1968. Counting a one-year stint doing the same kind of work at Moose Factory, Cummins has been in the baby-catching business for eighteen years now.
“It’s really still magic to me. I love it. There are days when I’m tired and wish I didn’t have to come in – but not because of the work I do. People say, ‘Aren’t you sick of it? Don’t you want a change?’ There are so many nurses who get burnout and want to move on but I can’t think of a different unit I’d want to work in. And I’m getting to the age where I should seriously think about it; something a little easier paced where you’re not running all the time, because there are days when we don’t get a chance to sit down for lunch or breaks or anything. But at least I can’t say that the job has ever become routine. And once I get involved, I don’t have time to think about tiredness.”
Cummins can’t remember a time in her life when she didn’t know what she wanted to do. As early as the age of seven, she turned to her mother and matter-of-factly announced, “I’m going to be a nurse.” And during her training, it was obstetrical nursing in particular which had the strongest appeal.
“It was such a happy experience. There was always a lot of action and meeting different people every day. It’s interesting nursing. You’re very close to the couple the whole time that you’re with them, through the labour and the delivery and then it’s done. And that’s just my preference. I like the person-to-person contact but I prefer it to be short term.
“When you come onto work, you’re assigned one or two patients – at the very most, three – depending on what the staffing is like that day or night. And I’m totally involved with those people for the eight hours that I’m here. I think we all feel the same way in that we hate to leave a person when we go off our shift. We’ve really worked at this and established our relationship with our patient and to walk off and leave her is not what we hope for. But the majority of us do have something other than the hospital – families, husbands waiting for dinner and such – so you often don’t have that chance. But I can tell you there are a lot of girls who stay overtime and finish off the delivery. And that’s the ultimate – the ideal. You want to follow them through.”
Couldn’t she talk them into delivering before she leaves?
Cummins laughs at the suggestion. “Well, every now and then. If you’ve got a patient going unmedicated and not tensing up with the pain, they’ll usually move along quicker. Or those having their second or third babies. Those are the nice ones to get because you know a lot of them will deliver on your shift. Right from start to finish, you’ll do the whole thing with them.”
“Unmedicated” is Cummins’ preferred term for what some people call “natural” birth. She avoids the term “natural” because it implies that other kinds of birth are “unnatural”; a notion which she totally rejects. Cummins understands that many women want to deliver their babies un-medicated and thinks it’s a good sign that women want to be fully awake for their births. But there are instances, particularly in the case of women delivering their first child and not handling the pain well, when she believes this insistent desire for no medication can actually become counter-productive.
“There’s a misconception that nurses try to force an epidural or other medication on everybody, and we don’t. We do what we feel is medically proper and there are cases where we’ll certainly suggest it. Let’s say you’ve been up all day and you’ve ruptured your membranes at eleven o’clock at night. You come into the hospital and your contractions get started so you don’t sleep all that night and then by seven or eight in the morning, you’re in rip-roaring good labour and they’re coming every three minutes and all of a sudden you can’t cope. And you’re still saying, ‘I don’t want anything. I want to deliver naturally.’ That’s when I’ll step in and say, ‘But you’ve been up now twenty-four or thirty-six hours and how can you expect to cope with that kind of pain when you’re tired?’
“Or maybe they’ve been in desultory labour for forty-eight hours. They haven’t been really good, effective contractions but it’s been enough to keep them awake and walking the floor, and then when real labour hits, they’re overwhelmed. There are a lot of factors that prohibit people going unmedicated. And God forbid that they should feel cheated, that they’re failures, because there’s nothing further from the truth. And sometimes with that kind of exhaustion, they’ll stay at the same dilation for hour after hour. And if you can talk them into taking an epidural, they’ll be ready to deliver in an hour or two because they’ve finally been able to relax and then things can really zoom along. And they’re the ones who come back and say, ‘She forced an epidural on me. If I’d only held out another hour, I could have done it naturally.’
“But it was still a natural birth. You can have an epidural, get some sleep and relax, and then be wide awake for your delivery . . . you can still push the baby out . . . your husband’s there . . . you can’t get much more natural than that.”
Having the father in the delivery room is an innovation that Cummins thoroughly approves of but she has personal reservations about the presence of siblings.
“I respect the family’s desire to involve their children to some extent but I don’t think they need to watch the delivery. What we’ve done in the past, and it seemed to work beautifully, is to bring the children into the recovery room immediately after the baby is born and give them a little gown and let them hold the baby, touch the baby, whatever. They’re very happy with that. In the actual delivery, the mother is often crying or out of control, there’s a lot of blood – children don’t like to see their mother come to what they think is harm. I have difficulty with that.”
Since 1983, St. Joseph’s Hospital has acquired a newly enlarged premature nursery and increased facilities for prenatal and post-partum care. The hospital now handles a greater number of high-risk pregnancies than ever before. It has become the southwestern Ontario centre for such cases and has an over-all monthly case load of three hundred and fifty to three hundred and seventy deliveries a month.
Cummins says she doesn’t need the latest demographic findings to convince her that we’re in the midst of a population boom because ever since starting at St. Joe’s she’s seen the number of deliveries increase by three hundred to five hundred a year. But not all of those deliveries are easy or happy.
“We see all kinds of sad things. Your heart goes out to someone who tries so desperately to get pregnant and ends up losing three or four or five early pregnancies. We see babies die . . . We’ve seen moms die. But we’ve also seen great leaps taken in the care of prenatal babies. When I first started working, a thirty or thirty-two week baby just wasn’t expected to do that well. And now they can be twenty-eight weeks – and that’s just a little peanut – and they give them about a seventy per-cent survival rate.”
Asked if watching this endless parade of births ever gets to be too much for her, Cummins concedes that in a way, it’s always been too much in that the spectacle of birth is something you never do “get over”.
“Birth has never ceased to amaze me and every delivery I still think, ‘My God, isn’t it wonderful that it happens like it does?’ There are times when the results aren’t favorable and those are sad days and you have to overcome that. I don’t know whether I’m a big marshmallow or what, but I often end up crying with the best of them. What really touches me is to see the husbands marvel over this bundle that they’re holding. And to see the couples react together. It does my heart good. It’s just great to see that kind of unabashed emotion coming from a man. And boy, if he’s ever going to do it, that’s the time.”
PHOTO CREDITS: JACKIE NOBLE, Ontario Living magazine
and MORRIS LAMONT, London Free Press
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