When my wife and I were about to have our first baby, we did what most expectant U.S. families do: We went to the hospital.
Being slightly crunchy types, Amy and I had chosen a facility that seemed to promise a more natural birth experience: nurse-midwives on staff, homey decor in the birth rooms, and marketing materials that stressed ‘family-focused care.’ We thought this approach would offer both the technology and precision of modern health care and the time-tested powers of mystical medicine women.
Before our baby came screaming into the world, Amy was chided for going into labor on a busy day; given the legal limit of penicillin and, against her wishes, the potentially lethal labor-inducing drug Cytotec; and subjected to the opposite of pain relief when the anesthesiologist struck a nerve while putting an epidural needle into her spine. Twenty hours after we arrived at the hospital, the nurse-midwife on duty appeared and Amy pushed the baby out. The midwife stitched up the damage and went on to the next patient.
Then the nurses discovered a rash on baby Everett’s back. A pediatrician suspected herpes and he was whisked away. We don’t have herpes. And Everett didn’t, either-a dermatologist later diagnosed a simple yeast infection, a result of the antibiotics the hospital required Amy to have, since she tested positive for group
B strep (like some 30 percent of the population).
Everett was eventually cleared of all virus charges, but hospital policy mandated that he stay to receive antiviral drugs until the labs came back. The labs got lost, prolonging our stay to five wasted days. Everett suffered a searing chemical burn when his IV leaked and, at the urging of the hospital lactation consultant, was given enough formula to seriously muck up nursing. We slept for three nights on a creaky fold-out bed in the ICU waiting room, staying near to offer comfort and milk to our precious newborn.
We chose a home birth for our second child.
He arrived on Easter. Kim Garrett and Kathy Ruggles, the certified, licensed midwives we’d gotten to know over several hour-long prenatal visits at Kim’s home, dropped their brunches and zipped over to heat towels and boil herbs in our kitchen. They had some drugs and equipment in their kit, but we didn’t need them. Wyatt was born into my hands after a merciful four-hour labor.
We can’t call our hospital experience a horror story. Horror stories have much unhappier endings. But we resent having been subjected to such a string of indignities and errors, and sometimes we wonder whether Everett’s wariness of strangers, his strong need to cling closely to us, might have its roots in those first traumatic days. We certainly know that’s where the scar on his wrist came from.
Just as corporate America has seized on organic food, green products, and alternative healing techniques, big hospitals are coopting the language and imagery of the midwifery model, marketing themselves as kinder, gentler birthplaces-yet many of them fail to live up to their own hype. Meanwhile, independent midwives like Kim and Kathy are thriving, attending more and more births with their personal touch and forcing mainstream medicine to accede to the fact that sometimes, nature might know best.