can make all the difference to someone in crisis
“This is so dumb!” I said with a hint of frustration as my husband gave me a brief goodbye kiss and moved toward the door.
“I’ll pick you up tomorrow after work,” he replied as he turned away. “Listen to your tapes and try to relax.”
Cyprus was a no-go. I was going to be staying overnight in the hospital instead ‘for observation’. It seemed a little extreme. I was almost 31 weeks pregnant and just needed a doctor’s note to be allowed to fly from Tel Aviv to Cyprus for the weekend with a friend. A last getaway before motherhood took over.
“Let me just check your blood pressure,” the doctor had said earlier in the day before handing me the permission to fly. It was a little high but not abnormally so. She decided to send me to the lab. A follow-up phone call informed me there was albumin in the urine and I would be going to the hospital instead of on an excursion to an historic island.
The money was already spent and wasted. My friend ended up going alone.
I was given a gown and instructions and before long, I was lying in bed with my headphones on and my Walkman playing. I had brought a book as well. Moby Dick. I was trying to supplement my education by reading literature in English, having grown up in Mexico. Without a clue about the story line, I had just crested the first deep sea waves of this American classic. Ishmael, Queequeg, the science of cetology, and the bizarre sermon about Jonah in the belly of the whale.
I felt fine.
Like one of those nameless women in serial killer movies who are humming as they walk down the street in their happy lives, their hair blowing in the wind, while sinister eyes watch, and creepy music plays.
Within a couple hours they had taken away the Walkman (which I never saw again) and moved me to a room alone in a different section of the hospital. I was hooked up to an automatic blood pressure machine, planted with an IV, and the first of many blood draws began. A catheter was next.
My fall down the pit happened so fast I couldn’t process it. One minute I had been listening to music and disappointed at missing a fun weekend, and the next, I was imprisoned in a body with a twisted existance of its own.
Bags of IV fluids were draining into me, one after another, and a multitude of staff, doctors, nurses, and lab techs, were in and out. With all the tests being done and the information being collected, no one turned to explain to me, and any questions I asked were answered in generic ways. I could follow a fair amount of the Hebrew, but not the medical terms, not at the speed at which they spoke. So, they asked me simple questions, and gave me one or two word answers to mine. A few spoke to me in English, but the content was no different.
I started to get trembling fits. My teeth would begin to chatter, my limbs and muscles all over would start to shake, as if a great vibration had caught me in its wake and rattled me as hard as I could bear.
“Why are you shaking? Are you cold?” someone would ask me.
“No,” I would reply. Nothing more was said, and the shaking would pass. If I asked why I was shaking like that, they would ask me again if I was cold and explain nothing.
It wasn’t the words of Melville that swirled in my head, but the feel of them. The storm, the turbulence of the waves, the blasting of the preacher’s sermon, like a majestic score, a painted background, a soundtrack. I sunk in the sea and billows rolled over me, and the massive pressure of cubic miles of ocean subdued me, making me an insignificant thread in their chambers. “We feel the floods surging over us; we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; sea-weed and all the slime of the sea is about us!” As if the author had spoken of me.
I had only read the first six or seven chapters but afterwards was never able to touch the book again.
The doctor who drew my blood, (they had a doctor performing this process every three hours or so), grew increasingly distressed at having to come to me. It was getting harder and harder to find a vein. I wasn’t thinking clearly enough to realize why, though. Not yet. I just knew that each draw was another nightmare and each success an immense relief.
“BEEEEP! Whuff! Whuff! Whuff! Whuff! Whuff!” the blood pressure machine would emit a brutally loud alarm and then start puffing insanely, pressurizing the cuff on my arm, tighter and tighter, till I thought I could bear it no longer. To say it was painful is a lame description. It was an invasion, an affront, a shock, a cruel vise. Night and day, every fifteen minutes.
“Sleep,” they said, but it eluded me.
There were screams coming through the walls. Long, drawn out wails that built, stretched, faded and grew quiet, only to begin again after a few minutes. Women in labor, according to their custom, were screaming and wailing their way through every contraction. A friend of mine later confided in me that she would scream as loud as she could because she wanted to make sure her husband heard how much she was suffering. But I didn’t know this at the time, nor did I know that I was in the labor and delivery department.
The room looked like a sterile, functional, clinical place with efficient and sober staff. But when I closed my eyes I was in a dungeon, with quaking fits jarring me and instruments gripping me, and noise — so much noise. Mechanical alarms. Shrieking, tormented female voices.
But this wasn’t the bottom. The ocean floor was still deeper.
The next morning, I was on a gurney being transported to some test I don’t remember, maybe an ultrasound of the baby. A familiar voice spoke to the staffer pushing my bed, looking for something, asking directions.
“Jack?” I called out weakly. “Is that you?”
A man next to me I couldn’t see clearly, leaned over slightly to gaze at me. Then looked away again.
“Jack?” I tried again thinking he hadn’t heard.
“What?” he responded in a strained voice. He was staring at me. “Who are you?” Or maybe he said, ‘Who are you talking to?’ He was looking right at me, only a couple feet from my face — and he didn’t know me. My husband, who had left the night before with plans to pick me up at this time, doubted his ears as he gawked at the figure on the gurney. At me.
“Jack, it’s me.”
“Suzanne?” he gasped in astonishment, still unable to process the fact.
I lifted my hand to look at it and that was the first time I noticed that my hand looked like a baseball mitt with an actual baseball shoved into it, ballooning out the back of my hand. Fingers like fat cucumbers. I remembered the urine bags, such an odd color, so little fluid, almost none. Bags of IV fluid going into me, but less than 10 ccs coming out. That’s what they had said, shaking their heads.
The doctor on call that day came to me once I was back in my room. He had been with my husband, preparing him, explaining that the chances of either me or the baby surviving were very slim.
“We’re going to try to get you stabilized,” is what he informed me. “Then we are going to take out the baby.”
“No!” I responded as firmly as I could manage. “The baby’s not ready. You can’t!”
“I’m more concerned about you than the baby,” he replied, with more gentleness than I had seen in anyone so far. Israeli doctors in 1985 were competent and skilled, but rough, sometimes harsh, sometimes cold and unfeeling, jaded by exposure to battle front conditions.
“She has a much better chance of making it than you do,” he went on. I don’t know if we knew yet that it was a girl. I’m adding that pronoun now.
After another night in the wailing chamber, more of the same, they decided to operate without waiting for me to stabilize. Wheeling me down to another area, they tried to get an epidural in.
This was when I cried out inside, “God, I don’t think I can face this! I can’t bear it!” I didn’t want to know what they were doing to her, what condition she would be in, what measures they had to take to try to save her. To hear those words, those voices, those utensils, would crush me.
My plea was not ignored.
“We’re giving you general,” the doctor said, having failed with the epidural, perhaps because of the immensity of the swelling in my body.
“Thank you,” I answered, streams flowing from my eyes, the body’s only outlet for water.
There the fall ended. The ocean floor.
A voice. A light slap on the cheek.
“Suzanne!” I heard someone calling my name. “Wake up!”
Another light slap on the other cheek.
Someone opened my eyelids and I saw the doctor’s face, hazy, unfocused, but recognizable. If I can just move my hand, he’ll know I’m here. I tried to touch my index finger to the tip of my thumb, but it wouldn’t respond.
A big tube thing was pulled out of my throat. Then silence again.
In the wailing chamber again, I was vomiting. Horrible, black fluid was spewing from my mouth and the agony of those cut tissues in my belly was acute. I moaned and choked, unable to speak. Two, three times, before someone got a tube in my nose. “Just swallow to help it go down,” an angel of mercy said. And I swallowed it down eagerly — spared from emptying my stomach on my own. The same bags used to collect urine were now attached to this tube.
Strange. Bag after bag of opaque black fluid from my stomach was taken away, but the urine was measured with little test tubes. My belly flopped when I moved in the slightest, causing waves of anguish.
“What is it?” I would ask referring to the black liquid. No one would answer. They only asked questions and didn’t see a reason to explain anything.
The blood pressure torture cuff was attached again, and the pitiful doctor with the blood draws was back, groaning over me, shaking his head, telling me plainly how hard it was. But he was given a better task once or twice, allowed to give me a shot for the pain. It barely touched it, hardly took the edge off, but being a compassionate person, he wanted to help me. I wept and thanked him.
The pain wasn’t under control and I think they were afraid to give me much in the way of narcotics.
There were tubes in my arms and nose, tubes stitched into my neck, heart monitors, BP cuffs, catheter, and I existed in fifteen-minute cycles as the BP machine did its duty.
Jack had been pacing in the concrete hallway, outside the operating room, while the C-section took place. No chairs, carpet, or adornment of any kind softened the stark exterior. He saw our daughter whisked through the doors and away to the “Pagia” in an incubator on wheels, only minutes after the surgery began.
Then he heard nothing. An hour went by. Almost two. Then I was brought out and he ran after to keep up with me. I had been lying on the table unresponsive, the doctor told me later. “I gave up on you,” he said. “Your pupils were completely dilated.”
“Your wife is critical,” Jack was told. I wasn’t out of danger by any means. He was permitted to come see me after they had me ‘settled’ if you can call it that. He saw the bags of black fluid, the tubes, the bruising from the blood draws. The swelling.
At one point, the day after the surgery while my condition was still critical, they were telling me to turn onto my side, and a nurse had me grasp her arm while another nurse braced or pulled me. My empty belly flopped to the side, unsupported by anything. I gritted my teeth, clung to her arm and pulled myself over in spite of the pain. It was what I had been doing, cooperating, giving all I had, helpless in a failed body.
“Giborah,” the nurse said. Brave. Strong.
I had never been called brave before but all my life I had tried to be. I replayed her word in my mind, in and out of consciousness, through pain.
Forty-eight hours after the birth, somehow, the tide turned. I don’t know how, from critical to ICU, then to a regular ward over the next few days.
My daughter was five days old before I was allowed to get up and visit her. I took a picture with no flash, not knowing if I would ever see her again, and I’m glad now that I had so little experience with babies. I couldn’t tell then as I can now that there was suffering in her face. They let me touch her for only a moment, concerned about my hand impacting the temperature and elevated oxygen in the little glass chamber that housed her. I placed my hand over her tiny torso and measured her — smaller than the width of my palm. Her foot was smaller than my thumb.
I spent close to two weeks in the hospital and within a couple days after being released, I was back to my pre-pregnancy weight. My daughter spent nine weeks there.
We both survived.
I spent several years trying to find out more about what had happened to me. A friend who was a midwife from England let me read the sections in her textbooks about pre-eclampsia and eclampsia. Doctors would never answer my questions. They probably wouldn’t want me to take any of their guesses as medical advice; and they weren’t there.
Years later, after 9–11, I started volunteering in the ED of a major hospital. It was my way of responding to a national crisis on a personal level.
One day they brought in a Hispanic man, a construction worker, who had been crushed under a wall that fell on him. He was surrounded by staff, each doing something different. There were over thirty people in the room when the paramedics gave the status. The ED nurse asked me to come stand by his head and hold his hand as they put in a chest tube.
I was looking down at his eyes which gazed back at me, full of anguish. And I remembered that moment in Israel years before, the one word that had validated me, recognized my battle in the midst of a nightmare, the word I had treasured ever since.
“Eres valiente,” I said to the man as his hand squeezed mine in a crushing grip. You are brave. He locked his eyes on mine and I looked back steadily. He never jumped or cried out but held still and took it all. Everything they were doing to try to save him.
I knew that sometimes a word of encouragement like that was what gets you through the worst moments of your life — and it was true.
The day we are weakest is when we must be strong.
“He waxes brave, but nevertheless obeys; most careful bravery that!” murmured Ahab…
“Moby Dick” by Herman Melville