Posts filed under ‘Culture differences’
I felt guilty that I wasn’t there more often. I was not the vigilant mom I imagined I would have been in those circumstances. Whatever energy I had built up dissolved quickly while standing. No one offered me a chair. My husband finally brought me a chair on the fifth day of our stay.
I was sore and weak but the real reason why I didn’t stay long with my baby was because of my own self pity and fear. When I was there, I sat despondently beside my lifeless new born, feeling sorry for myself, almost embarrassed. I did not see her. I saw a sick, possibly defective baby. A baby the doctors insisted was mine. But I wasn’t so sure that she was the same little one who had prodded my tummy and kicked at my bladder all those months. There was no familiarity.
I imagined the nurses looking at me, nudging each other that this was the mom of the sick baby. I imagined half of them feeling sorry for me and the other half confused as to why I didn’t just abandon her.
No one in the nursery met my gaze. Most greeted me curtly first thing in the morning and then looked through me during the remainder of their shifts. After moving from surgery to post partum, I experienced the first of many hurtful words from the nursing staff.
“That’s what you get for thinking that you could have three normal children.”
In Ukraine, it is very common to have just one child. Two children is a large family. According to this nurse, having a third was just asking for trouble.
I sat in the nursery and watched the healthy babies through the window. It made me sad. Other post partum moms waddled in and out in their white terry cloth robes to take or deliver their babies. They looked tired, sore, flushed. But they looked happy. Chunky pink babies swaddled in gauzy blankets slept dreamily. Others thrashed and screamed for food. About four feet away, they were a world away from me. More then a window separated us.
The nursery quarters consisted of three rooms. Each room was completely visible to the other. The bottom part of the walls were like a cold dark January day, the top halves were windows. The rooms were strictly functional. Nothing in them celebrated the new lives they held.
On the right was a room lined with four or five bassinets against one wall. A diaper changing station occupied one corner. A rocking chair where nurses sat to feed or soothe a newborn was in the other corner. Each clear, plastic bassinet had a blue or pink card on the front with the name, weight and height of the child inside.
The room on the far left held four elaborate warming beds, donned with bright yellow lights. Two or three babies lay under screamingly bright lamps. The penetrating light nursed them to healthy bilirubin levels, changing their carrot-like skin back to newborn pink. The babies were spread eagle with little black tanning masks over their eyes. They looked as if they were enjoying an Aruba vacation. I half expected an exotic drink with an umbrella resting in a little hand. I wanted to climb up with one of them, scoot him over and enjoy the warmth on my skin too. I was jealous of these babies and their mothers. If only a bright light could bring my daughter back to full health.
The middle room was for babies who were sick. It was plain except for medical equipment.
And there our child was, alone.
The machines hooked up to her showed she was alive. Her domed bed was adorned with wires and switches. Oxygen and warmth pumped into her little plastic house. She too had a pink card taped on the right side of her plastic house.
But the card did not have a name written on it. The birth surprised us three weeks early. We had yet to decide on a name. After her birth my mental list of names did not fit her. Though in many ways she resembled her sisters, honestly, I could not consider choosing a name. I still felt like I was visiting someone else’s sick child.
Life was happening around her but not in her. While visiting I concentrated on her body to ensure that her chest moved up and down. Her actions, if any, were slight. She hardly ever opened her eyes. Her lips were crusty and peeling. Just under five pounds you could see her bones sticking out of her limp flakey flesh. Her body was long. She had big feet and a full head of golden brown hair. I remember thinking that she looked like a grumpy old man at the end of his life, too weak to bother with the rest of us. I was allowed to open the plastic window and lay my hand on her body or hold her hand for a couple of minutes here and there. Her oxygen went low when the window was open. I liked to hold onto her heel.
I stood by her incubator in small increments of time for the first three days. My incision ached and I became light headed often. Every two hours a nurse would take a tiny tube connected to a bottle of formula that held a few ounces. The nurse would place her hand on the back of the baby’s neck, lift her head a bit and when her lips parted the tube was placed inside her mouth and then pushed down her esophagus and into her stomach. Instantly the liquid would disappear. Every time it was very quick. I asked the nurses to let me know when they were feeding. Usually I did not find out in time.
I met my little girl the evening of her early morning birth. I was on the floor above her in a recovery room and numb from the waist down. The smiling doctor did not want me to get out of bed but I was determined. If I could actually see her, maybe touch her, mothering impulses would kick in. I would recognize her as mine and, like a Hallmark commercial, the music would queue and everything would be alright. The whole situation was like a dream. I had lain in bed all day trying to believe that I really now was a mother of three. One of my children had been a part of this world for almost a day and I had yet to meet her. I thought that seeing her would make it a reality.
I knew she was sick and the doctors suspected Down syndrome. Earlier in the day Sergei took a digital picture of her and brought it to my bedside. I sobbed. Just under five pounds at birth, she was a raisin, all shriveled and tan. She did not look like I a baby with Down syndrome. Presuppositions that existed, unknowingly tucked away in a manila folder in my mind, were popping up. I expected her to look like she had Down syndrome. But she was long and thin like her oldest sister and she had a full head of hair like both of her sisters.
I was wheeled out of the recovery room, frightened, depleted. I needed to see her, to know she existed apart from me, to really believe that I had given birth. Moving slowly down the hall, into the elevator and out onto another floor, I was sure that every person who saw me felt sorry for me. “There is the lady with the sick baby.”
Doors are often used as symbols; opportunity, closure, safety, entitlement. The groom carries his bride over the threshold of their new home together, an angry teenage daughter slams the door in her mother’s face, a thief kicks the door down. In the cartoon “Monsters Inc.”, the scream factory houses millions of doors to children’s rooms. The monsters go in and out, swinging from one life to the next on the roller coaster conveyor line of doors.
Even Jesus used the metaphor “Ask and it shall be added unto you, seek and ye shall find. Knock and the door shall be opened unto you.”
Reaching out and turning the knob, opening the door and going into my daughter’s sick room was the most difficult threshold I have yet to cross.
In the corner of the nursery room was a lonely incubator that held my newborn. My cheeks were wet as Sergei wheeled me up to her side. She was so small. I wanted to hold her but settled with reaching through the plastic window and laying my hand on her chest. Her breathing was fitful, quick. It sounded like she was having an asthma attack.
“Hi, little one, I am your mommy.”
I needed to hear those words. She was still, her eyes pursed tightly together, her little chest contracting with every breath. I sat beside my daughter, quietly, for a while and prayed. “Beep, beep, beep,” the black screen with the squiggly green line was still with us, ensuring that our daughter was alright.
I was wheeled out of the sick room, to the elevator, up a floor and back into my room. I remember rooming in with my other two babies, sleeping lightly, getting out of bed to change a diaper, staring at my newborn’s face for hours.
The remainder of my time in the recovery room with the preoccupied nurse was uneventful. I slept, I ate a little. My body started to wake up. My middle ached and my toes itched. After Sergei left for the night, I cried.
The nurse asked me if I’d like to stand up. I pretended I didn’t understand what she was asking. There I lay into the night, exhausted and sore but unable to sleep. The sun set and the night nurse came into my room and asked if I minded if she took the small television in the corner. I fell asleep listening to the laughter of the nurses watching a Ukrainian soap opera in the hallway.
I have given birth three times in completely different ways.
The first time was the easiest. I had an epidural. The birth was pain-free. Soft music played in the background, the doctor on call was a little miffed to be woke up in the early morning and took out her aggression on the chipped red polish on her nails. I breathed deeply and pushed with all my might three or four times and we had our girl.
The first six months of Elaina’s life she cried seven hours a day and I sat on the couch in our little Chicago apartment and waited for Sergei to come home from work, beside myself, convinced I was the only woman in the history of mankind who did not possess an innate mothering intuition.
Zoya’s birth was long and painful. I let a friend talk me into a natural water birth and the pain was like none I had experienced before or since. I lugged my huge body out of the tub, down the hallway and back to my hospital bed in the hopes for some last minute drugs, a towel draped over my shoulders.
Only Zoya could not wait. She shot out of me while I stood next to the hospital bed, one leg hiked up on the mattress. She was caught like a football by my mid-wife, her robust cry filled the whole hospital floor. I fell into bed, oblivious of new life, a black haired, swollen little girl. My second daughter.
They say that as soon as a woman bares her child, she forgets the pain and struggle of the labor. Because she gives birth. She actually delivers a life. I have given birth three times. But the last time, I feel like I didn’t actually give birth. I think it was taken from me. I do not remember the third birth experience.
I have to make up the first few moments of my third daughter’s life.
And I imagine silence.
I imagine the baby, blue and tiny, doctors scurrying around the room, hooking her up to monitors and beepers, sticking a breathing tube in her nose. No cries, no tears of joy and laughter from the proud parents, no welcome and congratulations from the doctors and nurses. No inquiries of her name.
I imagine a pause, doctors noticing that beside her struggle for life that she showed some outward markers of Down syndrome.
I imagine pity.
I imagine professionalism kicking in and the doctors jumping to the task of saving my child’s life.
I have no memory of remarkable joy when she came into the world. I don’t get to have those memories because they do not exist. In those first few moments of living, in her struggle, did she wonder where her parents were? Did the doctors treat her with any love or tenderness as they slowly pumped life back into her?
After a quick kiss from Sergei, I was whisked through double doors. The temperature dropped twenty degrees in seconds. My teeth began to chatter. I felt very small and alone. Nurses and doctors buzzed around the room while Russian words swirled above my head.
I remember being asked if I would like an interpreter for the birth when we signed our agreement to deliver in this hospital. Thinking Sergei would be there to help, I said no.
A thin blue paper robe stripped me of armor and eloquence. I was rubbed raw, unable to play the part of a person confident in her maker. My mind was cloudy without a clue of what came next, unable to understand basic Russian words memorized in the first six months of language classes. I could hardly think of how to extend pleasantries to the staff because of nerves. Prerecorded prayers I had memorized to date were no where to be found in the usual places in my mind.
“Help me Lord. Help us.”
The smiling doctor was in the operating room with several nurses and the pediatric team and an anesthesiologist. She greeted me and started to explain about the epidural going into my spine. Her breath reeked of cigarette smoke and her voice was scratchy.
The room was the kind of cold you feel in an old woman’s hand or when you sit outside on a cement bench on a winter’s day.
I felt a stinging prick in my lower back, smack dab in the middle. Immediately warmth spread passed my belly and out to my toes.
A nurse laid me back on the gurney and placed a mask over my face. I thought I would be awake for the birth like those television shows you see; the little curtain at the woman’s mid-section, the husband seated on a high stool up by the wife’s head. The baby’s cries fill the room as the doctor lifts up the child to proclaim “it’s a girl!”
The nurse told me to count backwards from ten and I was confused. I didn’t know if I should count in English or in Russian. The hum of the fluorescent lights screamed in my ears. “Deysyet, deyvyet, vohsehm”, my voice shook, “sehm…”
I floated upwards away from the smiling doctor, a scowl now on his face as he bent over me, away from the anesthesiologist waiting for her next smoke break, away from my friends keeping my husband company in the lobby by swapping birth stories, away from the little one struggling in my womb. I floated upwards towards a bright yellow light. Relief flooded my body. I was asleep.
J and her husband and L arrived within the hour.
They were upbeat, commenting on the private hospital’s nice rooms, shyly cracking jokes, squinting at me through the room’s bright lights. All three tried to act like it was the most natural thing in the world to be hanging out in a Ukrainian hospital room at one in the morning.
I loved them for it.
The smiling doctor with the thick gold necklace was found and L told him we needed a Cesarean section right away. He was unsure of the soft spoken American woman. Once again he said we should wait and see if the IV helped. But L persisted, looking to my husband for linguistic assistance and nodding incessantly as words poured out of her mouth in a mixture of English and Russian. Her face was stern and her words were pleading. Eventually the smiling doctor agreed to take a closer look at the baby.
I found myself waddling towards the ultrasound room, a white bath robe tied loosely around my expansive middle, my black slippers swishing down the hall.
Everything happened quickly once the baby’s extreme distress was proved on the ultrasound machine. An anesthesiologist was shaken out of her sleep and on her way to the hospital. The smiling doctor hurried off to prepare for surgery. The pediatrician on call put on her scrubs, elastic snapping over her shoes.
Back in my room ready for surgery, I perched on the end of my high hospital bed and looked around at the warm tan walls. A wooden desk and a matching chair stood against the wall in front of me. I watched my feet dangle above the cold white tile floor. They seemed separate from my body. I wandered where they were taking me and if I even wanted to go.
I thought about Elaina and Zoya sleeping in their Estonian made bunk-beds at home. Sergei and I had searched all over Kiev before purchasing the pale colored wooden beds. Thick cotton blankets pulled up tightly to the girls’ chins, in an attempt to keep the frosty night air that lingered inside our old apartment at bay. Their Babushka slept in the room next to them ready if needed for a drink of water or a trip to the bathroom. My little girls, unaware that in about a half hour their baby sister would be here.
Heavy footsteps came down the hall and I saw my smiling doctor who wanted to learn English poke his head in the door of my room.
I nodded that I was ready and suddenly two other men were at my side helping me down from the high hospital bed and on to a cold gurney with a thin white sheet. I settled and my husband came close to me. He covered my hands with his and prayed for God’s protection, for our child’s health and for a peace in my heart that would surpass my understanding. When he finished his prayer he looked at me and smiled. “She’s coming tonight!”
The orderlies wheeled my gurney down the hall with my husband walking next to us. Our friends set up shop in the waiting room. They didn’t want Sergei to wait alone and J wanted to be there to take a picture of all three of us together when the surgery was over.
The first two years we lived in Ukraine I studied cultural norms and learned how to buy ingredients for borscht and leaned heavily on my American teammates. They were a life boat in rough waters.
Having been through culture shock and language classes, many could roll with superstitions still prominent in the culture; spitting over your shoulder three times to keep the “evil eye” away from babies or not whistling indoors to ensure prosperity and wealth. They had a basket of topochkee near the front door of their apartments for visitors to wear inside instead of shoes. The call to live and serve in Ukraine was strong and true. It helped on days when someone was ready to pack up and go home.
I loved getting to know Ukrainians but I appreciated American banter at team meetings and praying with others in a language that was comfortable when everything else in my life was uncomfortable. It took so much energy to even attempt to acclimate to the culture. With teammates and other ex-pats, I breathed, I rested.
After settling into my room at the hospital the day I was admitted, my friend J called my cell phone.
“I hope you don’t mind, Gillian, but I called L to tell her about you and the baby.”
L was another teammate who before moving to Russia and later to Ukraine for a counseling ministry was a post natal nurse in the States.
J was only looking out for us. She really was a great mother hen for the whole team. But I was on edge and a bit flustered and scared. Her phone call provided me with something to replace my worry. At least for a couple of minutes.
“That’s fine, J. I am glad she knows so that she can pray,” I lied through clenched teeth.
My friend sensed my frustration and continued on anyway,
“We are coming up to the hospital. My husband and I are leaving the kids with a sitter and we’ll pick up L on the way.”
I was not given a choice. Thank God.
A few minutes later the telephone rang again. This time it was L.
L is a wonderfully sensitive, soft spoken woman. I imagine she is a fantastic counselor because when you talk with her she gives you her full attention.
I explained that the baby had not grown at all since the last visit, how I was admitted and on an IV with glucose and other vitamins. I told her about the green squiggly lines on the monitor screen, how the baby’s heart beat dropped low, very low when I’d have a contraction.
There was silence on the other end of the phone. And then,
“Gillian, I will be there in a half hour. The next time your doctor comes into the room you need to demand an emergency c-section. I don’t want to scare you but in the States your baby would have already been delivered. She is not doing well. Listen to me, you have to talk to your doctor.”
I held the phone up to my ear taking in L’s words. Was this some kind of bad dream?
We hung up and I told Sergei what L said. He went to find the doctor.
I closed my eyes and exhaled.
“Please God. Keep this baby alive. And help us to know what to do.”
I was sure I was watching a scene unfold in someone else’s life.