In the labor room at Kent County Memorial Hospital, Jackie Rushton rose from the stretcher, her face pale and smeared with tears. A nurse pressed the fetal pulse detector against her abdomen, a taut mound stretched by seven months of pregnancy. The detector was blue, the size and shape of a pocket flashlight with earphones attached, and Jackie Rushton’s eyes fixed on the nurse, who strained to hear the birdlike beating of her baby’s heart.
“Here’s the heartbeat,” the nurse said after several moments of silence, “It’s 126, and it’s fine.”
If there’s a heartbeat, why isn’t she giving me the earphones so I can listen? Jackie thought. That’s what the doctor always does when I have my check-ups. First he listens, and then he says, “Here’s the heartbeat. Listen.” She didn’t say, “Here’s the heartbeat. Listen.”
I’ve lost the baby. The baby’s gone.
Jackie and Rob Rushton’s daughter, Lola, was 18 months old when they decided to have another child. Jackie went off the Pill. Nothing happened. By the time Lola started kindergarten in September 1979, her parents were convinced she would be their only child.
Then last June, Jackie, 25, missed her period. “Don’t be silly,” Rob said, “you’re not pregnant.” But one day early in July, Jackie went to the drugstore and bought one of those home pregnancy tests, and when Rob came home for lunch she was waiting with champagne.
The first three months Jackie was tired all the time. She dragged herself around during the day. She went to bed immediately after dinner. She woke up tired. Her parents visited from England, and she drove them to the beach often. She lay on the warm sand at Bonnet Shores in Narragansett and slept.
Autumn came to Pawtuxet Village, the neighborhood where the Rushtons have lived since they emigrated from England in 1978. Breezes carried the leathery smell of dying leaves. The air turned colder. Jackie felt fine again.
In November, the Rushtons bought their first house, a summer cottage on Warwick Neck that needed work. Rob, 31, is a building contractor, and he began spending all his free time getting the house in shape. In the meantime, they moved out of their apartment on Post Road to stay with their friend, Marge O’Hara, who lived a few blocks away on Spring Garden Street.
Winter arrived. The air in the village was tangy with wood smoke. The baby began to kick.
Shortly before Christmas, the temperatures dove below freezing. In the Rushtons’ new house, the pipes burst. At the time it seemed like bad luck. A few weeks later, it turned out to be very good luck that they were still living with Marge, a delivery room nurse at Kent County Memorial Hospital.
In the early hours of Jan. 22, six weeks before her March 4 due date, Jackie’s water broke, a normal beginning of labor. A doctor at Kent County Memorial told Jackie that morning that labor might still be a week away. He advised her to go home and wait.
That afternoon, Marge drove to the Zayres on Warwick Avenue with Dawn, her 13-year-old daughter. They bought a turquoise nightgown for Jackie and a yellow quilt with ducks and teddy bears for the baby. That night, they held an impromptu shower. They didn’t have time to wrap anything, so they let Jackie open the bags. They talked about names. Joel for a boy. Zoe or Leah, if it was a girl. Maybe Hannah. Marge, who had to work the next day, went to sleep around 9.
At 10:15 that night, Jackie went upstairs to the bathroom. When she pulled down her pants, she saw the blood. She yelled for Rob, who came running with Dawn behind him. Dawn took one look and ran into her mother’s bedroom.
“Mommy, Mommy,” Dawn cried, “You’ve got to help. Jackie’s bleeding.” Marge shook herself awake and went into the bathroom. Jackie held a blood-soaked towel.
The bleeding, Marge knew immediately, meant one of two abnormal prenatal conditions: placenta praevia, in which the placenta comes out before the baby, causing loss of large quantities of blood; or placenta abruption, in which the placenta separates from the uterus. Either way, Marge knew, Jackie and the baby were in serious trouble. The placenta is the source of a baby’s oxygen. If the infant wasn’t delivered quickly by Caesarean section probably it could die. It might be too late already. Marge didn’t tell any of this to Jackie or Rob.
“Get your bag, Jackie,” she said. “We’re going to the hospital. Get the car, Rob. I’ll call the doctor.”
Rob’s tools filled the back seat of the station wagon. The three of them squeezed in front, with Jackie in the middle.
Rob speeded up when they turned onto Post Road. There were only a few cars on the road. He wished a policeman would pull them over and give them an escort to the hospital.
“What’s going to happen?” Jackie said. She began to sob.
In the blackness of the winter night, the streetlamps shone like moons. Marge shivered with cold and fear. Should she just make small talk or try to prepare Jackie for what to expect at the hospital? Once they arrived, she knew, things would happen fast.
She tried to sound breezy. “Well, you’ve missed your shower, Jackie, but that’s all right. We’ll have one later. And don’t worry about not having any baby clothes. I’ll see to that.”
“What’s going to happen?” Jackie said.
Rob glanced at Marge. She looked worried, and that made him even more afraid. He had never seen so much blood. He thought about Susan Gilbert, a friend from England. She had started to hemorrhage before her second baby was born. The doctors couldn’t stop the bleeding. Susan died. Rob gripped the steering wheel with both hands, grateful he had to concentrate on the driving. He wanted to scream.
“Everything will be all right,” he told Jackie. “Keep yourself calm. If you’re calm, the baby will be all right.” Come on God, he thought, You’ve got to be with us now.
The light at Warwick Avenue was about to turn red. Rob slowed, looked both ways and shot through the empty intersection, horn blaring. “Be careful,” Marge cried, “We’ve got to get there in one piece.”
They passed a shopping plaza, a string of one-story shops. Behind the plate-glass windows, the night lights shimmered.
They turned onto Route 95.
“Rob, the petrol tank is on empty,” Jackie cried.
“It’s all right. There’ll be enough to get us there.”
We’re going to stop in a minute, and I’m going to be stuck on 95. I’m bleeding, and I’m going to be on 95 flagging down cars.
Off the highway now, turning up a long, straight road lined with tall trees. Doctor’s shingles hung from signposts in front of several houses. They climbed a slope and saw the hospital. Rob slowed by a cluster of signs and followed an arrow marked “Emergency Room Entrance.”
“Don’t worry,” Marge said. “We’re just going to get out here.”
“Don’t even tell me where you’re going,” Rob said. “I’ll find you.”
“Marge,” Jackie said, “I’m frightened.”
Marge took Jackie’s arm and led her up the ramp to the emergency room. They walked through the first of two sets of glass doors. Marge hurried ahead to grab a wheelchair.
Suddenly, at the door to the waiting room, Jackie felt intense pressure in her abdomen. Then it passed. “Marge, help me,” she cried. “I’ve delivered the baby. I’ve had the baby.”
Marge let the wheelchair go and ran back into the doorway, grabbed Jackie and pulled her inside.
Jackie was dimly aware of the crowd in the waiting room, a large airy room with vinyl couches and chairs set in rows. A gray-haired man in a leather coat turned and stared at her.
Fay Masterson, Marge’s supervisor in the obstetrics ward, appeared. Like an angel, Marge thought. She and Fay picked Jackie up and laid her on a stretcher.
Above her, Jackie saw only the white ceiling and fluorescent lights. She felt disconnected, unable to see what was happening: She sobbed hysterically. Everything had gone horribly, horribly wrong. She could feel herself bleeding. She felt exposed and alone, aware of people around her but not really caring. There could have been a crowd of 10,000, and it wouldn’t have mattered.
Marge heard the squeak of screens being placed around the stretcher, blocking the view as she and Fay pulled Jackie’s red corduroys off.
“It’s all right, Jackie. It’s not the baby,” Marge said. “It’s just a blood clot.”
She’s lying, Jackie thought. I felt something come out of me. I’ve had a baby. They’re just telling me that to keep me calm so they can get me to a room and try and get the baby breathing.
Rob hurried into the emergency room and saw Jackie on a stretcher, crying hysterically. Before Marge whipped a white sheet over her legs, he saw the blood between them, a splash of scarlet. Marge and the other nurse pushed the stretcher through a set of swinging wooden doors and disappeared. He dashed after them. They were racing the stretcher down a narrow passageway with green walls and round convex mirrors high up in the corner.
“I’ve had the baby,” Jackie was crying.
“No, you haven’t,” Marge said. “It’s all right.”
Rob tried to catch up. This is really serious, he thought. Susan Gilbert’s face rose before him. No, she’s not going to die. Don’t think negatively. Just go, man.
“Get out of the way, Rob,” Marge cried. “We’ve got to get her upstairs.”
They took a sharp right, pushing the stretcher through another set of doors.
As the doors slapped back and forth, Jackie saw Rob’s bearded face, framed by a small square window of netted glass.
They rode up in the service elevator to the maternity ward on the third floor. Marge held Jackie’s hand and rubbed her head. She thought of Dawn and of Jonathan, her 9-year-old son. They had been so excited about the baby.
In the labor room, Fay Masterson and the other delivery room nurses alerted by Marge’s call converged on Jackie, inserting an intra-
venous needle in one arm, taking her blood pressure. They wore sea green and flowered surgical clothes. A mobile of one-dimensional red apples hung from the ceiling.
Dr. Thomas A. Vest, an obstetrician, came in. He drew Rob aside and told him he would try to deliver the baby normally. If that was impossible, he would perform a Caesarean section.
The nurses were having trouble getting Jackie’s sweater off. She lifted herself up so they could pull it over her head. She felt blood pump furiously from her body. There was blood everywhere.
Now they couldn’t get her bra off.
“Let me do this,” Rob said, stepping in. He tried to make a joke. “I can do it with one hand.” Nervously, he struggled with the clasp. “I’ve lost my knack,” he said, and then worked it open. They put a gown on her.
Jackie didn’t understand. Everyone seemed so calm. Rob was managing to crack a joke. It was like he worked there, like he’d done this every day of his life. Marge is so cool and confident. I’m the only one who’s feeling this hysteria.
The heavy bleeding, Marge knew, posed a serious threat to the baby. She took the fetal detector and pressed it against Jackie’s abdomen, listening intently through the earphones. She was silent for several moments.
“I don’t hear it, Jackie,” she said.
Marge tried to make her voice carefree. “But I’m not too good at it. Let me get Beth.” She walked out of the labor room into a small office used by the delivery team and stood there, taking deep breaths. What are you going to say: “There’s no heartbeat”?
She’s lying, Jackie thought. I know she’s good at this.
Another nurse, Beth Graziano, took the detector and listened.
“Here’s the heartbeat,” she said finally. “It’s 126, and it’s fine.”
Rob looked at Jackie. She was still bleeding. “Just think of yourself,” he said. “Pull yourself through.”
Jackie didn’t say anything. I can’t. I can’t just say, “Oh, well, you know, the baby’s gone, but I’m going to try to fight to live.” I don’t want to.
“You’ve got to keep calm,” Rob told her. “Because the baby’s still inside you.”
For the first time, Jackie was afraid of dying. She remembered Susan Gilbert’s sister telling her how much blood the doctors gave her. The more they gave her, the more it poured out. Please, God, let the baby be alive. Let the baby be alive.
“Say a prayer,” Rob said. “Say a prayer.”
Dr. Vest returned. He told Jackie and Rob that they were going to take her into the operating room now. Because of the bleeding, he was going to wait until then to examine her.
“Right,” Rob said. “I’m ready then.”
“No,” the doctor said, “you’re going to have to sit this one out.”
Jackie spoke up. “Could you give me something to put me under?” she asked the doctor.
I want to be put out cold and not wake up for three days. They’re going to wheel me in there, they’re going to take a dead baby from me, and I’m going to be awake the whole time, and I’m going to know all about it, and I don’t want to know. I want to be unconscious. I don’t want to know anymore. I don’t want to face it.
“Give me a kiss,” Rob said, leaning down to kiss her.
The nurses wheeled the stretcher out of the labor room into the corridor. Jackie turned around and looked at her husband.
“Goodbye, Rob,” she said. Why did I say that? It’s so final, so flat, so ending. Not like I’ll be back in a minute. Like I’m leaving him.
“Say a prayer,” Marge told Rob. The nurses pushed the stretcher through a door marked “Delivery Room.” “Take good care of her, Marge,” Rob said.
Rob sank into a chair in the hallway. The floor was black and speckled tile. In the next room, a young woman in labor screamed. On the wall facing him, the bulletin board was crowded with hospital memos, an ad for a childbirth class and a large photo of a nurse cradling a naked baby. Hey, man, grab hold of yourself. Nothing’s happened. You’ve just got to say a prayer. Just shut up and say a prayer. “Please, Jesus, don’t let either of
them. … Please let them both live.”
Jackie found herself in a large, blue room. Freshly washed surgical clothes were stacked on cabinets lining the wall. The nurses pushed the stretcher into another room. It had green walls. She saw the operating table, a narrow black cushion wrapped in white sheets. They lifted her off the stretcher and onto the table. The sheets were cool.
Above her hung two immense lights, like huge ice cream scoops. She could see her reflection in the shiny metal. She wanted to ask them to move the lights. But then the lights went on, and her image disappeared in the brightness.
They gave her a shot, and she could feel her legs tingle, and then she couldn’t feel them anymore.
The anesthesiologist was asking her about England. She looked up at his masked face. She knew he was trying to take her mind off the situation, but what she really wanted to say was, “Why are you talking about that?”
A nurse attached the bottom of Jackie’s gown to a metal stand in the center of the table, blocking her view of the operation.
Both of her hands were strapped down. I feel like I’m crucified. I can’t feel my legs. She stared into Marge’s eyes and gripped her hand. Marge looked so calm.
But Marge felt helpless and scared.
Dr. Vest made an incision in Jackie’s abdomen and began to cut through the layers of skin and muscle. He took bandage scissors, with one blunt end, and cut into the uterus. Marge held her breath. Please, God, please.
In the hallway, Rob was praying. In his mind, he could see the operating table. The doctors and nurses in their gowns and masks stood over Jackie. Then something strange happened. Rob isn’t a churchgoer, but he believes in God. And now he imagined he saw Jesus standing in the operating room. Rob watched Him move His hands over the table. A blessing. Rob let out his breath in a long, deep sigh, suddenly calm.
In the delivery room, Marge saw the little head emerge. It was pink. Marge looked at the clock on the wall for the precise time of birth. “Eleven eleven,” she called out.
The doctor lifted the baby out. He could see that the placenta was in the path of the birth canal, placenta praevia. They had gotten to the baby just in time. Another few minutes, and the baby would have suffocated without the placenta’s source of oxygen.
“We’re all right, Jackie,” Marge said. “You’ve got a daughter, and she’s fine.”
She can’t be normal. It’s still not all right.
“I’ve got to tell Rob,” Marge said and ran out of the room.
Rob saw a nurse running toward him. “Rob, you’ve got a daughter, and she’s fine,” Marge said. “Jackie’s fine. I’ve got to get back.” Marge’s face was half-hidden by the surgical mask. It would be a week before he realized it was she who had given him the news. He jumped out of the chair and then sat down again.
Jackie felt as if she had been lying on the operating table forever. A nurse walked to the head of the table. She held the baby in her arms. Jackie could see only the top of her head. She was tiny and wrinkled. When Lola was born, she felt so high, a “Wow, look at what I’ve done” feeling. She didn’t feel that way now. Somehow it still wasn’t right. The baby’s alive now, but in five minutes she’s not going to be all right.
The nurse took the baby away to be weighed and measured, to have her footprints taken.
Rob thought of Dawn, waiting back at the house. He lifted the phone at a desk in the hallway to call her. He heard the dial tone and then put it back down. His head was too fogged to dial.
A nurse walked by him, pushing a metal incubator with a glass top and side. The baby was inside. She’s pretty, but so small. Everything’s all right.
In the delivery room, Marge also was thinking of Dawn. She didn’t want her daughter to remember only the frightening part: Jackie bleeding, rushing out of the house. She went to a phone outside the operating room.
“Dawn,” she said, “it’s a little girl, and she’s fine.”
“Mommy, I’ve never prayed harder in my whole life.”
In the recovery room, Jackie drifted in and out of sleep. In the middle of a sentence she would doze off. Rob sat beside her bed and held her hand.
“I’m sorry you lost your sleep, Rob.”
“Don’t be silly.”
She fell asleep again. When she woke, Rob said: “How do you like ‘Hannah’ for a name?”
“Yeah, that’s nice.”
“Well, let’s call her Hannah.”
“Okay. I really like ‘Hannah’ for a name.”
It was almost midnight. Marge had to work in the morning. She went into one of the small bedrooms set aside for doctors and lay down on the narrow bed. She wanted to cry, but tears wouldn’t come.
Rob kept nodding off as he sat by Jackie’s bed.
“Why don’t you go home?”
“No, I’m fine here.” His head slumped.
“Please, Rob, go. I’m fine. Go home and get some sleep and come back tomorrow.”
The doors were locked when he got home at 3 a.m. Normally, he would have been upset, but he didn’t have an ounce of anger in him. He stood on the porch, calling for one of the kids. He waited almost a half-hour before Lola came to the back door.
“You’ve got a sister,” he said, hugging and kissing her.
At 10 a.m., Marge came back into the recovery room, carrying a pink bundle.
She placed the baby in Jackie’s arms. Hannah was asleep, nestled in a blanket. Around her neck was a blue and white necklace with her last name. She wore a diaper, and the soles of her feet were still smudged with ink used to take her footprints.
Jackie looked down at her daughter. She was so tiny. She looked at her face. How pretty she is à and how normal. Maybe everything will be all right after all. She counted the baby’s fingers and toes. There were 10 of each.
“Marge, look at her,” Jackie said. “How beautiful she is.”
(Published in the Providence Evening Bulletin, March 25, 1981
First Place, Feature Writing , New England Associated Press News Executive Association, 1982.)
Photograph by Mon Petit Chou Photography courtesy of unsplash.com