What It Felt Like to Get an Epidural After 32 Hours of Labor

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Photo: Corbis

When I told the nurse that I wanted an epidural, Dustin, my fiancé, asked if I was sure. We’d decided ahead of time that he’d challenge me if I brought it up. “This isn’t what we talked about,” he reminded me. “This isn’t what you wanted.” I gathered my strength to respond and told him that those ideas were from a different person. That was a lifetime ago. This was not the kind of labor I had in mind when we were listing our "birthing priorities" in a Google Doc and practicing our breathing.

Back then, I hadn’t wanted an epidural for a few reasons. Stubbornness, yes. Overachiever-ishness, sure. I wanted to experience it all, to know I could do it, this essential female thing. But mostly: fear. Fear of someone sticking something into my spine. Fear of being punished for taking the "easy route." Fear of paralysis, chronic pain; birth complications. Now, though, I was 32 hours into labor with my first child, and my fear had assumed new forms.

When the epidural crew wheeled on in with their cartoon shower caps and sneakers and watches and black-framed glasses and well-toned physiques — anesthesiologists, it turns out, are the only doctors who look like TV doctors — the very word epidural still filled me with a cringe-y panic. As if they knew, the three-person team of anesthesiologists talked quickly, all of them seeming a little drunk on power and slightly manic. The energy in the room immediately shifted. Before they came in, I was a decrepit sea log being beat upon by the waves, my mother, fiancé, and nurse three seagulls floating just above the water, feeling helpless and horrified, bearing witness to the very kernel of existence.

After they came in, it felt like my body was a thing to be beaten, a war to be won. In that moment, it felt right.

Obviously, the epidural is a very routine thing, but it’s also, as they were legally required to remind/reveal to me, a surgical procedure. Hence the shower caps. I got one, too, in all my pain. No one made sure I tucked my hair in perfectly, which I thought about a lot as they started in on me. Would a hair fall into my spine? I felt like I was being inducted into something (and I was). Like I was brave for choosing this, like here we go.

After you get your shower cap and have signed off on ever blaming them for accidentally paralyzing you, the nurse directs you to squeeze a pillow to your very pregnant belly, and hunch your back so that your upper body resembles the letter C. They have your birth partner sit on a little chair in front of you, at eye level. You focus on them. Never have I hunched and focused so hard. I could have hunched that baby right out. Then they paint that sterilizing iodine all over you and with gloved hands they feel the notches in your spine, counting them, trying to find their entry point. I worried that I was too fat for them to feel my vertebrae correctly and fought the urge to ask them if they were absolutely sure they had placed the target in the right place. They used a permanent marker to mark where to get me — I saw this a few days later, when I was up and walking. There was a circle and inside of it, where the big needle went, a bruise.

There is something viscerally disturbing about all of this, isn’t there? Can you feel the twinge in your spine? Are you about to pass out? Yeah, me too.

So they stick a big needle into your back and you jump and are sure you have just paralyzed yourself. The first needle is a shot to numb your skin and then a bigger, hollow needle goes in with a tiny tube that gets threaded into your spine. It seems like you shouldn’t feel it but you still totally feel it. Or I did. I felt it like you can kind of feel your cervix — not pain-pain but feeling enough to make you want to pass out. It felt like someone was stapling my back, but deep inside me.

Stay still, though, or else you'll be paralyzed!

I bore my eyes into Dustin, who sat on a stool in front of me, and broke a sweat, I think, from fear. I felt like I was in some kind of war. I felt like this was my moment, my big test, and I was rising to the occasion. I would save the world!

Except, in reality, I was doing the most banal thing in the world. I was giving fucking birth.

Soon the doctor paused to speak over my shoulder: "Okay, I am going to put in the medicine now. You might feel a shock go through your legs, almost like you put your finger in the electric socket."

What.

“Okay,” I nodded. Then my legs, hanging off the side of the hospital bed, shot up in the air on either side of Dustin. And yes, an electric shock shot through me. It was horrible. Horrible! Wild. I screamed, of course. Then laughed nervously. “Wow, you weren’t kidding.” They taped it all up — a tube! snaked into my spine! taped onto my back! — and I was supposed to just lie down on top of it, to not even think about it. This was difficult to do,  as anything spine-related, in my book, should be.

I didn’t have much time to think, though, because the anesthesiologists were out the door and the nurse was telling me to lie down so she could put a catheter in me.

“A catheter?” I did not read this part of BabyCenter, or else I did not remember it.

My legs, by this point, were just big meat sticks attached to my body. It felt like it does when your foot falls asleep, except it’s the entire lower region of your body. It is very hard to have this bodily experience without your subconscious screaming out that something is terribly wrong. Something must be done. "I CAN’T FEEL MY LEGS!" I tried to move them, to make sure I still could. To shake them back into being. It didn’t work. I picked my legs up with my hands and dragged them, huge and lumpen, across the crinkly paper of the hospital bed. They fell into place.

I feared I was doing something awful to them and wasn’t feeling it. I feared the tube in my spine would be yanked around, would be boring a hole in my spinal column and leaking fluid into the sack of flesh I had become.

And then a few minutes had gone by and I hadn’t had any pain. I looked at the monitor. I was having wild contractions, up and up and up and down, and I didn’t even know it.

Disembodiment complete, I asked for my iPhone.  

Dustin dug my phone out of the bag we packed and off I went, group texting up a storm. I asked my mom to take a picture of my new bag of urine. She obliged, standing up, newly alive and cheerful. She took a photo of my monitor and my wild contractions. I was laughing, stuck in a hospital bed. I could have stayed like that forever.

Within minutes I itched like crazy, a side effect they’d warned me about. Did I want Sudafed? Sure, fuck it. I got Sudafed in my IV. I also, it was soon found, had a fever. This is a problem because of the baby. The nurse asked me if I had ever had a suppository, like I was going to protest at this point. I told her no, “but I’ve never given birth either, so ... ?”

I was already lying on my side; she yanked up my gown and went to town. I was laughing. She asked if it hurt. I told her I felt nothing. We laughed. Oh, modern medicine! She gave me more Tylenol in my IV. Then antibiotics. And then soon my OB came in to break my water with what looked like a knitting needle and was called an “amniotic hook.”

I spread my legs for someone the millionth time that day, in the way they preferred — bottoms of your feet touching each other, knees flopped open, legs in a diamond shape.

I don’t remember any of the great amniotic balloon pop except the warmth, spreading all over and under me, like sitting in a bowl of chicken soup. It was beyond pee. And it kept happening, too, for hours. I’d shift and more soup. It did make me feel plentiful — like I contained multitudes. Of amniotic fluid.

And then, without all the fluid in my uterus to push back on them, contractions really started going, up off the charts. They’d go high and then plateau up there, up in the high strokes of the monitor, the ones that symbolized pain. I felt none of it.

Until I did. Until I did.

It was probably 6 or 7 p.m. at this point, 36 hours after labor had started. I had slept in a few ten-minute intervals the night before, but sleeping for ten minutes when you know you’ll be awoken by soul-crushing pain is not exactly restful. And here was the soul-crushing pain again! And boy, was I crushed by it, gripping the bars of my hospital bed as if I could pull myself away from it.

I couldn’t move because I was still numb everywhere except for, rather inconveniently, the right side of my uterus. I had gone through the personal nightmare of getting the epidural, I had mentally exited the battle of contractions, and yet here they were, chasing me down. It was like going through the pain of breaking up with someone and just when you thought you were free, they show up at your house and, I don’t know, throw knives at you?

After the coolest cool-girl anesthesiologist “topped off” my epidural a few times, adding more and more medication to no avail, my doctor was back in the room saying we’d need to do another epidural. That was our only option. The anesthesiologist — she must have been 30, tops, if that is even possible — declared to the room, “We’re going to get you the pain coverage you deserve.” As she said these glorious words, she smacked the back of one of her hands into the other, as if to show she meant business.

This notion of deserving relief awakened something in me. Wanting to try to go without the epidural was one thing; getting it and having it fail was quite another. It was unjust. It was traumatic. My stupid body. I thought. My awful gender. The limitations of medicine. Of sex. Of humanity. Fuck it all. I don’t deserve this!

And I meant that. I still mean it.

Of course outwardly I just nodded and scrunched up my entire being, and felt a little glimmer of hope. Then fear. Then hope. Then pain, pain, pain.

My family still sat beside me, no longer much comfort. I felt very alone, inescapably tethered to my body. They watched me drift out to sea, safe on the shoreline.

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