A Labor of Love

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I stood in the room, gowned and gloved, waiting for the woman to push. There was a thin trickle of sweat running down my back where the bright lights of the delivery room were trained. The baby was just short of the pubic bone, nearly ready to be born.

The mother-to-be had been pushing for hours and was exhausted. We watched the strips that recorded her and her baby’s heartbeats—each time that she pushed, her heart rate spiked to more than 170 beats/min and she closed her eyes and blew the air out of her lungs as we urged her on. “Push. Push. Push.” “Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.” We continued, our implacable rhythm timed to the clockwork contractions of her uterus.

Her exhaustion had caught up with her; I could read the defeat in her eyes as she whispered to her husband, “I can’t do it.” He smiled into her eyes and whispered back quietly, “Yes, you can.” My eyes were transfixed by this private moment between husband and wife, for all intents and purposes alone in a crowded delivery room, oblivious to the five other people standing around.

My hands moved on autopilot, assessing the baby’s position, a job my eyes should have done, as well. I stood there, doing what I was supposed to by habit—this was the fourth delivery that I’d done, after all, and I was a 5-week OB veteran. I stood there watching this moment, this beautiful, private moment, and some of life’s mysteries became clearer.

It was suddenly apparent to me how much I’d given up to be the one bringing this couple’s baby into the world. The fact that I could be welcomed into this intensely intimate moment and thanked after I’d done my job attested to the value of the profession I was joining. But in this moment, I wondered, at what cost?

This couple was a few years older than I. They had been married since they were my age and were having their first child now. They were madly in love, had jobs that fulfilled them, and were bringing their first child into the world.

At that moment, I had one purpose, one raison d’être, one thing I was searching for—that obsession, that passion, was medicine. In pursuit of it, I’d given up my hours, my sleep, my financial future, my social life, and my relationships.

My family was thousands of miles away, rarely seen and always missed. My friends were languishing, with unreturned phone calls and text messages on my phone, forgotten among 14-hour shifts and minutiae that needed to be memorized for each rotation. My love life was challenged by my constant lack of time and impossibly high standards—not to mention my jealous, unforgiving mistress named medicine.

She pushed again, and I snapped back to the here and now. Her son was crowning, and my hands moved automatically. I checked for a cord around his neck, pulling him out of his mother’s womb, one arm at a time. He was born from a warm and safe womb into the cold and lonely world he would now inhabit.

I swaddled him in blankets and placed him on his mother’s chest as his parents stared at him with love, drinking in the sight of his fingers, his toes, his perfect little features. I finished my work quietly. They thanked me warmly as I left the room and ripped off my gown and gloves as I went, their eyes never having left their beautiful baby boy.

I smiled as I left their delivery room, lost in my bittersweet thoughts. I kept walking because my shift had been done 20 minutes ago. I walked to a house filled with books about medicine and the tools necessary for its practice—stethoscope and white coat among them. I walked to an empty house and an empty bed. I was on again in 9 hours.

Ann Intern Med. 2014;160(9):653. doi:10.7326/M13-2673

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