Melanie & Oliver
For anyone who has a child, watching a movie with a birth usually induces a few eye rolls. Hollywood never seems to come anywhere close to accurately portraying the realities of labour and delivery. Except if you’re Melanie Thompson. The story I’m about to tell seems plucked right out of a Matthew McConaughey romantic comedy—complete with (spoiler alert) the dramatic water breaking and the fit firemen saving the day.
It was March 2019. Melanie had planned to start her maternity leave two weeks prior to her due date. She hoped for a manicure and some much-needed downtime. Her immune system had other plans. The onset of a killer cold forced her to miss the last day of work and held her hostage in her bed until the day before her little one was due. The only pre-baby nesting she managed to accomplish was the construction of a mobile.
Like clockwork, Melanie woke up at 5:20 on the morning of her due date, feeling different. At this point, she was experiencing minor but noticeable cramping. An hour later, she rolled over in bed and woke up her husband, Jake, to report that he probably wouldn’t be going into work that day. She then had two priorities: have a bowel movement and download an app that helps track your labour. Contractions were mild, but frequent. She tried a few different positions to find comfort but strangely sitting on the toilet was the ultimate winner. Meanwhile Jake started the day having breakfast with their 20 month old, Ethan, to get him ready to go to daycare. The regular-ness of the day almost convinced Mel that this false alarm would soon come to an end. That is, until she went back into the bathroom at 7:20 and a gush of fluid exploded into the toilet, conveniently missing the floor. “Jake? My water just broke!”
At this point, the Hollywood version would probably have had Mel and Jake thrown into total emotional chaos, with a high-speed car race to the hospital, and immediate screams from the pain of contractions. In this real-life version, Mel and Jake, the two engineers, calmly paged their midwife. The conversation with the student midwife at 7:40 seemed pretty typical and straightforward. Mel could still talk through the contractions so the midwife advised for them to make their way to the hospital.
Jake headed outside to turn around the car (you did hear me say engineer, right?) and have a little chat with the neighbours that were out and about with their morning routines. He returned upstairs moments later with clothes for Mel to wear to the hospital. He found his wife sitting on the toilet with her hand between her legs. “We’re not going to make it to the hospital,” Mel reported, “I can feel the baby’s head!”
If the water breaking didn’t induce panic, this surely would. Or so you would think! Jake calmly paged the midwife again and left a message indicating they would not be going to the hospital after all, given the location of their baby’s head. They sat in silence, letting the reality of the moment sink in. Their minds moved in slow motion through the list of possible outcomes. All of them inevitably included the delivery of a baby on the floor of their small bathroom. Finally Mel broke the silence, asking, “So, this is an emergency, right?” Jake appropriately responded to the question by calling 9-1-1 on speakerphone.
At 7:52 a male operator picked up the call. “9-1-1, what is your emergency?”
“My wife is about to have a baby at home, we can see the head!” Jake’s voice finally started to reflect the insanity of the situation.
“Okay sir, stay calm. Gather some clean blankets, get your wife off the toilet, and get ready to receive the baby. Once she is lying on the ground, put your hands on the baby’s head and apply gentle pressure to prevent the baby from coming out too quickly. When the baby comes, you’re going to cradle the shoulders and hips and be careful not to drop it because it will be slippery”
That’s it. That is the full extent of the operator’s advice. I’m pretty sure Siri would have provided more thorough coaching. But alas, this is what Mel and Jake had to work with. Oh wait, the operator gave one more instruction to Mel: push. So that’s what she did.
As the baby’s head started to crown, Mel and Jake locked eyes anticipating the magical moment where they would solely deliver their newest son into the world. Time froze as these two incredible parents stood ready to defy their fears.
But then the sound of sirens filled the air and Jake exhaled for the first time in several minutes. At 7:58, five confident firemen came barrelling into the house and directly up the stairs towards Mel’s wide-open legs. They each took the time to introduce themselves, as if they had read that it was proper etiquette to do so in the Firefighter’s Guide to Home Births just before entering the house. Relieved from the catcher’s position, Jake squeezed his 6’4” body into the empty bathtub next to his wife. Mel was focused on keeping her hands relaxed; a piece of advice she received that would help to keep her body from tensing and allow her to channel her energy towards the baby (and away from the five firemen peering down on her). Echoing the advice of the 9-1-1 operator, the firemen directed Mel to push hard. At 8:02, two paramedics joined the party in the bathroom just in time for Oliver’s grand entrance into this world, two minutes later. They quickly scooped him up and lay him on Mel’s chest. Silence.
Everyone knew the next scene was supposed to include the sounds of a newborn. Mel looked over at the nearest firefighter, waiting anxiously for further instructions. Responding to the eye contact, he seemed to read from the same guide as before.“Cry baby, cry,” he offered. Mel instinctively started to pat Oliver’s bum which stimulated him to cry seconds later. The room exhaled.
Moments later, the midwives arrived and assisted with the delivery of the placenta—lucky for Mel, since these instructions were not in the Firefighter’s Guide. Once it was clear everyone was safe and healthy, the firefighters made their exit. Standing on the front porch, they let down their guard under the watchful eye of Mel’s Ring camera. “I’m tearing up, man! That was so powerful!” Any macho male ego was completely dissolved by the miracle they had just witnessed.
Upstairs, the midwife began to assess the damage and initiate repairs while Jake sat with Oliver, skin to skin. Perhaps it was because she was a student, or perhaps because Mel was so outwardly calm, the midwife took her sweet time with the stitches, admiring each suture and contemplating the ideal positioning of each additional stitch. Local anesthetics only helped so much. Mel was done being a specimen. Afterwards, Mel’s mother brought her a smoothie to provide her with some much-needed energy. Finally, an opportunity to use the reusable straws that had been sitting in the house for months.
The midwives left the house later that afternoon, allowing Melanie and Jake to process the unforgettable events of the morning. Mel was instructed to stay upstairs for at least 24 hours to help her rest and recover. It felt like a bit of a punishment at the time, but in retrospect, it gave her some space to freely feel the myriad of emotions that were racing through her body and mind.
When an improbable experience finds its way into your life, it is quite common to start thinking about the hundreds of other paths that could have been and the impact of your choices on the events that unfolded. What if Jake hadn’t skipped over the chapter on emergency births in his preparations for Oliver’s arrival? What if Mel had escalated things sooner? Could the use of emergency services have been avoided? In the end, none of the answers to these questions seem to matter. Oliver’s arrival joined the three per cent of hospital-planned births that do not make it to the hospital in Ontario. This will forever be part of his story. And we can learn from it, share it, and be grateful for it.