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Sunday, August 28, 2011

There's a hurricane (and a baby) a comin'

Rock you like a hurricane: Who knew giving birth during
one of the worst storms ever could
be such a normal, natural experience? 
As the nation tenuously waits for Hurricane Irene to make landfall on the east coast, I can't help but think of all the expectant mothers, nervously waiting for their due dates to arrive and praying that it will pass uneventfully: will the baby come during the storm? Will I make it to the hospital in time? Will I be stranded somewhere?

I wouldn't be surprised to hear of a slight increase in the number of cesareans or inductions in the days prior to Irene's arrival, as doctors and patients took a "just in case" approach to avoid any such incidents from happening. It also reminded me of a passage from Jennifer Block's book, "Pushed," regarding Hurricane Charley in Florida - an F-4 storm that was the most powerful they'd seen since Andrew over a decade before. The storm lasted nearly a week, with winds topping out at 150 miles per hour. Pretty scary stuff.

With limited electricity, the hospital was facing measures to treat labor and delivery patients more efficiently given the lack of resources they had. Tracy Lethbridge, a nurse working on the unit during the 2004 storm, was on duty.

"...Hunkering down that evening was a minor interference compared to the week that followed. The hospital's emergency generator kicked in, but, like the rest of the town, the facility lost main power until the following Friday. With only enough generator capacity to run essential functions, there was no air-conditioning and no lab capabilities. That meant that the 13-bed labor and delivery ward wasn't a very comfortable place to either labor or deliver, nor did it have the lab setup required to manage epidural anesthesia safely. Lethbridge and her colleagues had to treat their patients much differently."
With limited power and no access to epidurals, what do you do?
 "We canceled all labor inductions," recalls Lethbridge. Normally, two beds a day would have been reserved for inducing women into labor, an often lengthy process that begins with drugs that "ripen" and dilate the cervix (Cervadil or Cytotec) and contract the uterus (Pitocin). Normally, even women who arrived in early labor – when the cervix is minimally dilated and contractions are several minutes apart – would often be encouraged to stay and would be administered Pitocin to hasten contractions. Lethbridge observed that under normal circumstances, the vast majority of babies were delivered during the day. 
"We only admitted women who were in active labor – regular contractions and progressive cervical dilation," says Lethbridge. "If they were not in active labor, we'd send them back home." 
Block speaks of this new, relatively unusual situation as an "altered universe" and writes that the nurses on duty during that period started noticing some surprising changes.
"Women were delivering within hours of arriving, even first-time mothers, without any Pitocin," says Lethbridge. ..."We had no cases of fetal distress during labor and no respiratory distress of neonates following delivery..." "We had an incredibly low cesarean rate. Amazingly, the babies were about evenly distributed between day and night shifts."
 "What happened was, women were going into labor all on their own, having good labor courses, and delivering healthy babies. Even the women who were scheduled to be induced that week, three-quarters of them came in and delivered anyway. And basically, they did better than if they had been induced. We thought, wow, this is amazing!"
Block notes that nurses, including Lethbridge, observed during the week period that among the 17 women who gave birth, "one was induced, two had scheduled repeat cesareans, and just one had a cesarean for 'failure to progress.'" Block states, "That works out to a cesarean rate of 17%; excluding the repeat cesareans, it was 6%."

Perhaps this almost informal "study" reveals that yes, birth can be a normal, physiological process if only it's allowed to proceed as such. That, instead of a "94 percent of births are complicated," it's quite the opposite - that 94 percent of births are over-managed, which has completely skewed our idea of what "complicated" means. In other words, that we're treating it as an accident waiting to happen and sometimes creating or precipitating that accident in the process.

As a result of this little experiment, surprised nurses reported their findings back to the charge nurse and hospital officials - who were relatively blase´ about the whole thing. The hospital's lack of action spoke louder than words: "this is not the way we do things because it doesn't make us money." You can't bill a patient for an induction, Pitocin, epidural and cesarean if she doesn't have those things, instead laboring naturally at home and letting her labor unfold by itself, with little to no interventions. Because Mother Nature is completely free - and perhaps not quite as flawed as they want us to believe. Technology can be very useful and life-saving, but only when used appropriately and wisely.

For a number of reasons, including what Lethbridge felt were safety concerns as well as the hospital's lack of support of normal, physiological birth, she quit her job - mostly precipitated by what she saw in women during Hurricane Charley. Within the year, many of the nurses she worked with left their jobs as well, perhaps completely jaded by the system. I don't blame them.

Pushed: The Painful Truth about Childbirth and Modern Maternity Care - Jennifer Block
Why You Need Pitocin in Labor


Kasia said...

The attitude of this delivery nurse is EXACTLY what is wrong with the birthing business today - they DON"T have much clue about birthing!!!