Just Breathe: A Nurse’s Tough Love Proves Crucial During One Mother’s Labor

Photo by chintermeyer, via Flickr.

Photo by chintermeyer, via Flickr.

By Amy Collins, AJN managing editor

The pain jolted me from my sleep. It was 1:30 in the morning. The sensation was stronger than anything I’d ever felt, and I grabbed my phone to start my contraction timer. I had read loads on labor and childbirth, and everything suggested I was in for the long haul. But my timer was showing the contractions were already only five minutes apart. I spoke with the hospital’s on-call physician, who told me to relax and spend as much time as possible at home so I could be more comfortable.

But within minutes, the pain had increased to a level where it was difficult to talk. The contractions were now three minutes apart and my water had broken. My husband and I decided to go to the hospital.

I’d like to say I was strong and handled the pain of labor well, but I was quickly losing control and succumbing to anxiety. By the time we got to the maternity unit, I was sobbing. The labor nurse assigned to me introduced herself as Jean. She was older and seemed seasoned, with a stern, no-nonsense attitude. She brought me to a delivery room and gave me a gown. Before labor started, my plan had been to see how long I could go without pain meds. But I was already begging for them before I could even get undressed.

“We need to monitor you for a bit first before we can give you any medication,” Jean said. My response was probably unintelligible, since I was alternating between crying and something like whimpering while holding my breath and lying in the fetal position. My husband stood next to me looking helpless.

“You need to breathe,” she said. “You have to get oxygen to your baby.” I could hear her words, but I was too wrapped up in my own pain to pay attention. “Didn’t you take a breathing class?” she added. I wanted to shout, “No, I didn’t take a bleeping breathing class,” but I couldn’t get the words out. I was spiraling, terrified of the next wave of pain. Perhaps sensing this, Jean took my hands and sharply said my name several times. Her abrupt tone surprised me, and though I briefly felt hurt and angry, I stopped crying long enough to listen.

“You need to breathe,” she repeated, more forcefully this time. “Now watch me.” She showed me how I was supposed to breathe when the wave of pain started up again. I imitated her and muddled through the contraction. We did this together for a few minutes, and while the pain was still excruciating, I was at least regaining some control.

The physician came to see me and told me I was probably going to give birth within the hour. Jean was still coaching me when suddenly everything changed. The physician informed me that my child’s heart rate was dropping dangerously low. She tried giving me medication to remedy this, but when it continued to drop I was informed I would have to have an emergency C-section. There was no time to be scared. Within minutes, I was in the OR and my baby was being pulled from me. My son was born two and a half hours after labor onset.

Later, in recovery, Jean came to see me. Her whole attitude had changed. She was kind and gentle, spoke to me softly. She took my hand and asked how I was. This shift in her demeanor made me realize that my anger earlier had been unwarranted. Jean saw women like me (or worse) day in and day out. She had read me and knew that what I needed was, if you’ll pardon the expression, a kind of verbal slap in the face. Had she coddled me, I would have probably continued in my spiral of anxiety and self-pity. Instead she had pulled me out of myself and into the present.

I apologized for being difficult, spoke briefly to her about how I felt disappointed in myself for not being able to “handle” even a few hours of pain. Jean made me feel better by saying that the fast onset of labor hadn’t given me a chance to get used to the pain.

It’s been almost a year since then and I often reflect on the experience, and how strange it is that a complete stranger can touch one’s life in such a seemingly small way, for such a small amount of time, yet have such a lasting effect. Her tough love that day had made me rise to the occasion and though I never saw her again, I won’t soon forget her or the role she played in bringing my little one into the world.


Managing editor, American Journal of Nursing

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