Compassion Fatigue in the Maternity Ward

I Could’ve Used an Epidural

Newborn baby boy

A few days before Christmas, I gave birth to our son. Just like our daughter’s delivery, the labor was fast and painful. And just like the time before, I requested an epidural. Except this time, I asked for it too late.

When the contractions became too painful to endure with Lyra, I scrapped my original plan of having an unmedicated birth and begged for an epidural. Within 10 minutes, I was given one. And when that wasn’t enough, I was also given ketamine. The treatment allowed me the time I needed to relax and prepare for pushing. We had a healthy baby girl within the hour.

But with Callum’s birth, when the contractions were closing in and getting stronger and stronger, I waited until the last minute. I waited until I could barely move as the pain intensified and spread in waves. Then I finally asked for the epidural.

I was told I had to wait 45 minutes as I received a bolus of fluid before they could get the anesthesiologist.

Are you serious?

Baby boy in labor and delivery after being born

Natural birth it is, then

I wish I’d known about that wait time. It would’ve greatly influenced when I asked for the epidural. That’s especially true since I’d told the attending staff that my intentions were to get an epidural.

But I can’t change that outcome. The point is, I was in an incredible amount of pain and was rapidly realizing that I would probably be delivering without medicine.

Although everyone’s experience of childbirth is different, it’s widely agreed that it is one of the most painful experiences in life. Barring freak accidents or horrendous deaths, I’m going to suggest that it is the most painful experience of an average mother’s life.

Unlike most other acute pains, you can’t see the point of injury with contractions. They aren’t broken bones, bleeding wounds, gaping ulcers, etc. They are invisible waves of agony that magnify and cluster and swallow up the moments of relief in between. Then there is no time in between them. They’re just pain pain pain…

crying baby

Nurses Usually Care About labor pain, right?

Dear Labor and Delivery Nurse who watched me gasping for air and clutching at my husband’s arms and asking for “anything, anything to help the pain,” why did you find it appropriate to respond so nonchalantly? Why did you seem bored and almost annoyed watching me turn and twist on the bed? When I was grabbing at the rails with my sweaty hands, trying to find some position to ease the nonstop pain, why didn’t you comfort me?

Every contraction in that last half hour that left me panting and crying, “please, please, please,” over and over was met with the same response: “You’re fine. You’re fine.”

Compassion fatigue

Compassion fatigue is a real thing; I know that. If you ever find yourself in the medical field experiencing compassion fatigue, please address it. Because, trust me, it affects your patients.

Clearly this nurse had witnessed countless women in labor and over time, lost whatever empathy had originally driven her to work in that department.

The fact is active labor is tremendously painful. I don’t expect to ever experience that level of pain again. It’s crushing, all-consuming, blinding pain that gets worse and worse and worse until your body is demanding that you push. Exert energy that you don’t have and push. Don’t rest. Don’t breathe. And don’t think. Push.

And scream.

Scream like someone is torturing you.

That pain is torture. That pain is parts of your body literally ripping as a medical bag beneath you collects the pints of blood you lose so it can later be measured to ensure you didn’t lose a life-threatening amount.

So.

Labor and Delivery Nurse.

No. I wasn’t “fine.”

Words Matter

To all the health care professionals out there—labor and delivery nurses included—your words matter. They have weight. And what you say to your patient during their most vulnerable moments, when they are most frightened, confused, or in pain, makes an impact. It’s been almost 7 months since I gave birth to Callum and I can still remember that nurse clearly. I remember her casually looking at the peaking line on the monitor as my contractions crossed into unbearable pain, telling me I was fine.

Words matter.

newborn baby in the hospital

3 responses to “Compassion Fatigue in the Maternity Ward”

  1. Amen! We didn’t have epidurals when I gave birth to my 3 and I absolutely agree with every word you said. To be nonchalant when assisting with a birth is neglect! That nurse is guilty of neglect. I’m so sorry you did not have the compassionate, kind nurse you deserved. That everyone deserves. Thank you for sharing and I’m hoping this educates someone.

    • Thank you <3 My maternal grandma told me once that childbirth is painful, but God helps you forget that pain. Of course, she never ended up having another, so maybe she didn't forget too quickly, ha!

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