The Unkindest Cut: Countdown to a C-Section


... “Usually I start off by telling people my C-section started even before I got to the hospital ...

... Sharp Mary Birch Hospital for Women and Newborns had the highest rate of cesarean section deliveries in San Diego County in 2009. The California average was 29.8 per 100 births; at Sharp Mary Birch, the rate was 37.7.

... At 40 weeks ... Cooper-Schultz’s water broke, though she was not in labor. In a birthing class ... they told her, we have to get the baby out within 24 hours. So she and her husband went to the hospital right away.

“They pretty much wanted to put me on Pitocin the minute I walked in the door because I wasn’t having regular contractions,” ...

... women believe their C-section deliveries at Mary Birch were the result of convenience for the doctors, fear of litigation, and/or lack of staff training in nonmedicated childbirth options.

... It is common for hospitals to use Pitocin if a woman has not gone into active labor within 24 hours after her water has broken to avoid the risk of infection. But the staff at Mary Birch wanted to give Cooper-Schultz Pitocin within the first two hours.

Cooper-Schultz refused the Pitocin at first. She wanted to get things going naturally ... At the 12-hour mark, her cervix had dilated to four centimeters. She says she now understands that this “is a good natural labor progression for a first-time mom.”

But it wasn’t fast enough for the staff at Mary Birch. Cooper-Schultz ... allowed them to give her the Pitocin that she says they’d been pushing since she’d arrived.

... “They weren’t honest with me. They didn’t say, ‘If you get the Pitocin, you’re probably going to need an epidural.’”

... Cooper-Schultz withstood the pain of Pitocin contractions for eight hours before she finally gave in and got an epidural ... The epidural worked on only her left half.

At one point, the doctor came in to check on her and alerted the nurses that she was going home to take her kids to school. Sometime later, she returned with wet hair, checked Cooper-Schultz, found her at nine centimeters, and told her to try pushing.

“I pushed, and [the baby’s] heart rate went down ... she said she’s worried about it. She said, ‘He’s not in distress, but he’s a little bit stressed.’”

The doctor told Cooper-Schultz it would go one of three ways. In the first scenario, Cooper-Schultz would push for 20 or so minutes and the baby would come out. In the second, she could push for 20 or so minutes, the baby would not come out, and they’d have to do an emergency cesarean section. Or, the doctor said, they could do a cesarean section right now.

Cooper-Schultz chose the cesarean. ... ∗ ∗ ∗

Helen ... welcomes me into her North Park apartment shortly after the dinner hour on a Tuesday evening in mid-September. She tells me she’s an unlikely candidate for natural childbirth.

“I’m like Woody Allen,” she says. “I am a New Yorker who likes living in the city, who likes creature comforts. And for somebody like me to be embracing [natural childbirth] is humongous.”

... Dover’s story is similar to Cooper-Schultz’s in that it begins with a desire to give birth naturally ... and ends in what she considers an unnecessary C-section. One difference is that when Dover started out, she did know she might have to fight for what she wanted ... She stayed home and labored for 10 to 12 hours before she went to the hospital, avoiding “the clock” for as long as she could.

When she arrived, armed with her research and her hopes for a natural birth, she found that the environment at Mary Birch had a greater impact on her than she’d imagined it would.

... The progression she’d experienced at home, from two centimeters to four, slowed drastically when she arrived at the hospital. A doctor told her that it might help if he broke her water. So she allowed it. But nothing happened ...

... Dover lists her regrets: Not waiting and laboring longer at home. Allowing the Pitocin at 12 hours. Giving in to the epidural after 8 more hours. But the regrets go as far back as her pregnancy, when she chose to stay with Sharp.

“I should’ve just switched ... “In order for me to switch to Scripps and go to one of the birth rooms at Scripps, which has a much better record, would have meant changing everything: changing my primary care physician, changing my OBG. I would’ve had to totally change my insurance policy. And at the time, I already had a pediatrician picked out for her and everything. We’d interviewed, and just the idea of doing all of that was overwhelming. I thought I didn’t have the strength to do it.”

... “[The doctor] said, ‘You need a C-section,’” she says. “I said, ‘I don’t understand why I need a C-section. Everything seems to be fine. Her heart rate’s not dropping.’ And he said, ‘Well, she’s stuck.’”

“... I was totally against using the suction, but anything besides the total hands-off. He said, ‘I don’t want to hurt your baby, and you don’t want to hurt your baby.’ I started crying. And I just finally said, ‘Fine. Cut me open.’” ...

∗ ∗ ∗

The obstetrician a woman chooses plays as large a role in her birth experience as the place she chooses to deliver her baby. Some doctors have a reputation for being more inclined to help with a natural birth, and others for being less inclined ...

Thompson cites the “bait and switch,” where a doctor claims to support a woman’s birth choices up until the final weeks, when it’s too late to change doctors. Messer says she’s seen doctors who’ve initially said they’d support the hypnobirthing process but later changed their minds.

“All of a sudden it’s, ‘That’s not going to work. No, you can’t be on your hands and knees. That’s not safe, and this isn’t,’” Messer says. “And that’s at 40 weeks. So now, where can I switch?”

... Christine Stewart, a petite redhead and mother of twin girls born at Mary Birch in September 2009, says she experienced something similar with her doctor.

... “... we took a Bradley Method childbirth class,” Stewart says, “which is a 12-week class, pretty in-depth, and we decided we wanted to do natural, unmedicated labor.”

When she first mentioned this to her doctor, Stewart says the doctor told her to “keep an open mind” and not to “fixate on any particular way of labor and delivery.” At the time, Stewart thought the doctor didn’t want her to be disappointed if natural birth didn’t work out, but now she speculates that the doctor was always leaning toward a C-section.

At 36 weeks, the doctor suggested they induce her at 38 weeks. Stewart refused.

“From what I can tell,” she says, “it’s just common that it’s more manageable to have twins at 38 weeks because of size. Sometimes they’re concerned about size. But [my girls] were normal-sized.”

The doctor suggested 39 weeks, then 40. Finally, Stewart agreed to induce at 41 weeks if she hadn’t gone into labor by then. But it was unnecessary. At 40 weeks, three days short of her original due date, Stewart went into labor.

Stewart chose Mary Birch because it had everything she was looking for. Originally, she’d wanted to deliver at Best Start Birth Center in Hillcrest, but they don’t accept women who are pregnant with twins. Mary Birch, she says, seemed like the next best thing.

“It had the facilities, doctors on hand, and all these different classes — prenatal yoga — and since I was diagnosed high-risk because I had the twins and since I was over 35,” she says, “I just thought their whole entire focus is for women and newborns, so I’ll probably get the best care because they’ve got all the resources for that.”

Stewart had heard about other women going into the hospital prematurely and getting “strapped down” immediately. But in her natural childbirth class she’d learned that mobility helps with labor. So she and her husband didn’t go in right away.

Once they did arrive at the hospital, Stewart was four centimeters dilated. She gave the nursing staff her birth plan, which stated that she did not want any mention of pain medication.

“Thankfully, they did not offer medication. They were respectful of that ... I was slowly dilating in a normal time frame. They were telling me that was normal ...

... Christine Stewart believes that the main reason she ended up having a C-section was that her nurses had no training in natural childbirth.

“Ultimately, the outcome was because there was no one in the labor room who had the experience to help get the babies in position to be delivered,” she says.

By the time the doctor arrived, Stewart was fully dilated. She knew her babies were healthy, that they were both head down, in a good position, face forward. Her blood pressure was not elevated, she had no fever, and she’d been in labor for less than 24 hours. Everything was normal except that the babies were wedged in, each trying to get out first.

... At 2:00 a.m., the doctor came in and said, “It’s time to meet your girls.”

... I kind of resigned myself, like, ‘If this is what we have to do, this is what we have to do.’ I felt like crying because it just went against everything I had hoped for, everything I had planned and practiced for.”

“I think the hospital has some standard protocols, and I think that if you don’t follow their standard protocols, they just don’t know what to do with you,” she says. “And a C-section is manageable. They know exactly how to do it, and I think at 2:30 in the morning it’s, ‘We can manage this, and then we can all go home.’”

∗ ∗ ∗

Last March, when her first son was two and a half years old, Elizabeth Cooper-Schultz had her second child in the back bedroom of her UTC apartment, in the company of her husband, her midwife, two apprentice midwives, and a doula.

Today, Helen Dover is pregnant again. When I ask if she plans to give birth at Mary Birch, she and Henry simultaneously answer, “No.”

“What I’ve learned is that at Mary Birch, everybody’s going to try to get you to do the birth that they want you to do,” Dover explains.

For their next baby, the Dovers will stay with Sharp in order to take advantage of the tests, which would cost them thousands of dollars out-of-pocket. They will also register at Mary Birch so that they are prepared in the event of an emergency. But they have hired a midwife to help them birth at home.

“We’re going just to get what doctors are good for,” Henry says, “and then to use the midwives for what they’re good for.”....

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