Your Trauma Doesn’t Make You Stronger, You Already Had It In You: A Story of Unexpected Birth Trauma

Your Trauma Doesn’t Make You Stronger, You Already Had It In You: A Story of Unexpected Birth Trauma

I am one of the lucky ones. Prior to the birth of my first child, I had not experienced trauma in my life. I was born in a small rural town in Southwest Virginia, west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. My days as the youngest of seven children included attending my all white primary, middle, and high school – with a sprinkle of extra curricular activities mixed in. My mother was a coal miner, and my dad was, too. They worked hard, they were kind to me, and they treated me with love and respect. Being the youngest child provided me with a plethora of carefree experiences. I had a wonderful childhood. 

As I entered adulthood, my smooth trajectory continued. I attended a PWI, the University of Virginia, and once I got past the shock and awe of finally being around black people, I had an amazing time. College was the best time of my life. 

I met my now husband towards the end of my time as an undergrad, and we became boyfriend and girlfriend. We dated long distance – him in Virginia, and me, easing into the next carefree phase of life – beauty school. 

I graduated from college with no clear plan, so I decided to immediately attend a Cosmetology School in Charlotte, North Carolina. So, I packed up my things, and I moved. I enrolled, and earned my esthetician license… only to not use it. Then, I decided to go to graduate school and obtain my Master’s Degree in Education. I enrolled, moved back to Virginia to be with my fiancé (surprise! he proposed). I took classes, and graduated in 2014. 

We moved to Orlando, Florida in 2015. I got a job as a teacher, and my husband was working as a Civil Engineer. We got married, bought a townhouse, enjoyed each other, and traveled for 4 years. We decided that we were ready to start our family after I turned 30 in January of 2019, so I started tracking for ovulation. We tried for the first time in March of 2019, and we didn’t get pregnant. We tried again in April, and on May 19, 2019, I got a positive pregnancy test. 

I told you. I’m one of the lucky ones. 

9 Months of Magic

I enjoyed a textbook pregnancy. A healthy young woman with no prior health issues, every appointment was something out of a pregnancy how-to guide. I was gaining the appropriate amount of weight, not experiencing many side effects, and my blood pressure was normal. I had a beautiful baby shower, decorated an adorable nursery, and we bided our time for the arrival of our firstborn, a beautiful baby girl. 

A Very Monday Monday

Starting at around 36 weeks of pregnancy, weekly appointments ensue. On Monday, January 6 of 2020, I waddled into my appointment as expected. Once the doctor came into the exam room, she expressed to me that my blood pressure was slightly elevated, and she’d like me to go to the hospital to go to triage. A little perplexed, my obstetrician calmed my nerves and shared that it was just a formality at this many weeks of gestation. So, I called my husband, told him about the update, and went to the hospital all by myself. When I got to the hospital, the doctor on call was extremely relaxed, as were the nurses. I went on back; they hooked me up to the blood pressure machine, and tested my urine for protein – which can indicate potential preeclampsia. When the doctor came back in, he told me that I had a small amount of protein in my urine. In addition to blood pressure numbers that he wasn’t comfortable with, he diagnosed me with mild preeclampsia. His kind demeanor and relaxed personality put me at an unbelievable amount of ease. My daughter was due on February 1 – an entire three weeks later. He told me that the baby would be delivered within a week. I barely flinched… and said “ok.” His bedside manner was incredible, especially given what I was unknowingly about to go through.

Admitted and Optimistic

I was put on bed rest for the next three days. I was asked to go ahead and start my maternity leave, and get any last minute things ready for the arrival of the baby. So, we did. I called my mom to come on down, we put the car seat in the car, and packed our bags. I had an appointment with my regular OB on Thursday, and at the beginning of it she shared with us that if my numbers were adequate, she would perform my induction on the following Monday, January 13. 

Spoiler Alert: my numbers did not suffice. I was told to go to the hospital, and to be prepared to be admitted and induced. This time my husband Keith was with me, and together, went back to triage. Another doctor who I had seen in rotations greeted us, and she informed me that she would be starting my induction. 

The Induction

Due to the high level of protein and blood pressure numbers, I was immediately put on magnesium, which is a drug that prevents and treats seizures in women with preeclampsia. Magnesium is a drug that makes you feel as if you’ve been hit by a truck. I say that with 100% confidence, because I felt horrible not even 30 minutes into this experience. 

Due to the fact that I was only 36 weeks and 6 days pregnant with my first baby, I was not dilated at all. At this time, I was given cytotec to ripen my cervix. The cytotec was given to me every four hours. After four pills, I was less than 1-centimeter dilated. 

Twelve hours later, the doctor broke my water. Shortly after that, the contractions started to pick up. I was put on Pitocin. The Pitocin worked exactly as intended – because my contractions started to get intense. I asked for the epidural.

Sixteen hours later, the anesthesiologist team came into the room. I was in an extreme amount of pain, so I was happy to see them. They gave me the first epidural, and I could feel it begin to numb me. 

Twenty hours later, I began to get feeling in my left leg starting at my foot and creeping up. The next thing I knew, I could feel all of my contractions – with the intensified Pitocin. I started to feel so much pain that I could not sit still. I was watching the contractions go up and down on the screen while I felt every single one, now on my entire lower half – with broken waters, magnesium, Pitocin, and no pain medicine. I was in excruciating pain, all the while having frequent cervix checks. I asked for another epidural.

Twenty two hours later, the epidural team came back in to give me another epidural. I was rolling around on the bed, screaming out for relief. I was given a peanut ball, but it didn’t help. My fluid IV was entered incorrectly, so the IV ultrasound insertion team had to come in and re-do it. I had been poked, prodded and drugged up so much that I could barely think straight. I was given more magnesium because my blood pressure was increasing, and then I was given the second epidural. 

Thirty hours later, I woke up from finally falling asleep. Unfortunately, I was woken up by pain. You guessed it – the epidural had worn off for the second time. I was still receiving bags and bags of Pitocin, so as the second epidural wore off, I was screaming in pain from contractions. My husband went outside to the triage nurse and demanded the team come back in. I remember them coming back in, though my vision was blurry. I remember them saying, “look at her, she’s miserable, no wonder her blood pressure is so high.” I was crying and gasping for air through pain that I didn’t even know was possible. 

About thirty-three hours later, the doctor on call came in. With the brashest bedside manner, she recommended a cesarean. I felt relieved and overwhelmed at the same time. Honestly, I was at peace with the decision to have the surgery. I knew plenty of women who had gone through C-sections, and barring a few minor issues, they had a very routine experience. 

The Surgery

Thirty-six hours later, I had signed all of the consent papers through the pain, and they had me prepped for the OR in what felt like record time. I was exhausted, groggy, and anxious.  I felt so high from all of the drugs that were given to me, I could barely see. Once I got on the table in the OR, bent over like a “shrimp,” in went the spinal block. It was instant – relief. 

I was laid down and my arms were placed in restraints. My husband came in, and they started the numbing check process. When they do the numbing check, there are a series of questions they ask you. The medicine was working – but it was working too well. 

I was numb from the tip of my toes – to the tip of my lip. I could not feel anything, including my own breathing. I could not feel my chest compressing up and down. I was gasping for what felt like sips of air. I was horrified. I started telling them, “I can’t breathe,” and the team kept saying to me “Katrice, we are watching you breathe, you are breathing fine.” I repeated to them, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” in between breaths. I repeated that, all the while feeling like I had been high on the strongest drugs for days and days. I finally gave up. I was looking at several bright white lights above me. I had a moment where I thought to myself, the white light is the sign… my baby will make it, I will not. As those thoughts entered my mind, I heard our baby girl cry. It was 10:15 pm on Friday night. My husband started to cry, and they told him she was healthy. He held her first. He came over to me while they cleaned her up and through his tears he told me, “Baby, she looks just like you!” Those were the last words I heard. I closed my eyes and went to sleep. I wasn’t sure if I would wake up. They brought my daughter over and we took a couple of photos. In the photos you can see my glazed eyes. I was completely incoherent.

I woke up in recovery, to a nurse encouraging me to latch Berkeley. I was still experiencing high blood pressure, so, I was told that I would be going back down to the labor and delivery floor to be put back on magnesium. I felt defeated. 

I spent the entire Saturday on the Labor & Delivery floor on magnesium. They allowed my mom to come in and the baby, too. Every time the nurses would come in, I would have such hope in my eyes, “Has it lowered yet? Has it lowered yet?” They would respond sweetly, “not yet!” 

Finally, late Saturday night, after lots of rest and blood pressure medication, my numbers got low enough to be able to move back up to the recovery floor. I was elated! The lactation consultants came in to help, they brought me yummy Jello and popsicles, and soon enough, I was well enough to eat a real meal. 

On Sunday, we learned how to nurse, watched my numbers, and got some sleep. On Monday, we were discharged, and we went home as a family of three.

My Trauma Response

I did not have the opportunity to respond to this traumatic event because two months later, when I was finally healed, the pandemic started. My daughter had GERD, and I had postpartum depression. Sadly, I had to put my birth trauma on the backburner… for a long time.  

This traumatic birth story shaped me in ways that I was not prepared for. It made a woman like me grow as a person, and I came back stronger. Once I was able to grapple with my birth trauma and begin sharing the story to friends without my voice trembling, I knew that I was tapping into parts of myself that had been suppressed. Once I was able to speak about my experience with conviction, not doubt, I knew that I was starting to overcome most of the negative self-talk that had previously consumed me. The moment I was able to look at my daughter without feeling shame and that I had missed out on this picture perfect birth experience, I was able to breathe life back into myself. Little by little, I started to feel confident in what I had overcome. My confidence turned to pride. My pride gave me the power to look at myself through a different lens. The new lens from which I was viewing myself was a clearer, less foggy one. If I’m honest, I replayed the experience over and over, but eventually the replay did not bring anguish or even despair. The replay began to bring a feeling of resilience, and a feeling of relief. Not to be cliche, but I had made it through the storm. I began to think about my birth story and think, “I appreciate the blessing that is my daughter, but I am not my birth story.” I was able to switch to a new obstetrician. When I went into her office for the first time, I broke down in tears - because she validated what had happened to me. She shared with me her own birth experience, and how it was not ideal. I couldn’t even believe that I was in a place to receive it, but ironically, it was right on time. We talked for a very long time. I shared with her my desire to have another baby. She shared her story and the differences between her first birth and her second. Then, it clicked. By simply sharing her experiences with me, she was lifting me up. I was finally able to understand that I am able to make this a chapter, if that’s what I wish to do. This does not have to be the entire book.

15 months later, we had another baby, a beautiful baby girl, Alexandria Grace. 6 pounds and 11 ounces of squish, born via scheduled c-section in a calm operating room with John Coltrane playing in the background. It was a complete 360 from my first delivery. It was beautiful.

However, I want to be clear about something – the trauma did not make me stronger. 

The strength was already in me. Resilience is a measure of how well adjusted patients are than their peers after experiencing trauma. A discovery that I made along this journey is that I didn’t benefit from this experience. I regressed from it. I suppressed it to manage other pertinent life obstacles. I was numb. I spent a lot of time with a wounded belief system that predicts the future based on the past. 

Through therapy, time, and practical action steps, I’ve been able to process my thoughts around this experience and put the thoughts into words. My unexpected trauma deserves to be not only recognized, but also shared. The medical aspect of my story is another one, full of convolution and complexity. I cannot possibly take that on as well if I am going to continue healing.

As it relates to my healing journey, I want to share some final thoughts. During the time of stay at home orders, I found vigor that I didn’t know I had to be with my own thoughts. In that time, I did not have the excuse of constant busyness to distract me from my goal. My trauma rewired my brain to protect me. It was so hard for me to exit from survival mode, but the reality is that my brain was doing what it was supposed to do. I am better now. I am healing. I am stronger – but not because of my trauma. My trauma did not make me stronger. Your trauma does not make you stronger.

The strength was already in you.

You are one of the lucky ones.

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