Many years ago, I got a call from a woman who was on her way to Boston in labor. She was from Maine but was coming to Boston as her two year old had been diagnosed with cancer that very day – he had a fast growing kind, and she was told by the doctor in Maine that she had to get him to Boston right away, it was critical and they needed to start chemotherapy immediately. Angela and her husband drove to Boston in labor. There were no cell phones in those days, and so once she arrived here she used a pay phone to call me. Someone in Maine had given her my name and said I could help her find a VBAC friendly doctor and possibly be the labor support at the birth. My father in law had just died, and I was leaving a few hours later to be with family, but I called a wonderful doctor I knew who agreed to help her in any way he could, and I agreed to meet her and be her labor support until someone else could get there. I got another call that Angela’s car wasn’t working and since her labor was becoming more active, the hospital where her son was receiving his first round of chemotherapy was going to get an ambulance for her and she was going to be taken to the hospital where the doctor I had called would be meeting her. I left my house immediately and met her for the first time as she was getting into the ambulance.
Angela remained in Boston after the baby was born and lived at the Ronald MacDonald house for 14 months. Her son Brian continued to worsen, and faced different kinds of treatment every day. When he died, he had just turned three. Her other son had never seen their home in Maine – he had lived at the RD house across from the hospital his whole life.
When Brian died, the doctors asked permission to do an autopsy on him. They said it might help them understand the type of cancer he had and this could possibly help another child. Angela agreed to the autopsy, as long as she could be there. She wanted to make certain that the doctors who were performing it treated his body with respect.
The doctors refused. They said no parent could handle “this kind of a thing” and that for all sorts of reasons they could not allow it. And so Angela refused to let them do the autopsy. The doctors at this teaching hospital were so desperate for the information, though, that they actually agreed. Not only was Angela present when they performed the autopsy, but she was the one to lovingly place her son’s body in the bag and she was the one to zip it closed, after she said her final goodbye.
Years later, I asked her how she could possibly have done what she did. It seemed to me that it was hard enough to have to watch her son, day by day, in terrible physical pain as he succumbed to the cancer. I’ve never forgotten her reply: “I had a cesarean with him. I was put out. I was cut open. I was not there to welcome him into the world, didn’t see him for several days. I was bound and determined to be with him the entire time he was in the hospital, and to be there for him NO MATTER WHAT. By hook or by crook, I was going to be there to watch over him, to make sure they were doing what they had to do with utmost respect for every part of his body. I wanted to keep him as safe as I could be, under the circumstances. I wasn’t the first person to greet him or touch him but I was going to be the last.”
Angela’s determination, strength and resolve blows me out of the water every time I think about it. To this day, I can’t think about this without crying. Not one of us should ever have to endure what she did. She said that her two cesareans taught her a number of things (one of those being that she didn’t ever want to be cut open again; she’d had another section with her second – imagine trying to relax when you have just dropped your firstborn off at a different hospital to begin chemotherapy without you…) and that her ability to stay with Brian and to remain strong for him was born the day her body was incised and he was surgically removed from her.
Several years later, Angela came back to Boston and had a VBA2C – what a joy to be with her for that birth!!