The saying goes that giving birth is the closest thing to death; yet, when the joy of motherhood washes over new moms, the reality of their birthing experiences are often lost. We also know that for many Black women, the possibility of death is far too real as a result of medical racism and longstanding discrimination that puts women of color at an exceptionally high risk of complications when giving birth. To shed light on these experiences and how Black mothers have handled them, we’re sharing these stories in a column called “What They Don’t Tell You About Giving Birth.”
You know how whenever you get ready to take a new medication or undergo a medical procedure doctors always tell you there’s a small percentage of people who ever experience extreme side effects? When you hear things like that you automatically assume you won’t fall into that small group. That was my thinking when it came to getting an epidural. I was on the fence about anyway, but I got a rude awakening after my anesthesiologist hit a nerve in my spine twice.
Let’s take it back to August 9, 2016, the day I gave birth. I was in labor and didn’t know it. Everyone experiences contractions differently and I thought the discomfort I was experiencing was typical third-trimester discomfort. Plus, my due date wasn’t for another 2.5 weeks and I just knew my daughter would come late. That was not the case. I have a high threshold for pain, but I didn’t realize just how high it was until giving birth. I had what I thought was a standard appointment that day because by the time you’re in your final trimester you usually have to see your OB/GYN once a week. When I told my doctor I was experiencing a lot of pressure, she checked my cervix and told me that I was almost completely effaced and about 5 cm or 6 cm dilated; in other words, in active labor.
I checked myself into the hospital that afternoon and even the triage nurses were stunned by the fact that I was walking and talking comfortably(ish) at 5 cm or 6 cm dilated. I point that out to illustrate how smooth my day of birth had been going for the most part. It wasn’t playing out with the chaos that I had imagined. I didn’t have a dramatic water breaking situation or anything like that, but that all changed when I got my epidural.
The epidural is a series of three shots in your spine, and while it comes with benefits in terms of easing labor pain, it can come with side effects. My anesthesiologist ran down the most common ones like itchy skin, feeling sick, headache, loss of bladder control, and the fact that it might not work at all. I told myself none of that would happen to me. I got the first shot and it was fine. I got the second shot and the pain I felt was worse than my contractions. The pain felt like I got struck by lightning and it shot down from the center of my spine all the way to my feet. I felt it most on my left side, particularly a spot on my left butt cheek. I jumped and screamed and from the looks on my husband and the anesthesiologist’s faces, that was not normal. Mind you, you’re supposed to sit still during an epidural so that wasn’t good. The anesthesiologist asked if I was okay and proceeded to administer the final shot. The same lightning strike happened. I asked what the heck had just happened and she told me that another side affects is that “Sometimes people’s nerves get lit up.” I knew that didn’t sound right so I was really just looking like:
I also wasn’t in my right mind because labor takes you to another space mentally. That’s why it’s always important to have someone else there with you. The anesthesiologist was super nonchalant about my reaction, but I think that was because she didn’t want to show how nervous she actually was. The next day I noticed a spot on my left buttcheek, the one that got “lit up” during the epidural, was still painful to touch. She checked on me and so did my OB/GYN and when I mentioned that that spot still hurt they both told me that it was just soreness from having my legs up while pushing and that it would go away.
I’m 2.5 years postpartum and that spot still hurts; if I touch it there’s nerve pain. While the rest of my labor went well besides that, I already decided if I ever have another baby I’m going au naturale — that’s how scary my epidural experience was. I’m not saying this to scare you (and I’m sorry if I am) because everyone’s experience is different, but it’s important to know that getting an epidural is a big deal, even if doctors try to downplay it. I went back and forth about whether I should do a natural birth or not and settled on the epidural out of fear and still regret the decision. Ultimately, you will have to do what’s best for you but I know I should have gone with my first mind when it came to the type of birth I wanted. If there is a next time, I definitely will.