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Commentary : Whose Life Is This, Anyway?

February 14, 1988|MARCIDA DODSON | Marcida Dodson is a Times staff writer.

Healthy babies weren't my beat.

Babies with heart defects and lung ailments, infants born too soon and too tiny, newborns delivered by mothers after little or no prenatal care, even babies born in an amazing set of seven--those were the babies I wrote stories about as a medical reporter.

The birth of a healthy baby is always a joyous occasion but, thankfully, a common one. It's frequently a news event when an infant isn't born healthy and fights his way out of an incubator, when medicine is challenged and a tiny life is saved.

So when I learned I was pregnant, I knew what I wanted--an uneventful pregnancy and a non-newsworthy baby as I crossed over the journalistic wall and became a participant in the health care system I had been writing about.

My background gave me a head start in addressing the issues and options facing pregnant women today. What I was to find out, however, was that all the reading, all the questioning, all the breathing exercises in the world become meaningless when things don't go as expected, that I was to take my cues not from my "birth plan," but from a yet-unborn child.

I knew the odds were on my side to have a non-newsworthy baby. Still, my job kept my attention focused on the down side of those odds, and suddenly the stories I was writing became more personally heartbreaking.

While out on a story on the day after my pregnancy lab test came back positive--when only my husband and my doctor shared my secret--I saw a newborn baby die. And just a few days later I held in my arms a featherweight twin baby girl who--born 17 weeks prematurely and weighing 12 1/2 ounces at her smallest--had fought back against nearly overwhelming medical crises.

Any normal pregnant woman will admit to fears about the health of the baby she is carrying. The stories I was writing made me shudder. Actually, just about any medical story could make me shudder. I resolved that I would have a natural childbirth, as free from drugs and medical intervention as possible.

One night last summer I attended a session on Caesarean sections--a standard part of childbirth preparation classes--and a few hours later had nightmares full of violence and blood. The session was supposed to be informative and helpful to the expectant parents, but it cut through to the core of my anxieties.

About one out of four women giving birth will do so with the help of a scalpel. I knew that statistic from my beat. But it was more than a fear of needles and knives that made me want a natural, drug-free labor and delivery. I wanted it for my baby, so that he could get off to the best possible start.

And I also wanted it for myself. This was a long-desired pregnancy. I approached childbirth as I had approached so many of my assignments as a reporter, with a yearning to know what the experience was like. I wanted to enter the labor and delivery room with my senses keen.

And I felt I had a better-than-average chance. I had a plan.

I knew that there was a lot of controversy about Caesarean rates, that many of the surgeries were suspected of being unnecessary. So I thought that being an informed, alert patient who carefully selected her physician, and knew what to expect and what alternatives were available, was insurance against a Caesarean.

I left nothing to chance. I asked a friend who is active in a Caesarean prevention group to be my second labor coach, in addition to my husband. I took an independent childbirth class, one not associated with a hospital, to hear a more impartial perspective. I decided to learn the Bradley method of natural childbirth, largely because it has a higher percentage of unmedicated births. I gave my doctor a birth plan, outlining what I did and did not want during my labor and delivery. I was prepared.

But what I hadn't planned on was for things not to go as planned. A labor that wouldn't start and a fetal heartbeat that showed signs of distress were not in my plan. And that's when I discovered that all the preparation, personal knowledge and deep-held beliefs are irrelevant in the face of reality. A tiny, unborn baby who hadn't read my birth plan was dictating that I needed a Caesarean.

As a journalist, I am used to taking charge--deciding which stories to pursue, which people to interview and what to ask them. As a pregnant woman, I too had taken charge, keeping fit, eating properly, staying away from alcohol, caffeine and other substances that might hurt the baby, reading, studying, practicing my breathing exercises, preparing. And so it came as a rude awakening to realize that I had to hand over control of this ever-so-important event in my life to a tiny person whom I did not even yet know.

But what a fitting lesson I learned at the very outset of parenthood, one that will serve me well as I raise my child. We can plan only so much. We can dream, we can hope for our children. But we cannot control. We can teach and prepare. But from the time they leave the womb, they chart their own course.

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