Coke, Castor Oil & COVID
Kelsey Erin Shipman
The last time I drank a Coke with as much gravity as I did on the day I finally brought my daughter into this world, I was wandering through a small village in West Africa after our tro tro broke down halfway to Winneba. Escaping that rickety, cramped van was a relief after three hours of off-key singing by the blind preacher next to me.
It was an achingly hot Ghanaian afternoon and there were no cars on the road. The tro tro driver pumped a sachet of water into his mouth, turned up the bouncy highlife music on the radio, and squatted on an upturned bucket. It was going to be a while.
I started down an empty road framed by arcing banana trees and sugarcane. A few lonely goats bayed from the opposite side of the road and continued munching their way through a pile of trash. After a few minutes of aimless walking, I heard a woman bellow through an open door.
The one-room wooden shack was packed with plantain chips, Laughing Cow foil-wrapped cheese, and endless bottles of soda. A silent girl of around 12 years old stood in front of the raging woman who was berating her in Twi. Finally, with a dramatic suck of her teeth and the wave of a dismissive hand, the young girl scurried out the door.
A small fridge, powered by a generator somewhere in the bush out back, held rows of glass bottles. I handed the woman a few hundred cedis and she flipped the cap off a crystal-clear one filled with bubbly brown liquid. The sugar, caffeine, and cold rushed down my throat. My shoulders relaxed. My mind awakened. The sweat, the leg cramps, and the anxiety of what might happen over the next few hours evaporated. I let go.
The same way I would seventeen years later in my little duplex in Austin, Texas. I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d had a Coke except that miserably hot day in Ghana, when I was 19 years old and couldn’t have imagined being married, accidentally getting pregnant or lying on my bathroom floor after a 27-hour home birth.
The placenta wasn’t coming. The baby had, but five days late, and only after two dozen different versions of a squat: one-legged, two-legged, seated. In the pool, above the toilet, on the birthstool. Pulling on a rope, a TRX band, my husband’s hand. She finally squeezed her head out in our bed, with me on my back and my legs in the air.
It was 6 p.m., two and a half days since I’d first awoken in the middle of the night with an annoying twinge just below my belly button. It wrapped around my lower abdomen and squeezed the muscles just above my glutes. My husband slept. My chihuahua clicked around the house. I wiped away blood and filled the bathtub.
I lost hope at the 22-hour mark while crouching in the birth pool, staring at my husband and imagining the relief of an epidural.
I’d already vomited in the kitchen sink, in the bathroom trash can, in a bowl in my husband’s arms. After two nauseating doses of castor oil I’d shat all over the house — sometimes on a waterproof pad, sometimes not. I’d been given an IV while lying in my bed. I’d screamed and moaned; I’d gritted my teeth and talked to my baby. Shouted, really. Told her to get out. Get out now.
The midwife said the hospital was full, and that when they did reopen to maternity patients it would take at least three hours to get a room and complete the paperwork. Another hour for an epidural.
Armed with this fresh information and a sudden sense of urgency, my uterus burst into three body-shaking contractions. As I wailed, my husband shoved granola and sweatpants into a duffel bag and the midwife prepared to pack up her car. But first, she said, she wanted to check my progress one more time.
I sat on the birth stool. She put on her headlamp. Four women leaned over and looked up into my vagina. My husband sat behind them. He’d already seen it.
“You’ve made huge progress, Kelsey,” the midwife said. “I think you can do this here.”
I was terrified to get into a car anyway, lest I shit, vomit, and scream all the way up I-35 to Central Austin. How many contractions would I have to endure next to how many dozens of hacking COVID-19 patients? While arguing with my husband about the date of conception over a mound of paperwork? While fighting the breeze in a scratchy hospital gown waiting, praying, for the anesthesiologist?
So my husband and I walked vigorously back and forth through our two-bedroom duplex. I held my breath and counted to ten. I yelled at the baby again. I squatted over the toilet.
And I drank a Coke.
Pregnancy was the hardest thing I’d ever done. I comforted myself by remembering the second-hardest thing: studying abroad at 19. I’d never left the country before. I’d hardly left Texas. That first semester in Accra was punctuated with a similar physical and emotional turbulence. Traveler’s diarrhea. Poetry. Homesickness. Love. Malaria. And that one blessed Coke.
The midwife’s assistant dumped half a dozen tiny white homeopathic pills into my mouth. She emptied an eyedropper of herbal tincture under my tongue. Twice. Three times. The midwife said, “I’d hate to take you to the hospital for a delayed placenta.” My uterus agreed. It contracted fiercely and released the jelly-like organ. I passed out.
Apparently, they gave me two bottles of oxygen. Apparently, they dragged me down the hallway on the bathroom rug. Apparently, I fainted again when my husband lifted me onto the bed. Apparently, I’d had an allergic reaction to the castor oil and my perineum was covered with dime-sized blisters. Apparently, the midwife had torn the tissue with her fingers to help the baby over my pubic bone and out of the birth canal. And I was bleeding. A lot.
All I remember is that Coke. A slight cough as the effervescence touched my tongue. The tickle of the fizzy liquid cascading through my mouth and scratching its way down my esophagus. The kinetic kick in my veins. The sweet syrup washing away the taste of vomit.
Afterwards, the moments bob in and out of focus. My baby crying on the bed next to me. Someone massaging my nipple to stimulate the release of colostrum. My husband singing Billy Joel. A shot in my hip. The words shock, ambulance, EMS.
Finally, after an hour and a half floating in and out of consciousness, I opened my eyes to a dim room. It was quiet, empty except for our doula sitting at my side. She was looking directly into my eyes as I blinked and asked weakly, “Where’s the baby?”
Later I found out the midwife was minutes away from calling an ambulance. Asking for the baby signaled to everyone that I was OK. That I would retain consciousness. That, as the midwife put it, I’d “walked through that dark tunnel of courage” that was my birth as a mother.
The next few days moved in the common newborn blur of feeding, diapering, bouncing, sleeping. Motherhood had come with six stitches, a bruised bladder, postpartum hemorrhage, incontinence, jaundice, anemia. My husband was the only thing keeping us going; he diapered the baby, fed the dog, warmed up food, helped me to the bathroom.
For the next two weeks, I hunched over my wounded body and held onto my husband’s hips while he, carrying the baby, guided me slowly to the bathroom. I usually peed on the floor along the way. My dog peered through the door with a deep look of concern. He’d curl up in front of the bathtub while my husband helped me shower. He’d plant himself on the bed as my husband pulled a dress over my head. He’d sit anxiously between my legs while my husband stuffed a frozen pad inside an adult diaper.
We’d hired a postpartum doula team to come every night for the first two weeks. I found out much later that they were horrified at my state. That they had long discussions about what to do about my health, how to convince me to go to the doctor and to keep taking Advil despite the midwife’s suggestion to wean off of it.
Perhaps it was the grayish look of my skin that fueled their concern. Or when I awoke in the middle of the night crying uncontrollably because the anti-inflammatories had worn off. Or my slow, slumped shuffle to the bathroom. Perhaps it was my inability to stand in the shower. Or eat sitting up. Or hold my baby.
The first time I met the doulas, I was completely naked, covered in milk and smelling of urine. I envied the ease with which they cradled my baby in one arm. How they instinctively soothed her crying and effortlessly changed her diaper.
My husband used their arrival to suggest a shower. He soaped me up and held me as my knees buckled. He combed the giant dreadlock out of my hair.
As dreary as those first few days were, I don’t want to imagine the dark cloud of postpartum depression that would have descended without these doulas. They filled my peri bottle while I moaned on the toilet. They made me breakfast. Arranged my pillows. Told me I was doing a good job. That the pain was temporary. That this would be over soon.
And then we got COVID.
The baby was two weeks old when I woke in the middle of the night to a scratchy throat. She whined, then wailed. I gave her my breast while my body shook from fever. For five excruciating minutes she struggled to latch. I trembled and cried.
When COVID crept into our house through a well-intentioned Tupperware or socially distanced visit on the front porch, I panicked. The doulas could no longer come to our home. No one could. My husband and I were on our own with a series of questions:
Should we test the baby? Should we wear masks when holding her? Can our dog get COVID from us? Should we isolate from each other? Should we go to the doctor? How long will this last?
While COVID shredded my husband’s throat and made his head pound, I passed clots the size of tennis balls. I dreamed my lungs were falling out between my legs. Every time I breastfed the baby screamed until she shook. Things were definitely not OK.
Two and a half weeks after giving birth, I drove myself to the emergency room. They took my blood, gave me an IV, and did an ultrasound. I slept uninterrupted for two glorious hours. The midwife dropped off donor milk. My husband gave our daughter a bottle for the first time. My breasts engorged. My pelvis ached and ached and ached.
Back home, I took herbs. Filled prescriptions. Peed on myself. Leaked milk all over the bed, the baby, the sofa. Ordered nipple shields, nipple guards, nipple cream, nipple gels. I spent more money on my breasts than on any Christmas gift to date. Breast masks, breast massagers, breast warmers, breast pads.
I cried from the sharp, shooting pains of thrush in my nipples. From the deep ache of Raynaud’s Disease in my breasts. From the panic in my baby’s body during breastfeeding as she struggled to breathe through her tiny nostrils. A lactation consultant would later send me a research article linking abnormally small nasal passages to extended vaginal births. I questioned every decision I’d made since finding out I was pregnant.
The baby pooped black. Green. Yellow. Orange. She wailed. Leaked yellow goop from her eyes. Continued struggling to breathe and nurse at the same time. Peed on me, on the bed, on my husband, on her socks. Coughed. Sneezed. Cried. Cried a lot.
My birth story tends to horrify people, even the doulas and lactation consultants, even the members of the parent organizations and mom’s groups I joined. Most respond with awkward silence and sympathetic shakes of the head. Some respond with judgment. A lot of people raised eyebrows at the mention of a home birth; others shuddered at the thought of a hospital during COVID. I’ve heard, again and again, that this is the worst birth story, the worst postpartum story, they’ve ever heard.
Of course, it could’ve been worse. Throughout all of this, my baby was mostly fine. No NICU. No oxygen therapy. No seizures. No birth defects. No surgeries. No question as to whether or not she would survive.
When I passed through the airport security gates at 19 years old, my mother cried. Plagued by visions of kidnappings, deadly diseases, and dangerous bush animals, she honestly thought I would never come back from West Africa. Of course, it was far less precarious than she imagined. I lived in an international student hostel at the university. I attended classes on history and creative writing. I saw a few baboons but was far more worried by the malaria-infected mosquitoes breeding in the communal showers.
Three months after giving birth, my OBGYN called me a survivor. Not the baby, she was never really in jeopardy. It was me. I was precariously close to death, much closer than I’d ever been in my life. “I’m so glad you survived,” she said again and again through a stunned expression. “You are a survivor, Kelsey.” In another time, with another midwife, I may not have been.
So, I wiped away my tears. I hugged the doctor. I booked my next appointment. And I cracked open a Coke on the way home.
Kelsey Erin Shipman is a writer, educator and performer. She earned her MFA at Texas State University and is the founder of The Freehand Arts Project, a non-profit that brings creative writing classes to Texas jails and prisons. Her work has been published in The African American Review, The Dillydoun Review and Reunion: The Dallas Review. She served as the 2013-2014 Writer-In-Residence at the Katherine Anne Porter Literary Center and was the recipient of the 2007 San Jacinto & Althean Literary Societies’ Grand Prize in Poetry. A native Texan, she loves big dogs and breakfast tacos. More at kelseyshipman.com.
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Coke, Castrol Oil and COVID – Kelsey Shipman tells shares details about her harrowing birth journey.
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