The Cactus Project was started by Laura in 2022 as a way to process her own traumatic birth while also empowering others who have experienced a traumatic birth. The project is a combination of collected stories and portraits which bring to light the silent struggle many women face following a traumatic birth.
Native American cultures believe that the cactus represents warmth, protection, and motherly love. Because cacti plants can survive in harsh conditions, they've become a symbol of unconditional, maternal love.
It’s been almost four years since Baby E and I wavered between life and death in a cold operating room. Giving birth under any circumstances is life altering and things will never be the same afterwards. The changes to a woman’s body are emotionally and physically monumental. If you are blessed enough to go home with your baby, you are expected to take care of another living thing who is completely dependent on your body, while simultaneously having to heal your body from an exhausting experience.
When I walked into our planned csection I was very anxious. My first birth experience was a long natural 30 plus hours of labor resulting in an emergency csection. This time it seemed it would be more controlled. Unfortunately due to the baby being transverse and very high (under my ribs practically) and the attending OB and midwife unaware of the baby’s position until surgery had started, there were complications during the surgery. While they wrestled to get her out, the OB extended my incision, cutting a branch of my uterine artery that caused me to lose nearly a third of my blood. Very quickly. Meanwhile, as an emergency doctor came in, the OB used a vacuum to get the baby out, who had a very tight nuchal cord twice around her neck. She was limp, blue, and unresponsive. Her apgar score was 3 as my husband stood by her in the NICU reassuring her and talking to her, trying to convince her to stay here as she teetered between eternal sleep and new life. Alone in the operating room, I began to pass out, unaware of what had gone wrong.
In the end, we both survived. I got a blood transfusion that saved my life, and our little miracle baby fought her way into this life like a warrior. The trauma of the birth didn’t stop there however. The way that I was treated in the hospital by a number of medical professionals added to the trauma of the birth. The OB in the operating room spoke to a nurse saying “I don’t know how I’m going to get out of here, the blood soaked through my shoes” then didn’t acknowledge me or look in my direction while she held the door open for the nurses to push me out of the room. Later on in the hospital room, the same OB switched the conversation numerous times away from her accidental cut of my blood vessels, to asking why I was anxious about a post partem hemorrhage and suggesting we talk about my anxiety. Place blaming and making me feel like there was something wrong with me. One of the nurses chastised me for being alone as my husband was home in the morning to get some rest. She told me with no uncertain terms that while I was getting the blood transfusion he would need to be here because “she would not be available to help with the baby”. She also refused to help change the baby’s first dirty diaper because “dad needs to learn how”. Being my husband’s fourth baby, he had no problem changing a diaper, however we were dealing with a small 6 pound baby with bilateral club feet that turned so far upward he was terrified of hurting her. When I was sobbing about the birth and saying "this is so hard", that same nurse said "oh because of her feet?" I didn't have it in me to challenge her and say 'no, because I can not walk ten feet without passing out and having to sit in a wheelchair. Because my back was so itchy from being covered in blood, the nurses came to sponge bathe me while I was still bed ridden. Because every time I felt myself bleed post birth, I was convinced I was hemorrhaging. Because the lab tech came to check my blood while another tech was in the room, so forgot to come back until a day later when my hemoglobin dropped to a very dangerous level 6 post birth. No this isn't hard because of my daughter's beautifully crooked feet.'
Perhaps the most hurtful thing from all of it though, was that not one midwife came to follow up with me while I laid in that hospital room for five days. Not to mention, the attending midwife left the operating room 20 minutes before the end of the surgery. Every time the door opened I was waiting for a midwife from my practice that I had been a part of for over 3 years. Like family, I had seen them all... and gone through labor with them now twice. This time with terrifying complications. The attending midwife was the same midwife who spent time on the phone with me as a new mom to my one week old first daughter struggling with mastitis, while snowed in from a snow storm. She spoke with me for almost an hour a year earlier while I was experiencing an early miscarriage, and I sobbed asking her if there was any chance of a viable pregnancy. And this same midwife introduced herself to me prior to the surgery as if we had never met, and left early. Then for five days I waited and not one midwife from the practice showed up. A practice that lives in the hospital. On the day we left, I mentioned it to the attending (different) OB that day (who was wonderful) and she shared that she would say something. As we packed up to go home, one of the midwives sauntered in to say hello as if nothing had happened. As if nothing had gone wrong. I sobbed about feeling abandoned. She apologized without so much as a shoulder touch and said that it’s protocol to not follow up with patients who have csections. I was too in shock to remind her that a midwife visited me everyday during my first birth which was an emergency csection.
The after effects of birth trauma are ongoing. The first year postpartum I went to the ER twice. Once after a particularly heavy period, I felt faint and I was anxious that something was wrong as my body felt eerily similar to those first postpartum days. There was a time I remember calling the pediatrician in the middle of the night when I looked down at my coughing 6 month old and saw blood coming from her nose. She had the flu and had bursted a blood vessel. The sight of blood sent me reeling into thinking she was dying. There was a time I went to the doctor because my nose was dry and in looking in the mirror my skin looked whiter than normal so I was convinced that I had some sort of deadly infection. I cried to the doctor and gave her a disclaimer that i had a terrible birth and now i am suffering from a lot of PTSD and anxiety. On the anniversary of the trauma which was Ellies first birthday, I realized I had not gotten any birthday presents for her. I hadn’t made a cake. Nothing. My family came over and luckily my mom swooped in and cooked and baked and took over enough for no one else to notice. But as I sat on the floor with my beautiful one year old, helping her open presents, surrounded by her family clapping and smiling and taking pictures, i became so completely overwhelmed. Here i was reliving the feeling of nearly dying and losing my baby while surrounded by 12 sets of eyes staring in my direction smiling and cheering as if my trauma was on stage speaking French to an audience of Russians. The absolute disconnect and disregard was suffocating. I excused myself into my room with my mom and sobbed. When I talked to my husband, he supported me in the way he could, and reassured me that we are both okay. And that the baby is thriving. But that’s the thing with trauma. Everyone else moves on. Everyone else forgets it. Everyone else reminds you that you’re okay.
For the longest time I scoured the internet watching videos of csections. My own experience was so vivid in my head. Even the moment I began to pass out. I searched and searched YouTube to find a video of a csection gone wrong. A csection with a transverse baby. With massive blood loss. There was this feeling that if I could just find a video then I could share it with people around me so that they could truly understand what it felt like. Laying so helpless strapped down to a table as they pulled and pushed and took my baby from me while destroying my body in the wake. I can remember every detail like it was yesterday. And yet now it feels like it was lifetimes ago. In the strangest of ways, living in this pandemic has given me the grace to heal. We’ve been so tucked away in our little bubble of a world, I’ve managed to find space to breathe while also taking a break from so much outside noise.
Birth trauma is real. Next time you visit the newborn baby with gifts of pink and blue, don’t forget that there’s a mom laying there who has just crossed mountains to bring that tiny miracle into this life. The scars are there-some too deep for you to see. For me, I know it gets better. This isn’t my first trip down this road. I will continue to thrive and heal one day at a time.
But forget? Never. The moment my daughter breathed her first breath as I lost half of mine will forever be the moment that changed me. I will never be the same as I was before 2:23pm on August 6th, 2018.
Prevention and Treatment of Traumatic Childbirth
A charity that supports women who suffer birth trauma – a shorthand term for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after birth.
Licensed Clinical Social Worker serving Pennsylvania with advice and support blog.