Much of my life as a hospital worker, and once upon a time as a nonsalaried country preacher trying to earn a living as a hospital worker, has involved my attempts to process and understand the things I’ve experienced—to make sense out of them as they related to my own life and to life in general. Thus, writing has become a vocation for me, and I admit that between fiction and nonfiction I’ve often had to pen some pretty dark, sordid stuff: sicknesses and deaths of children and adults both, loss of faith and hope, the disastrous, childish concept of a god who looks like a thinner, taller version of Santa Claus and behaves as if he were a superhero wearing a toga rather than tights and a cape. Write what you know, they say, and a good deal of my impetus seems always to have come from faith, doubt, rural churches, and rural hospitals in equal measure. And so for Christmas, let me share an experience much in my thoughts at this season.
We all wondered why the girl had come to our Emergency Room so early that cold morning. Her obstetrician worked at a larger hospital several miles upriver and ours was just a little place, twenty-odd patient beds and an obstetrics department that had been closed for years. As St. Luke once phrased it, there simply wasn’t any room in the inn.
But for whatever reason, here she was in the ER, a frightened teenaged girl along with her frightened teenaged husband. And again as St. Luke phrased it, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered, and she was going to have that baby whether or not any of us wished that she would get an ambulance to take her somewhere else—or even wait till daylight to give birth.
If everything hadn’t been so tense it would have been the stuff of comedy. A semi-retired gynecologist lived just up the hill from the hospital. She was roused from sleep and, luckily for the reluctant, equally rudely-awakened ER physician, proved willing to bestir herself and exercise her obstetrical skills one more time. Tools and materials packed up and gone into disuse ever since our own OB department had closed were frantically sought and finally found, amid laughter, tears, collisions, curses, and prayers of both supplication and thanksgiving. The House Supervisor barked orders in a tone that would have seemed absolutely furious if we all hadn’t known it was the result of her genuine worry for the welfare of the girl.
And so in the wee hours of that icy morning, the baby was safely “caught.” We were all prepared for the worst: stillbirth, breach birth, apnea, placenta praevia, placental abruption, umbilical cord around the throat, spina bifida, all the horrible things we knew that could occur; but the child was as healthy as a little colt, and was kicking almost as hard. The ER looked literally as if a tornado had passed directly through it, and the young father, dazed and seemingly wobblier on his legs even than the newborn, had to beg half a dozen smiling, cooing nurses for a brief turn at holding his own baby girl.
No one on duty that morning would have considered such a case, in the abstract, as being anything less than a nightmare come true. But in reality, that emergency delivery put every one of us in a good, even joyous, mood.
There are a couple of stories in the Bible about shepherds and wise men journeying to a stable outside an inn to visit a newborn. I admit, I’ve seen much in my occupation that would challenge the claim that either of those tales is relevant to life as it is today. And even on the assumption, or the faith, or the trust, or the hope, or the whatever, that the stories ARE relevant, Scripture doesn’t mention a single thing about any stable hands running around to help Mary and Joseph with the baby or anything else. But a happy birth still lets me catch a tiny glimpse of the Divine and makes me want to meditate on the old stories. And I’d like to think that a few stable hands WERE there in Bethlehem to wipe the brow of another, long-ago teenaged mother sweating and crying in the cold, each angling for a chance to hold and rock the baby and smiling with joy that a new life was born into the world. The divinity of birth is one of the things that keeps us hospital folk going, after all.