During my senior year of high school, my AP English Literature teacher asked us to write a poem about the most beautiful thing we had ever seen in our life.
Past the glass I saw
curled and crinkled toes,
reaching for some invisible
in plastic boxes.
If you couldn’t guess, I was writing about the babies I had seen on my many volunteering shifts at my local hospital. When I was discharging a patient on the 7th floor, sometimes I got to peek through the window of the unit and see the newborn children in their cozy plastic bins. I thought they were beautiful then; it pales in comparison to what I think of them now.
A month ago, I had the opportunity to shadow an Ob/Gyn at my local hospital. I had never seen a birth or a surgery before so the doctor gave me a long spiel about the protocol for fainting or getting sick during the cesarean section. I was honestly terrified and felt mentally unprepared. I got up that morning, ate breakfast, and drove to the hospital without thinking seriously about the miracle I would experience that day. I was going to see a baby brought into the world. This event seemed so startlingly new and was going to be the most non-mundane thing that had happened to me that week, but I could not fathom what the experience would be like.
As soon as I got to the hospital, I was informed that the surgery would be starting in a matter of minutes. I quickly put on scrubs (which I had never worn before, but I will admit they were pretty comfortable), a face mask, and disposable glasses. Next thing I knew, we were in the operating room, a space I had only seen on TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy. Now I was there, in this small space, about to witness a surgery; the patient was directly in front of my line of sight. The tray that held the scalpels and other surgical tools stood adjacent to me. I was far enough away to not get in the way of the operation, yet I still felt like I was part of the group of six surgeons and anesthesiologists around the mother. All of us were dressed in the same sky-blue scrubs, wearing our blue foot coverings which looked like slippers. I felt my knees getting wobbly, and I was scared that I would faint, and wished that I had paid closer attention to the fainting protocol.
The surgery was unlike anything I had ever seen. “Belle, you’re really keeping us on our toes!” one of the residents said. I was surprised by how lighthearted and funny they were through the surgery. They put a plastic covering on the patient’s abdomen and then made the first incision. I held my breath. Luckily, I did not faint, and the doctor I was shadowing thoughtfully explained the procedure and anatomy to me while supervising his residents. I wasn’t close enough to see every detail of the procedure, but it was a lot like an orchestra of coordinated hand movements and verbal cues of “hand me [this surgical tool] please.” Sometimes I wondered how the residents knew where to make the right incision or suture, because none of the anatomical parts were cartoon-animated like in my biology or anatomy textbooks, as silly as that might sound. After only a matter of minutes, I saw the baby in one of the resident’s hands, with chalky skin and the smallest fingers and toes I have ever seen, but perfect in every way. I opened my mouth in surprise but no one could see past my face mask since only our eyes were visible to each other. But even I think my eyes conveyed excitement.
This was one of the few moments I have ever experienced in my life where I have truly felt awe for something. I watched the baby take her first breath, her lungs igniting with life for the first time, lungs that would carry her through childhood to adulthood, throughout her life. With these lungs she would be able to run and jump and play and explore this world. I thought suddenly about how all of us started out with a single breath just like this. I had never thought about this ability to breathe before, though we all do it unconsciously. Mesmerized by this baby girl, I followed her over to a small incubator table, where her eyes opened for the first time to smiling faces and a midwife placing a pink hat on her head. She was beautiful. I then turned back to watch the residents suture the incision so perfectly that it was as if the event never occurred in the first place. Yes, the surgery created a bit of a mess in the O.R. and the residents’ (and even my own) scrubs were no longer clean, but otherwise every piece of evidence of the surgery was efficiently cleaned up or removed. I remember my doctor telling me how, in this practice, order can come out of disorder (i.e., in the form of a new life!). I wholly underestimated how transformative this experience would be for me. For years I’d heard people talking about babies, and in my head it was always just an abstract idea instead of a tangible person. I had never touched a baby; I’d only seen them through the windows of the NICU. It had also seemed to me like giving birth was a mundane, natural part of life. I knew vaguely that it was an important process, but did not quite understand how or why, or the impact of experiencing a birth. It was not as if I thought of giving birth as insignificant, but rather, until that moment, I didn’t yet appreciate the capabilities of the human body, including the development of an embryo and the production of a complete life form. It was as if I had taken the miracle of human life and biology for granted.
But now, after witnessing several births and cesarean sections, I’ve realized how momentous bringing life into this world truly is, as well as how fascinating the human body is. I think about how lucky I am to live in this world, to be born into a self that keeps me alive to laugh, smile, and love others. I can do all of these things because of the cells in my body that have evolved over millions of years and survived some of Earth’s harshest conditions.
After these birthing experiences, I have become more grateful for my life and the lives of others. Even now, I still get caught up in the chaos of pre-med requirements and GPA, but after witnessing the “miracle of life”, I find myself more patient, more understanding, and better able to appreciate the beauty of the world I live in. I feel content knowing that to be alive and appreciate life is my purpose. There is still so much we do not understand about human biology, which makes the quest of science even more gratifying. After watching babies in the NICU and in the O.R., I finally had an opportunity an opportunity to hold a newborn in my own hands. During my shift at the hospital last week, I got to hold a baby for the first time, as a newly trained “baby cuddler”. I was called in because he was crying. I’d like to think that with my touch he was soothed and comforted. From that moment I knew that my place would never be behind a glass wall or standing to the side of the operating table. I belonged here.
About Belle Pace
Belle Pace is a second-year student in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Virginia, planning to double major in Biology and French. She’s pursuing research on the fate and identity of renin cells through the UVa Medical Center. She comes from Richmond, Virginia. You can reach out to her on Twitter at @bellepace1.