For the outside observer, the Labor and Delivery ward is a different planet compared to the rest of the hospital. The ward is a carefully monitored and choreographed last stop on the pregnancy train. While each birth is well attended, there is always a looming threat of catastrophic failure, like a Sword of Damocles that keeps everyone on edge. The ward is mostly boring punctuated by dramatic moments, like the ICU; it has emergency surgery, like trauma; and it’s normally locked, like inpatient psychiatry. In any case, for a third-year medical student, it can be overwhelming. But I'll never forget her.
The patient was in labor with her first child, and so far, everything was going as planned. She and her husband were a charming couple and excited to be parents. She was beautiful, but when I first saw her, something was different; she wore makeup. I mean, like, a lot of makeup. I mean, she looked like she was about to go on TV. They could have found her likeness on the walls of an Egyptian tomb. Hospitals force people to pause their lives and often forego those small efforts like showering and combing hair. For expectant mothers, after hours of labor and about to take the big plunge, this can be especially so.
The show was about to go on. The team communicated their expectations about the next steps. The residents prepared with a gown and gloves. My signature token contribution was arranging the instruments when I was allowed to stay in the room. As the attending arrived, the mother-to-be put up her finger and said, "just one minute."
With her legs elevated, body draped, baby monitors beeping, and beads of sweat coming down the sterile resident's brow, the patient revealed a tiny pocket mirror and a makeup case. She applied her lipstick, concealer, and — I'm not an expert — but what I supposed was an eyelash-straightening device. The room was finally ready with the last stroke of her hairbrush.
In a surreal moment, she looked around the now quiet room with a pause. Everyone was silent. Even the monitors took a break for 45 seconds. She exchanged a glance with her well-coiffed husband, who was in the opposite corner of the room with his finger ready. As she relaxed her neck back into her pillow, she voiced a command.
Her husband pressed the button on a queued-up iPod.
As if she kicked a hornet nest, the room was alive and became like a sterilized ‘90s high school locker room with blue balloons in the corner. A playlist of "Eye of the Tiger," AC/DC, and Beastie Boys bellowed from the speakers. The energy was palpable. The attending bobbed her head to the beat. Each push from the patient was intense. I felt more like a football fan at a stadium than a third-year medical student on a Labor and Delivery floor.
In the middle of "No Sleep Till Brooklyn," the baby boy arrived to a cheering medical team, who was probably more jazzed up than the family. Lots of fist pumps and fist bumps. I’m not sure if I made this next part up, but I seem to recall the resident holding the baby up above their head like Simba as everyone cheered. I looked over my shoulder to make sure no one was coming to pour Gatorade over our heads.
The infant was placed on his mother's chest. As a sign of the times, smartphones and cameras of all shapes and makes descended upon the duo from the now-present extended family. Dad was beaming as he shut off the iPod. Mom was smiling, and her lipstick looked great. Whenever I feel like doctors are driving the pregnancy train, I look back on this moment and remember a time when the real conductor held a tube of lipstick.
What patients left a memorable impression on you? Share your experiences below.
Phil Castrovinci is an Undersea Medical Officer in the US Navy. He is currently an ophthalmology resident at Naval Medical Center San Diego.