When the Only Way to See a Doctor While Going Into Labor Is to Tweet at a Brand

by Matthew J.X. Malady


People drop things on the Internet and run all the time. So we have to ask. In this edition, BuzzFeed News Senior Political Writer McKay Coppins tells us more about what it’s like when your wife is about to have a baby and one of the largest, most sophisticated hospitals in New York is unable to provide the right people to help with delivery.

Good news: My wife is in labor! Bad news: We’ve been at @NYULMC for hours and they can’t find an anesthesiologist to give an epidural.

— McKay Coppins (@mckaycoppins) February 18, 2015

McKay! So what happened here?

My wife, Annie, started having contractions in the morning, and since this was our second kid we knew the basic protocol. Annie called her OB/GYN to tell him what was going on, I emailed my editor to tell her I was not coming into work, and then we started timing the contractions on an iPhone app. Going into labor (at least in our experience) is not like it is on TV, where the mom’s water breaks and the dad frantically searches for car keys, and then they race down the highway, weaving in and out of traffic in a desperate bid to make it to the hospital in time. The childbirth process can last days sometimes, so you’re not supposed to go into the hospital until the contractions have reached a certain frequency and duration. In our case, this rule seemed especially important because Annie was delivering at NYU-Langone, and as her doctor told her on the phone, “They are notorious for turning women away.” So, we restlessly paced around our apartment in Bushwick for a while, and then when the contractions started to intensify we drove into Manhattan.

By the time we actually got to the hospital, Annie had been in labor for seven or eight hours and she was very eager to get an epidural. But when we got to the delivery floor, a receptionist informed us that they were “very busy” and instructed us to sit in a waiting room along with a couple other pregnant women writhing in pain. I asked if we could at least hand over our insurance cards and get the check-in process started, but the receptionist said she couldn’t do anything until a doctor became available. She seemed genuinely sorry, and brought Annie some water, which was nice.

We waited and waited, and after forty-five minutes a nurse finally came out and said they could examine Annie, but there were no rooms available, so it would have to take place in the hallway. They examined her on a gurney with strangers passing back and forth, and when they determined she was far enough along for an epidural, we were ushered into a room with other women laying on beds waiting for the procedure. Fifteen minutes passed, then twenty, then thirty — with Annie going through contractions every hundred and twenty seconds or so, each one more painful than the last. I finally managed to wave down a nurse, who apologetically explained that they couldn’t find an anesthesiologist available to perform the procedure. I was slightly perplexed. We were in a major hospital in New York City! They couldn’t find an anesthesiologist? I asked how long it might take to track one down. The nurse replied that she had no idea.

Over the next few hours we developed a little routine. Annie would labor through a contraction, I would offer some feeble words of reassurance and my hand to squeeze (the latter being more useful than the former), and as soon as it ended, I’d hustle out of the room in search of hospital staff to pester. I only had one or two minutes at a time to work with, though, because Annie wanted me back at her bedside before the next contraction started. During these brief excursions out of the room, I developed an alliance with a man whose wife was laboring in the bed next to Annie. They had actually come into the hospital early that morning and were turned away because she wasn’t sufficiently dilated. They’d returned just after we arrived, and his wife was similarly desperate for an epidural. Together, we spent the minutes in between our wives’ contractions scouring the floor for information, and then returning to compare notes — two hapless husbands locked in a quixotic battle against hospital bureaucracy.

More than anything, I just wanted some kind of timeline: I figured if I could assure Annie that the anesthesiologist would arrive in X minutes, it would make the experience more bearable. But since no one would tell us anything, I resorted to asking increasingly hopeless and ill-informed questions: Was there some sort of lesser painkiller Annie could take while she waited? Would Tylenol do anything to take the edge off? How about some breathing exercises? Was it possible to bring in our own anesthesiologist to perform the procedure? In one moment of particular desperation, I actually started googling, “anesthesiologists in Manhattan” on my phone. But while everyone I talked to seemed sympathetic, nobody could offer any help or guidance, and I inevitably returned to my wife empty-handed.

Eventually, Annie — who is quite tough, and had been enduring all this nonsense with much more poise than her frazzled husband — reached a breaking point. It wasn’t just that she couldn’t get an epidural, it was that she was receiving virtually no attention from medical professionals at all, aside from very quick check-ins from preoccupied and powerless nurses. Annie would have happily attempted to deliver the baby without the epidural — we would later learn that she was fully dilated by now — but we still weren’t even in a delivery room.

That’s when I got the idea to Tweet about it. I had seen people use Twitter before to extract refunds or frequent flyer miles by complaining about poor service and tagging the official accounts of airlines or hotels, or whatever. I wondered if it could possibly work for a hospital. I searched my Twitter app for NYU-Langone and, sure enough, the hospital had an account. I asked Annie if it was OK (we are not usually the types to live-tweet a childbirth) and she said, “Do it.” So I wrote three tweets, and within twenty minutes or so, a resident materialized to bring us into a delivery room. Not long after that, an anesthesiologist showed up to administer the epidural. He was a generally jovial guy, but after he finished the procedure (which took all of ten minutes), I overheard him complaining to the resident, “Why didn’t anybody page me? I just found out about this fifteen minutes ago.”

Wow. So first off: Props for being in such a crazy, stressful situation and still being able to spell “anesthesiologist” correctly in a tweet. I am in awe of that. But, yeah, beyond that, please tell us all that they got their shit together eventually and that everything ended up OK. It did, right?

It did! After Annie got the epidural, she was able to get some much-needed rest. A parade of hospital representatives came in to apologize for what had happened, but we were too relieved and excited about the imminent birth of our son to hold any kind of grudge. (We did, however, use our newfound leverage to make sure the woman in the bed next to Annie got immediate attention.) Nobody ever said that the tweets were what hurried things along, and I didn’t ask. Maybe the timing was just a coincidence. But in any case, it was heartening to see a stream of Internet friends lend their support in a moment of distress by tweeting outraged things at @NYULMC.

And most importantly, our son was born just after midnight: 9 pounds, 11 ounces, and perfectly healthy. He has his dad’s large, unique head-shape (which we hope will fade with age), and his mom’s red hair and steely resolve (which we hope he’ll keep).

Lesson learned (if any)?

So, here’s the thing: Eventually, we were told that the reason there weren’t any anesthesiologists available was because they were dealing with an “emergency” elsewhere in the hospital. We didn’t get many details, but the word “hemorrhaging” was used. Obviously, hearing about a life-or-death health catastrophe like that brings a certain degree of perspective, and all things considered, we’re just grateful that everyone in our little family is healthy. And Annie wants to make sure I mention here that she knows many, many women give birth without epidurals, either because they don’t have access to them or because they want to deliver naturally. “My thing wasn’t a real emergency,” she says.

But! It still seems weird to me that a hospital as big and well-funded as NYU in a city as populous as New York isn’t sufficiently staffed to handle a fluke emergency and a couple of pregnant women who want epidurals at the same time. I don’t know anything about hospital administration, but maybe the lesson is that someone should get on that?

Just one more thing.

Our two-year-old daughter was not overjoyed about having a new baby around. The night we brought him home, she apparently decided it was time to move out, because she kept gathering her things and heading for the door, declaring, “Bye see you tomorrow.” We have so far convinced her to stay through a series of bribes.

Photo by JL Johnson

Join the Tell Us More Street Team today! Have you spotted a tweet or some other web thing that you think would make for a perfect Tell Us More column? Get in touch through the Tell Us More tip line.