Victoria Jelinek


The Baby Diaries – 11

Never go to a doctor whose office plants have died. Erma Bombeck

071030 DVD SAGES FEMMES.inddThe sage-femmes (mid-wives) at the hospital were great. Through them, I learned to nurse and to bathe my child, as well as to take his temperature. They were also the ones who would come and relieve me, or check on us during the night, making me feel that my baby boy and I were tended to.

But the sage-femme assigned to me by the obstetrician for pre-and-post-birth care was useless. Before my boy was born my husband and I went into her office, and sitting before her little desk, waited for several moments to see what she would do because we had no idea what we were to do. She didn’t say a word. Finally, we asked some tentative questions about the care in the hospital that we should expect, which had already been answered by my good doctor, but we wanted to be polite. She would answer them as an adolescent might, with as few words as possible and giving no opportunity for elaboration. It was a struggle and that 15-minute appointment seemed to last an hour.

Post birth, however, one is meant to go to the sage-femme for ten visits in order to properly recuperate. It’s actually prescribed by the paediatrician at the hospital before you leave, and the l’Assurance Medicale, the health bureau, reimburses you for the visits 100%. This is a very good and holistic approach to the birthing process that I highly commend about the French system in theory, but I’ve gone to this sage femme a few times now, and I still find it useless. On one such visit she put a long towel, sheet type-of-thing around my lower back and near my pelvis, and pulled it tightly around the area. I asked what this was for and she told me it would help ‘reshape’ my womb. On another visit, she pulled out an appliance that looked like a combination between an electric razor and a vibrator and proceeded to put it into my vagina. I asked her what this was for and she told me that it sent out electrical currents that would help ‘reshape’ my vagina and womb. On another visit she had me practice getting down and up off of the floor and doing sit ups. I’d ask her questions that I thought she might know that were relevant to me, such as about the blood blisters on the breasts, and the left breast’s drying up, and the lack of sleep, and doctor’s visits, and she was not able to provide any answers. She doesn’t have children. I could be her mother. Oh! I did find the visit in which she took out the stitches from my caesarean very useful.

Perhaps finding a good sage femme is akin to finding a good psychologist? This is very American of me, the land of people who seek to discuss their problems (and why not? I think the world would be a better place if one could unload all their worries and problems on a person they paid to listen to them and to keep quiet about it all, and who then eliminated the need to unload on your friends and family). Anyway. Perhaps it’s like a psychologist in the sense that if you get a bad one, an incompetent one, then it will turn you off of ever going again to one. I would have stopped going to this sage femme, but at the end of every visit I had with her I felt bullied into making the next appointment, so I would make one in order to get out of the room. After several visits, I decided I didn’t want to go anymore and tried to tell her that it just wasn’t ‘my cup of tea’ and it ‘doesn’t seem to be working for me,’ and I don’t want her to ‘waste’ her time on me anymore. She gave me an angry lecture on how irresponsible I am being to my body by giving up the visits before they’re over! I listened to her quietly, and then suggested we call it ten visits, as prescribed, submit it to the relevant authorities for her to be reimbursed, and I’ll give her the co-pay in cash. To her credit, she immediately agreed.

As much as I’ve appreciated other medical care in France, I’ve found my sage femme visits the least helpful. I will presume that she is an anomaly.

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The Baby Diaries 2

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” Mark Twain

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Since having my baby boy I’ve been in the hospital for 3 days. My C-section wound is healing, and I’m shuffling around. They do NOT let patients be lazy here in France, that’s for sure. They had me up and about a couple of days after I gave birth, forcing me to use the toilet and take walks up and down the hall.

Each day in the hospital is regimented activity, with the morning being the busiest. Seemingly all at once, there are people coming in to take the garbage, swipe down the counters and tidy the bathroom. Doctors come in to take my pulse, my blood pressure, and put some kind of measurement/radar on Sebastian. Sage Femmes (midwives) ask how the night went. Then a woman comes ‘round and asks what I’d like for lunch. Another brings my breakfast. After breakfast, my little family goes to the bathing room to wash Sebastian under supervision. Thank the fates for this, too, because we didn’t know what to do with him after he was born.  Thank the fates for their fastidious conscientiousness in France, which ensures that new mothers know how to breast feed, burp, de-gas, bathe, and change their babies before they step foot out of the hospital. There are other people with their newborns in the bathing area, which is a room full of sinks and workstations.  Other than a greeting, no one speaks or makes jokes. Perhaps we’re too tired? It’s amusing, too, because each of us eyes the other babies and mothers to compare with our own baby and our own post-baby bodies.

Oh! And the Maire (mayor) has been calling my room three times a day to find out what my boy’s name is and all of his birth details. Finally, today, we gave out his name officially – Sebastian Leo. Also today, the paediatrician told us that our boy has jaundice. I thought jaundice was akin to scurvy or small pox in the sense that it had passed out of western society. The doctor assured us that it was very common and a few days of phototherapy would sort it out. The phototherapy was started immediately. Unfortunately for this first time, my husband had gone home to make sure our beloved cat Oscar was okay and to do some work.

The phototherapy device is a small canister with a door that looks like a miniature sunbed with a little tarp suspended in the middle. The nurses took my baby, took off his ‘onesies’ and his diaper, taped some gauze over his eyes, then stuck him naked in the middle of the tarp in the machine and turned it on. Sebastian freaked. I tried to calm him, but I was scared, too, and upset that there was anything wrong with him in the first place. The nurses thought he was hungry. I fed him and he was quiet for a bit. Then he started crying again. The nurse went and got formula for him, saying it would ‘last longer’ and ‘be stronger’ for ‘our purposes.’ She shoved the milk into his mouth and he drank deeply and quietly. Once he’d finished a bit, she thrust him back in the sunbed, shut the door, and started the engine. Shortly thereafter, he threw up. The nurses were disgusted and complained that my baby was a problem. For the first time in my life I understood the feeling of a mother bear for her cub. I wanted to scream that they were rough and unfeeling. I wanted to scream that it would be scary for ME to get blindfolded and shoved naked, suspended, into a loud machine and he’s just come out of the safety of my womb. Sounds, sensations, eating, are all so new and overwhelming to him. But I held my tongue. I know I was hormonal, that he’s my child so I’m extra sensitive, and that they were just doing their job, albeit grumpily.

The need for phototherapy means I’m in the hospital for a few days longer, which distresses me somewhat, even as I realise it’s a good place to be in these first moments. I can’t really sleep comfortably on my bed because, as in all hospitals, there are many noises in the night: walking, crying, talking, jangling, scraping, jostling, rattling of carts and beds, people coming and going from your room. I’m alert to the noises my son makes, which disturbs my rest, as he makes frequent noises. I think he sounds a little bit like a pug dog. The lights in the hospital could be used to interrogate prisoners. I’m also worried that I’ll have to go pee and have to call a sage femme to help. They don’t generally respond quickly to the bell ringing, and when they do come they act as though they’re being majorly inconvenienced. I think that it’s more of a lazy thing than a malicious thing though. One nurse did take Sebastian away from me for four hours in the night last night to give me time to get sleep. I could hear him crying as they walked down the hall and away from my hospital room. I thought I’d never be able to relax because I’d worry that Sebastian was unhappy, but the next thing I knew she was back in my room, putting him in his basket, and I’d been deeply asleep for four hours.



The Pregnancy Diaries 26

“Don’t tell your kids you had an easy birth or they won’t respect you. For years I used to wake up my daughter and say, “Melissa, you ripped me to shreds. Now go back to sleep.” Joan Rivers

Bon AnniversaireI’m actually in the hospital room in Sallanches waiting for them to take me to the operating theatre for my C-section. My husband and I got to the hospital at 6am with the operation scheduled for 8:30. I had an iodine shower, necessary in France before my procedure, and not one of my finer moments. I felt like a prisoner being scrubbed. My husband did the iodine as I’m too huge to bend and can’t see my nether regions, so it was a very practical wash. While he was doing it in this little bathroom to the side of my hospital room, there were nurses, sage femmes, and the cleaning woman, who came to the door of the bathroom to enquire about this-or-that, inform us of something, or simply to take the rubbish bin.

My good doctor with the great ham hands who has overseen two of my three pregnancies, came in from Chamonix to do the procedure. While I’m sceptical about the size of the incision he’ll leave with his huge hands, I am touched that he bothered to do this because he’s so busy. It’s weird to see him outside his office and particularly in scrubs. He tells me that I’ll go into the operating theatre. I’ll be given an epidural. The incision line will be so tiny and low that I’ll be able to wear a bikini again “if you lose your baby weight,” he notes. The baby will be pulled out and he’ll sew me back up. I will not be given the baby after the operation. Instead, it will be given to my husband while I go into a recovery area for two or three hours. The French believe in the importance of skin-on-skin after birth, so my husband will be asked to hold and keep the baby against his bare chest while I am in the recovery area. Knowing my incompetence regarding babies, he assures me the sage femmes will instruct me how to do everything from nursing to changing his diapers. I let him know that I’m prepared – I brought an eye mask, earplugs, and sleeping pills.

It’s 9:30am now. There is apparently some kind of emergency that takes precedence over me (imagine!). As a result, my good doctor is arguing with the staff and trying to arrange a new time. He’s just informed me that he will have to return to his office and begin his workday. He’ll leave me his mobile number. “You’re going to leave me with all these Frenchies? I don’t know anyone here!” I start to panic. His manner is calm, competent and jovial. “I’m going to have a baby by the end of the day for god’s sake!” I remind him. “Peut-etre…” he jokingly replies. Grumpily I say, “Forget your office hours. This has been two years in the making.” He smiles and reminds me that he’s French and they’ll take care of me or else have him to answer to or worse yet, a lawsuit waged by an American woman. A man with a thick gold chain around his neck and a lot of dark chest hair unfurling upwards from his white coat walks in. My good doctor introduces this man and tells me that he will be doing the procedure and he’s a very fine doctor. I’m too stunned to even catch the gold-chained-doctor’s name and too scared to ask him to repeat it. He doesn’t speak any English. He’s wearing a gold chain for god’s sake! And that chest hair doesn’t seem hygienic! I have to do an iodine scrub and this man has a bale of black hair emerging from his whites? I’ll also have to concentrate on French at the same time a baby is being pulled out of my womb like a sleeping bag from its case. Rather rudely, I smile up at him, tell him I have no questions other than to be informed of when it will happen, and continue typing on my laptop. I hope he views this as typically French behaviour and doesn’t go light on the pain relievers in retribution.

It’s 12:30. I’m starving but they won’t allow me to eat before my procedure. Dangerous to leave a hugely pregnant woman hungry like this. I’ve been here for six hours and I haven’t eaten since yesterday’s dinner. I might bite someone’s hand or sneak (not too stealthily mind you) down to the candy machine to get a Snickers. The doctor with the gold chain has just come in. They’re going to give me a C-section at 1pm. He indicates a gurney in the hallway and asks me to get on top of it. It’s time. I hope to whatever fates and gods there are that the baby is fine and that all goes well. I’m scared. It hits me that I’m about to deliver a baby. So much can go wrong. And now I don’t have my good doctor there and my husband is not allowed into the operating theatre. Tears have started rolling down my face. “Be strong, Victoria. Try to have faith that things will turn out well,” my husband tells me (easy for him to say). I’ll close my laptop and say “good bye” for now.



The Pregnancy Diaries – 22

“The aim of the wise is not to secure pleasure, but to avoid pain.” Aristotle

I met the anaesthesiologist in Sallanches hospital. That’s a difficult word for me to say even in English. Read somewhere that there are 13 anaesthesiologists per 100k of the population in France, whereas the US & UK have a 1/3 less.

We didn’t wait long for the appointment blissfully. It’s getting hard to sit for any duration of time comfortably. I can just about do a movie in the cinema. She spoke French and no English but she was nice enough to enunciate. I don’t know if she’s a doctor or is certified to do this. If our appointment were in English, I’d make small talk and find out why she’d become an anaesthesiologist, what it involved, where she’d studied, whether she liked the job well enough, etc. As it were, I simply lay on an examining table smiling stupidly and she strapped some things to my stomach to monitor the heartbeat while we spoke. She took my blood pressure. She asked if I’d ever had an operation under general anaesthesia, and whether I’d ever had an allergic response to any medicine in the past. She asked me if I wanted to order an epidural in case it was necessary. I said “yes,” and told her that I’d like to know what other pain relievers I could have. She informed me that there is only the epidural. No gas. No air. No gas/air combo (Entonox). No morphine. No intramuscular injections. Moreover, I had to choose what I’d want in case right there-and-then. There were no options on the day other than an emergency spinal epidural if a caesarean were necessary or something went wrong, and doctors and nurses would dictate that then. I don’t mean to sound like some kind of drug addict, it’s that I’m completely adverse to pain and from what I hear giving birth or having a C-section is painful.

It’s funny. In the US and the UK there’s a “birth plan” (“a what?” I’d said the first time I’d heard it, which was not from my midwife here). Apparently, a mother can determine the type of pain relief she wants, what position she’d like to be in, what music she’d like to have playing while she’s in labour, the option of a doula or midwife present…If I were even able to communicate some kind of cogent “birth plan” in French, I’m positive I would be met with sceptical or pitying looks at best and revulsion at worst (“Les Anglais! Tsk, tsk). Must say that I’m kind of into the French mentality in that I’m thinking “Let them do what they need to do,” except on the pain relief front.  Jeez, less than 60% of women even remember their doctor’s names after delivery and many of those have the whole birth-plan-thing. Even so, it’s still a better average than the 4% that remember their anaesthesiologist’s name. I couldn’t understand her name when she told it to me much less remember it afterward.