Blog When it’s time to Break the Rules
Several years back while in graduate school for creative writing and still working as a nurse, I had a mother give birth to a stillborn in room 406. It was a dreary Saturday in July with thick fog plunging temperatures into the fifties. My daughters at the time were in high-school but the years between their birth to teens were as fleeting as a brush of wind; as if I’d taken a nap while time went into overdrive. This was the woman’s first pregnancy that had not ended in a miscarriage. Her baby as of twelve hours ago was alive and kicking. She was devasted needed time with her stillborn; a little girl she called Michelle.
The head nurse that day, a thorough rule enforcer, instructed me to tell this mother she had exactly one hour before the baby had to be taken to the morgue. That was hospital regulation and she (the head bitch er I mean nurse) was simply following procedure. She didn’t flinch when I explained that the mother was Catholic and wanted the baby baptized and that she was alone the father had disappeared months ago. It would take time to rally a priest on a Saturday in July, one of the favored wedding months; A last minute ceremony would take a miracle.
The head nurse informed me that if I didn’t obey her (I believe she had been in the military) she would have me written up. I handed her a pen and called the doctor. I explained to the very empathetic MD what was going on. She wrote me an order stating the mother could keep her stillborn named Michelle for the length of my shift, which ended at 4pm. I thanked her, hung up the phone and got busy delegating patient care while calling every Catholic Church in San Francisco.
Other nurses on the floor began to rally with me. We wrapped the baby in pink and yellow blankets that had been crocheted by the women of the hospital auxiliary and donned her little head with a pink hat to match the pink booties for her feet. All of us checked in on this mother often and continued our search for a priest.
The mother wept while rocking and singing lullabies from her native Philippines. She held the baby close to her heart and examined every feature over and over again. I thought of my own birth experience and the joy of finally holding and smelling my beautiful newborn. It was painful to watch this mother’s loss.
By three o’clock and no priest we all began to worry that this baptism was not feasible. One of the nurses, a wonderfully wise Jewish woman, suggested we do the ceremony ourselves. Why not, we had all celebrated births in our own spiritual way. Why couldn’t we put together an interfaith baptism? We explained all of this to the mother and instantly she smiled as tears dribbled over her cheek bones. “Please.” She said, “Please could you do this for my baby?”
One of us quickly went to the store for candles; we gathered a Bible and the Jewish nurse had memorized passages from the old testament, psalms that she could recite. Another Indian nurse gave a Hindu blessing. There were six of us—each with our own role and intention. After giving report to the nurses for the evening shift (that way our other patients were being looked after) we gathered in room 406. We lit candles I sang a Catholic song I remembered from my childhood and each of us read or recited a dedication. The mother held her Michelle and when it was over, she tenderly handed her over to me. I promised to keep her in the outfit she had been wearing and the mother bid her baby good-bye.
All of use wept shamelessly—all except the head nurse who assured me that I would receive “heavy repercussions for my insubordination.” I have never forgotten that day. There are times when man made rules need to bow to human feelings and empathy. There are times when rules are frankly meant to be shattered.
As for my punishment, I was written up—but the report never made it to my file. The mother had written to the hospital a gorgeous letter of appreciation and I was pardoned by the powers that be.
Causes Karen Devaney Supports
Eve Ensler and any organization that deals with issues supporting women and children and the advancement of their education.