University of Minnesota

“If It Isn’t Fun.” – A Baptism at Charity Hospital

I carry vivid images of the 50 or so deliveries I attended on the senior OB/GYN rotation — images of sweltering nights, bright surgical lights focused on taut black abdomens, and mountains of sponges and antiseptic solutions used to cleanse bulging pudenda. Repeated shouts of “Bear down!” rose above the cacophony of curses and cries of simple women in the final throes of labor at New Orleans’s Charity Hospital.

Our curved student forceps flashed above a sea of green surgical caps and gowns as we applied them carefully to the heads of normal deliveries, to give us practical experience for later complex deliveries. Over time, our clumsy motions became increasingly competent. Soon we came to know also the precise moment to slip a blunt-nosed scissors through the thinning perineum and make a bold, clean episiotomy cut, releasing the babe in a torrent of wondrous beauty and relief. How we admired the calm craft of our chief resident, who handled a shoulder presentation more gracefully than we managed a normal occipital delivery.

Sisters of Charity scurried about wearing their Christ-like smiles, harboring each woman through the stages of labor, efficiently shifting them onto litters, into the delivery rooms, and up into stirrups to be cleansed and draped in the nick of time.

Nearly ill with fatigue at the end of a long duty shift, we externs would drag out of the hospital to the Tulane Avenue Tavern across the street, gathering nightly to come down from our “highs” or to boost up our “lows.” Then, at the end of each day, I boarded the Saint Charles streetcar for the long, swaying, clanging ride Uptown on Saint Charles Avenue to State Street. After boarding, it was required that we whites move the wooden sign with its brass posts, the sign labelled, “Colored Only,” to the rear of the seat we wished to occupy.

Then collapsing, I soon fell sound asleep on the soothing streetcar ride. On occasion, I would wake with a start with the bright lights of Charity Hospital shining once more full in my eyes. I had made the whole one-hour circuit up Saint Charles Avenue, across the back of town on Carrollton, and down Tulane Avenue. Exhausted, I would then have to dig for another dime to make the Uptown trip all over again, then stumble along State Street cobblestones the mile from the streetcar line to my quarters in the U.S. Marine Hospital on the Mississippi levee.

One night on the OB service I had the duty between midnight and 3 a.m., when it was only me and two Sisters of Charity to face the graveyard shift with its flurry of baby-dropping. In the midst of the confusion of this night, one Sister’s face suddenly turned ashen as she tried various positions of her stethoscope to hear the infant’s heartbeat. [These were the days before automated fetal monitors.] She found no beat when one had been present only moments before.

I summoned the chief resident at once by phone, but there was no time to wait. Finding the mother’s cervix adequately dilated and effaced, I injected Pitocin and proceeded with a quick and otherwise uneventful delivery of a limp, discolored, full-term infant, apparently dead.

Confusion reigned as I issued sharp orders for adrenalin and calcium for intra-cardiac injection to commence our crude resuscitation procedures. One Sister stood transfixed, lips moving in prayer. The other, ignoring my pleas, flew about the room muttering hysterically, “Holy water, Holy water!” I was quite unable to focus their attention on resuscitation, or on comforting the mother, or, it seemed to me, on anything needed or useful. Their desperate and only concern was that this child, if any life were left in it, be baptized — “saved” for a heavenly existence.

When the chief surgical resident appeared, he caught my eye and subtle gesture that the situation was hopeless and went directly to the mother’s side to comfort her in a rush of words: “Dear mother, you and we have done the best we could. I’m so sorry, but your baby is gone.”

After delivering and inspecting the intact placenta, I placed the dead infant on a litter, covered it with a sheet, and stripped off my gloves and mask. I gave the mother a warm squeeze on the shoulder, glowered once more at the still-murmuring Sisters, and left the delivery room to my resident chief. I was thoroughly resentful of the religiosity that had diverted the Sisters’ medical mission to their perceived spiritual one. The relief intern came on duty and joined me to scrub, while I quietly washed up, choking back sobs.

I left the hospital speedily, by-passed Tulane Tavern that night, and climbed into the Saint Charles streetcar for the long, swaying, clanging ride home — in the unhappy company of my seething thoughts.