Medicalization in Context
As this blog was mostly inspired by birthing, what I’m about to write here is probably not what you’re expecting to read under the title “Medicalization in context.” This post is the precursor to my first birth story. I call it Medicalization in Context, not because I am attempting to describe the medicalization of birthing, but to describe how resistant I had grown to being in a medical environment. Life organically unfolded in such a way that I was delivered from having to be in a hospital setting yet again. For that I am grateful.
To summarize what I have written in my posts thus far, my sister is the person that introduced me to the concept of natural birthing. I had grown up with a deeply rooted fear of vaginal birth. Hearing her describe what a joy it would be to birth naturally was foreign to me. I seemed more open to the concept of a cesarean, thinking that in having a doctor open me up and remove the baby from my body, I could circumvent all my fears. I persisted in this thought until I had the privilege of witnessing my sister’s second cesarean birth. Seeing her lament not having had the opportunity to birth naturally as she had wished, and witnessing the medicalized, harsh, unnurturing environment into which my niece was born, quickly shook me from that place. My new fear was cesarean birth. I knew that the birthing ideal my sister had presented was possible, I just wasn’t sure how. That was 2007.
In 2008 I traveled to Vieques, Puerto Rico various times to research on the effects of the US Navy bombing maneuvers on the people of Vieques and its environment. I was in the process of developing my art project Bieké: Tierra de valientes. One issue that impacted me greatly was the Navy’s effect on the medical industry in Vieques. Despite the fact that it’s an island, a ferry or plane ride away from la Isla Grande or the main island of Puerto Rico, the so-called hospital offered minimal services. Cancer patients and patients needing dialysis had to travel to la isla grande to receive specialized care. Additionally, birthing women were too expected to board a plane or ferry to Fajardo on the main island so that they could birth. There were stories of women not making it and having to birth in the airport.
The account that most struck me dates back to the 1940s when the Navy first started appropriating thousands of acres of land to create its bombing range and weapons storage facility on Vieques. In many cases people were given just a month’s notice or less about their land having been taken by the US Navy and their needing to move. In some cases families did not have an alternative, or didn’t have enough lead time to pack their belongings and go. In this one particular case the Navy sent a bulldozer to the house of a couple. The woman was 9 months pregnant. The husband argued with the individual, and pleaded that they not destroy their house as they were about to have a baby and had no place to go. The stress of the whole situation sent the woman into labor. Needing to figure out how to prevent the demolition from taking place, the husband propped up a sheet of “zinc” or corrugated metal on a stick outside to shelter his wife. There she labored and birthed alone while her husband tried to save their home.
This story communicates much about oppression and violence; the displacement of innocent people; the taking of lands for weapons testing and the training of troops. But controlling a people, and their ability to birth and where, is the most violent of all. Many of the people I had interviewed in Vieques did not have the privilege of being born on their own homeland.
- Here I was having feared natural birthing for years, wanting to gladly hand over my power to a doctor, yet here was this story of resilience and resistance where a woman was forced to birth under such conditions of stress and was able to do so. Most resonating, this story communicated the resilience of a people under attack. A man creates a makeshift shelter for his wife who simply, yet fiercely goes in there, labors and births her child, unassisted, as their home is destroyed. Perhaps she didn’t birth the way she would have like to, but she did what she had to do. I didn’t see her as a victim. I saw her as a powerful resister. Collectively the people of Vieques have continued resisting and fighting despite the fact that many are sick from contaminant-related illnesses. Cancer continues to be prevalent despite the 10 years now since the US Navy ended its maneuvers.
When I returned to NYC from my second 2008 trip to Vieques, my brother had been diagnosed with cancer. Two months after his diagnosis I learned I was pregnant with my first son. The early months of my pregnancy overlapped with being my brother’s treatment buddy, accompanying him to his appointments.
When I was five months pregnant, my brother underwent his first stem cell transplant. I remember sending him a photo of my one and only sonogram, to cheer him up. During his long hospital stay I planned another trip to Vieques. While there, while very pregnant, I interviewed a young mother who had lost her five-year old to cancer. I sat there praying for this mother’s healing, for the baby in my belly and for my brother battling cancer in the hospital back in New York.
I remember visiting my brother during that hospital stay on the 8th Floor of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, the dreaded Bone Marrow Transplant Unit. Sitting there with my big round belly peeking out from beneath a yellow hospital gown, sitting there wearing a mask and gloves as was required of all visitors, hearing the IV “maquina” as my brother called it, hearing the nurses on the loud speakers, I knew that was not where I wanted to birth. I wasn’t suggesting birthing at a cancer center. But it all was the same for me. For all the squirts of hand sanitizer blasted into my palms on the way in and the way out of there; for all the kisses stolen by mandatory masks; for all my brother’s pain and fear, for his resilience and courage; for all the spiritual cleansings I attempted to do stepping out of that hospital and back to the street to not carry the sadness and struggle back home with me, I couldn’t do it again. Lucky for me, just a few weeks before, I had come across a term on the internet that I hadn’t really understood: home birth.
I went through four care providers before deciding on the midwife who would assist with Gabriel’s birth. As an artist without health insurance and with a husband who was a consulting architect at the time, also without health insurance, we realized we could not afford to pay out-of-pocket for my OB/GYN, a doctor I had seen for years. Although it is stereotyped nowadays as an option associated with affluent white women, home birth provided a more affordable option for us when all the companies told us we could not get insurance because our baby was a “preexisting condition.” Despite their medical terminology for this pregnancy, with all the lessons my sister taught me, I viewed my pregnancy as a beautiful, natural thing and intended to birth that way. The hospital was where I went with my brother to offer support during his chemo treatments, and all hospitals smell the same. I was warned by many to let others help my brother, to keep my pregnant body out of the hospital because of risks of germs and illness. But then we are expected to birth in one?!?! Overwhelmingly I knew that my pregnant body was a natural gift. There was no pathology. There was no illness. Our baby would be an extension of our love, our family. He would bring joy to our home. Why not have him there?
Stay tuned for my first birth story: Birthing GabrielExplore posts in the same categories: empowered birth comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.