It’s twenty-four hours after my daughter was born and our hospital room is filled with balloons, stuffed animals and well wishers coming to see that yes, I had finally managed to reproduce. As Annie basks in her new mother glory a nurse comes in and pulls me aside.
“I’m really worried about Natalie,” she says.
“Why?” I say, surprised.
“She hasn’t eaten for several hours.”
While it’s true Annie isn’t producing much milk and Natalie’s been falling asleep at the breast, the hospital’s lactation consultant told us the baby could go without eating for at least sixteen hours before there was cause for concern. I tell the nurse this.
“I’d still like to take her into the nursery and check her out.”
Natalie’s whisked away and twenty minutes later I walk over to the nursery to see what’s happening.
“Her blood sugar is 31,” the nurse tells me. “If it’s 30 she has to go into the ICU.” For the first time parental terror grips my heart.
“See how her lip’s trembling?” she says. “That’s from low blood sugar. She’s also dehydrated.”
“So what’s the plan?”
“We’ll give her formula,” the nurse says. “Get her sugar and fluid volume back up.”
I go back to Annie’s room and deliver the news. As you might expect she gets upset. After the visitors suddenly fall into an awkward silence I politely kick everyone out, even the grandparents.
After taking care of Annie I go back to the nursery. Natalie’s polished off a bottle and her sugar is up to 41. It’s supposed to be over 60. “We’re going to give her another bottle,” the nurse says. “We’ll keep her here for observation.”
“Can you tell me why you waited until a crisis point before you intervened?” I say.
“We didn’t want to worry you,” the nurse replies.
I tamp down my fury. “My wife and I are rational and fairly well-educated adults,” I say. “When it comes to our child we want to know what’s happening. Feel free to worry us. Now, why did you wait until this point before you acted?” I also want to know why the lactation consultant’s advice turned out to be medically unsound.
“In the old days,” the nurse says, shrugging “If a baby didn’t eat for four hours we gave them formula. Now with the family friendly policy it’s different.”
Ah, the family friendly concept. The hospital’s slick brochures proudly trumpet how they encourage “skin to skin” contact, moms rooming with newborns and breastfeeding from minute one. But I’ve worked in health-care on and off for years and can read between the lines. “So there’s tension between administration encouraging breastfeeding and what the nurses think should be done?” I say. The nurse nods.
“Sounds like your family friendly policy is marketing,” I say. “I don’t care about marketing. I care about facts. I trust a blood sugar monitor. I do not trust bullshit. You have my permission to give my baby formula whenever you feel it’s warranted.”
“Get a supervisor down here. Now.”
Half an hour later an administrator arrives. At this point Natalie’s out of the woods but I’m still pissed. I calmly explain what happened. The administrator listens patiently.
“You do understand that if something happened to my child I’d sue you for millions?” I ask in a low even voice.
“Yes, sir,” she says, taken aback.
For the first time in my life I mention all the media contacts I’ve accumulated in my Rolodex and how I got them. “Your family friendly policy sounds like marketing and not medically sound. If something happened to my baby I would not rest until someone lost his or her job. Understand?”
“Here’s what’s going to happen,” I say. “My child will be under observation in the nursery tonight. Then I want a pediatrician to evaluate her prior to any talk of discharge. Someone’s ass is going to be on the line for this kid. Do you understand?”
And that folks is how you become the most popular father on the maternity ward.
The evening passes without incident and Natalie is one-hundred percent. Early the next morning another nurse intercepts me in the hallway. “I’m glad you spoke up,” she says. “We were all talking about your case this morning.” Then she tells me that the nursing staff has serious problems with the hospital’s family friendly policy and its emphasis on breastfeeding and how children are not getting enough food at times. She tells me they have had conflicts with the lactation consultants. “You’re not the first parents to run into this problem,” she says. “We’re going to have a meeting with administration and voice our concerns.”
So there you have it. A hospital’s policy put my kid at risk.
Now I’m sure that wasn’t the hospital’s plan. My mother told me horror stories of how nurses used to rule maternity wards like guilt tripping dictators so family friendly policies are probably a good change. But working in mental health showed me how even the most well-meaning plans can be full of unforeseen holes. And when hospital administrators, who often operate like feudal lords, put agendas that look good on paper over real world medical concerns, problems will arise.
A quick perusal of the Internet showed me all I ever wanted to know about the lactivists, Nipple Nazis and the breast-feeding war being waged in America. I don’t really give a shit. While I’m all for breastfeeding and recognize it’s benefits, it’s a function of nature and not an ideology. If a new mom is not making enough milk or the baby’s not latching on; giving a baby formula is not the end of the world. It will not wreck their chance of getting into Harvard. Of course every baby is different and every parent’s experience and needs will be different – but I’m talking about my baby here. This nerve wracking episode showed me you have to protect your child from day one. Even from the people who are supposed to know better.
Later that day the nurse who sounded the alarm tearfully apologizes to my wife, saying she would never again let her nursing judgment be influenced by hospital politics. I thank the nurse for speaking up and express our gratitude to her and the entire staff for taking care of Natalie.
“Sounds like you started something,” my wife says after the nurse leaves.
I look at my daughter as she sleeps in my wife’s arms. My outward demeanor is calm but a protective fire is raging within.
“Nobody fucks with us,” I whisper, stroking my daughter’s hair. “Nobody.”