When the Epidural Fails

Apr 18, 2011
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You're on your own babe.




- work, especially hard physical work

- the process of childbirth

     verb [intrans]

- work hard; make great effort


My dad used to say, “Don’t tell me about the labour pains, just show me the baby.” He’d say this when people moaned about efforts they’d put into something, making it out to be such a big deal. I’d roll my eyeballs at him, but I got it. Even after growing up and understanding the concept of “process over performance”, I still sometimes just want to say, “All right, all right, so it was difficult. Now get over it and show me what we’ve got.”

Well – pardon me – I am for once going to join the hundreds (millions?) who just must rehash the gory details of their labour.

Firstly, it’s called the Labour Room. No fancy name like “Delivery Suite”, thank you. I never noticed that the first two times, funnily. But the first two times were a relative breeze, thanks to this medical marvel called the Epidural. You are spared as much pain as you want, and you emerge from the Labour Room knowing something momentous has just happened – minus any drama of screaming. It’s all very civilised. Not for you the wailing of the poor woman down the corridor, nor the dishevelled hair and sweaty brow of a face convulsed in torment. Your doctor gives you instructions, you try your best, there’s a lot of blood and tiredness and soreness and unfortunately, stitches, but it’s relatively calm.

Unless your epidural fails.

I cannot exaggerate and say that it was exactly like the Jessica Alba and Hayden Christensen movie Awake, where he is paralysed but fully conscious and sensitised throughout open-heart surgery. Still, there was that defining moment, somewhere between 7cm to 8cm dilation, when I cottoned on that what I was feeling was unfiltered, raw pain. But it was too late to re-site the epidural needle. I was on my own. No pain relief coming, honey.

I was on my own. No pain relief coming, honey.

What it was exactly like, was that part in an action movie where the crew in the remote location are told that there is no rescue or backup team coming. They are on their own to fight off the enemy. OMG.

The enemy in this case would be the waves upon waves of sheer, unadulterated pain that hits every one and a half minutes – enclosing. You are left battered, shell-shocked, fighting just to remain intact. I clenched onto the bedrails so hard that when I awoke the following morning, my biceps felt like I’d just done the 300 workout. Seeing my state of being, the nurse passed me the laughing gas mask which I accepted gratefully. After all, hadn’t so many told me that it was a marvellous thing? This hallucinogen that freed your mind and left you floaty, dreamy, happy?

Except it didn’t. After gulping down mouthfuls of nothing, I tore my face away and accused my husband of deceiving me with plain oxygen. I would have screamed at him but I could barely summon a whisper. I was weak and whimpering, holding on, clinging on with every fibre of my being until the doctor said “It is time”.

I would have liked to say at this point that this is when you draw on some superhuman strength you never knew you had – a member of the weaker sex fulfilling her destiny. But no. You just do it, do whatever you can to end the pain.

When finally the baby comes out, in the strangest sensation of expelling ever, you want to collapse in the sweetest relief. And cry with the deepest humility, that millions before you have, and millions more still go through, this most human rite of passage. That some do it many times over. That some have a choice and some don’t. That because there are billions of us we mostly take it for granted. That bringing another human being into the world is one of the most significant labours of all.

When I was 13, My favourite book was Frank Herbert’s Dune. In the very first chapter, a test is administered to the boy, Paul. He is instructed by the Reverend Mother to put his hand into a box and to not withdraw it under any circumstances, otherwise she will kill him with a poisoned needle, a gom jabbar, that she holds at his neck. He asks her what’s in the box.

You  draw on  some superhuman  strength  you  never  knew  you  had.

“Pain,” she replies.

He does so and feels a tingling, which becomes an itch that escalates to a burning so agonizing he imagines the flesh melting off his hand. He calls out in anguish, whereupon the pain stops abruptly. When he pulls what he imagines is now a blackened stump out of the box, he sees his hand, completely normal.

“Pain by nerve induction.” She explains. “You’ve heard of animals chewing off a leg to escape a trap? There’s an animal kind of trick. A human would remain in the trap, endure the pain, feigning death that he might kill the trapper and remove the threat to his kind. A human can override any nerve in the body.” She sniffs. “We test for humans.”

This failed epidural was my gom jabbar. My test of humanness. Stripped of everything, having no other thought or feeling, focused only on surviving for the sake of giving birth. And although we may no longer be at an age or circumstance where having a baby entails boiling water or biting down on a rag, perhaps there is that brief moment in labour where it is the same and we are all equal. That moment which connects all of us humans who bear the unbearable to bear a child.


Claudine Wang used to covet higher pay, more leave, and better lunch places near her workplace. Now she just longs for an uninterrupted night’s sleep.