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Something a little more personal.

I’ve had the bulk of this written for a while and have been going back and forth about posting it. I guess is okay to be a little

vulnerable now and then.

A few weeks ago I read A Farewell to Arms by Earnest Hemingway. I didn’t know much about it but it’s a classic and I wanted to read it. Warning: I’m going to spoil the end of the book if it’s possible to spoil something that’s almost 100 years old. Because I knew so little about the story, at the end of the book Frederic loses his baby and his wife Catherine in childbirth. I was not prepared for this at all and reading it hit me like I punch to the gut. I don’t get emotional when I read and I read a lot but when I got to this part I said “oh no” out loud and had to stop reading for a few minutes before finishing up. It hit me hard and got me thinking of the events I’m about to tell you about, but also about reading and writing in general. First, though, a story.

It was April 2009. A Tuesday. I was working as a teacher and it was the Tuesday of our spring break so I had the rest of the week off. And I was at the hospital with my wife to have our second child. My son was at home with my mother-in-law. And I was with my wife walking around the halls and supporting her as best I could.

My wife’s regular doctor wasn’t there all day but the on call doctor kept coming in to check in on mother and baby. Everything was going as planned. It had been a long afternoon for Mandy but the doctors, the nurses, everyone who came in kept telling us everything was going as planned. The doctor came to check one last time, still, everything looked good. The doctor left saying she’d be back in about ten or fifteen minutes and my wife would start pushing.

This was it.

A few minutes later, the nurse came in for a regular check of vitals and noticed the baby’s heart rate had dropped. She explained that it happened sometimes and it wasn’t a big deal. (I should note here our son is adopted so while this was our second child it was our first time going through this process) She had my wife change positions and the heart rate went back up. Great. No problem.

A few minutes after that the doctor returned and the baby’s heart rate had dropped a second time. She tried to rub the baby’s head and move positions again, this time the heart rate did not go back up. From there things happened fast. My wife and I didn’t really know what was going on.

“We need to get the baby out,” someone said to my wife.

“Okay,” she said. We were still more excited than nervous not understanding what they were saying. (I’m realizing just now that this was probably done on purpose to keep us from freaking out.)

In my head, everything was still fine, we had planned for this. If a c-section was needed I’d put on scrubs, go into the operating room and stand on one side of the curtain by my wife’s head while the c section was performed on the other side of the curtain.

Everything was fine. We were just switching from Plan A to Plan B. No problem.

I started to put on the scrubs to enter the operating room as three nurses and the doctor rushed my wife down to the end of the hall.

“I just go in?” I asked the nurse as they left the room. I didn’t have the scrub pants on yet and so I brought them with me. They wheeled my wife into the operating room and closed the door behind them. Nurses began going quickly in and out of the operating room while I tried to get my scrubs on over my pants in the hallway so I could go in.

The one thing I had told my wife in the weeks leading up to the birth was that I would be there for her and the baby, no matter what. And here I was standing in the hall not with her or the baby after making that promise. (Again, I realize now that I was not the top priority and I don’t blame anyone. I had no idea what was happening on the other side of the door and I felt completely in the dark.)

All sorts of hospital staff began running up and down the hall and in and out of the operating room. This is when I realized something was wrong but I didn’t know what happened. Over the speakers they announced “Code White, Code White.” I had no idea what that meant at the time. I didn’t know if there was something wrong with my wife, with the baby or with both. I knew nothing.  To be honest, I didn’t even think to look up “code white” until just now writing this. Apparently it means pediatric emergency. I’m not sure if I’m glad I didn’t know that back then or not.

I was still standing outside the operating room trying to look in each time the door opened. Finally someone walked by and I asked what happened and what should I do. I still wasn’t told anything, only that I should go back to the room and wait.

More hospital staff ran up and down the hall. Back in the room—which was now mostly empty because they had taken my wife in the bed— I paced back and forth. No one came in. No one told me anything. My heart was pounding. I couldn’t stop moving. I didn’t know what to do and I was certain if I wasn’t having a heart attack, I was about to.

My mom worked in the lab at the hospital back then and she’d been working that day, staying late so she could come up after the baby was born. I was still pacing the room when she showed up.

“Joe,” she said. “What happened?”

“I don’t know,” I said. Then I explained everything that had happened so far—though it was probably not as coherent as I thought it was at the time.

“We got a blood vial down in the lab that said ‘Baby Scipione’ on it. Is Mandy okay?” She said.

I told her I didn’t know.

She tried to help me calm down but it didn’t work. I couldn’t stop moving or slow my heart rate down at all.

Someone came in—I couldn’t tell you who anyone was by this point. I asked what happened and they said the baby was okay but they weren’t sure about my wife. A few minutes later someone else came in and told me my wife was fine and they were still working on the baby. I had no idea what that meant.

Eventually they brought my wife in and gave us all of the information. Though Mandy was still out of it from the surgery. The baby had been born not breathing and having a seizure. The baby’s heart was not beating. They immediately began CPR which lasted anywhere for 22 to 25 minutes depending on who you talked to. It was then I learned the baby was a girl because we didn’t want to know before the birth. The baby’s heart started and they were able to get her on a breathing machine to keep her oxygen levels up. Her brain was swelling. There was a hospital about 30 minutes away that had a pediatric sized cooling blanket—a new device at the time—and they needed to get the baby there and on the cooling blanket to stop the swelling in her brain and try to limit the damage. There was a strong chance though she would not survive the 30 minutes to the hospital. They couldn’t wait around for me to travel in the ambulance with her they needed to take her right away. So they brought her in so we could see her, and left in a matter of seconds. While there they baptized her and gave her last rites—just in case.

The next 45 minutes are a bit of a blur. I remember filling out the birth certificate for Isabella. Because of the surgery she just had, my wife couldn’t travel to the other hospital. I was in no condition to drive so my mom brought me to the other hospital. I remember hugging my wife—both of us in tears—right before I left. I remember getting to the NICU at the second hospital and meeting with the doctor there. I couldn’t tell you anything he said other than that Isabella was the sickest baby they had at the NICU. I remember sitting by Isabella looking at her as she lay on the cooling blanket, her skin was almost purple. She had the breathing tube in her mouth. She was cool, unmoving but alive.

All of this had started at around 4 in the afternoon. When I was sitting by Isabella it was 2 or 3 in the morning. One of the nurses told me it might be a good idea for me to try to get some sleep because nothing would change for a while.  They had a room with a bed set up for me—there wasn’t much room where the cooling blanket was—so I went into the room, laid down, closed my eyes and cried. Within minutes, one of the nurses came into the room.

“I thought you might want to know she just pulled out her breathing tube,” she said.

“Oh,” I said. “Is that a good thing?”

“Well,” she said. “I’d say that’s a good sign.”

I ended up going back into the room and sitting with Isabella for the rest of the night.

I’m going to stop this story there because I think Isabella extubating herself while in a hypothermic state was the best indication of her personality. Her stubbornness and toughness is what has helped her get further than any of the doctors or nurses thought she would get on the first night of her life.

I don’t know that I’ve ever told anyone this entire story. As I was writing it, more memories came back to me, details that I haven’t thought about in 15 years and it all came out because I read that Hemingway book.

Before I was a writer, I was a reader. I can remember sitting in bed as a kid late at night with a book—back then it was usually Stephen King or a Star Trek book—and reading page after page getting so involved in the story that I would feel anxious, my palms sweating as I nervously turned page after page waiting to see what would happen next.

I loved that feeling and it’s what kept me wanting to find it again in the next book I picked up and then the next one after that. When I write, I want readers to feel the same way about my books. I want them to keep turning the pages late at night because they have to know what happens next. I want them to feel that same anxiety I felt.

What does all this have to do with A Farewell to Arms? You’re probably asking yourself. It’s that sometimes experiencing or creating any type of art is all about timing. My first experience with Hemingway was in high school. It was The Sun Also Rises. I read the book, but I didn’t get the book. I was too young and didn’t have the life experience to full grasp why Hemingway was considered one of the greats. Because of that I hadn’t read another Hemingway book until I picked up A Farewell to Arms a few weeks ago. Because of the story you just read, I was able to connect with the book in a way I wouldn’t have been able to before April 2009.

I find this also to be true in my writing. Yes, everything I write is fictional, but in each book I can look back at it and tell where I was and what was going on in my life at that time. In a way the book (or any piece of art) becomes a snap shot of the artists headspace when they create it. Writing fiction is all about emotion and the more of themselves the author puts on the page, the better the book will be. If you write with emotion, your words will resonate with readers.

If you read this all the way through, thanks for reading. If you’re a reader of my books, (or just any books in general—they don’t have to be mine) keep on reading and connecting with those books. If you come across a book you can’t get into just remember that if might not be the right time for that book. If you’re a writer, keep writing and use those hard times and the emotions you felt in your writing, I know I will. Until next time…


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