BIG WHITE BOX
Over a decade as an EMT, Allen has never had the privilege of delivering a baby.
Not even close.
But there she was, the mother-to-be, her voice a strained whisper over the phone. Thirty-eight weeks pregnant, in labor, contractions mounting, water broken – the whole catastrophe.
Allen sits in the back with the laboring mom, and I’m behind the wheel.
“Move, people!” I shout. “Big white truck, flashy lights, wailing sirens! Pull over and stop!”
Panting echoes from the back of the ambulance, mirroring the mother’s breaths.
“Stay calm! You can do this!”
Two golden rules:
No one is born in the back of the ambulance, and no one dies.
If your heart stops, we’ll keep it beating.
If you can’t breathe, we’ll do it for you.
And when your baby’s on the way, we’ll get you to the hospital as fast as possible.
Allen clings to his seat as we weave in and out of traffic, reciting his mental checklist of crucial questions.
Gravida: How many pregnancies?
Para: How many deliveries?
“Don’t panic, Allen!” I say. “Just imagine babies parachuting out of the mom – that’ll help you remember.”
“Call my husband!” the mom pleads. “Tell him the baby’s coming.”
As Allen fumbles with her phone, he manages to reach the dad.
“Your wife,” he says, his voice a shaky stammer, “She wants you to meet us so you can deliver the baby?”
A pothole rattles the ambulance, and Allen adds, “You put it in there. Why do I have to be the one to take it out?”
Red light up ahead. I hit the brakes to avoid catastrophe. A cop flashes her lights and blocks the intersection so we can speed through. The phone slips from Allen’s grasp.
“Oxygen! Get a mask!”
“Good idea!” Allen exclaims. Cabinets slide open, and his voice takes on a muffled quality. “I’ll just put a little oxygen on.”
“Not you! Put it on the mom! Brace yourself!”
We swerve around a pedestrian, tires screeching.
“How far apart are the contractions? Do you remember how to time them?”
I can hear Allen’s watch beeping over the chaos.
“From the start of the first contraction,” he says, “to the beginning of the next one.”
“One, one-thousand. Two, one-thousand,” he counts. “If the next contraction is longer than the one before it, that means the baby is moving farther away.”
“No, Allen! That’s thunderstorms! Relax! Check for crowning! Look between her legs!”
“Oh, dear God,” Allen murmurs.
The mom screams.
“What do you see?”
“I can’t do this,” he says.
“You’re going to do this! We’re almost there!”
The ambulance turns hard, and I ask, “Do you see a head or not?”
“No, but her vagina…”
“What about it?”
Allen stands at the mom’s feet, shielding his eyes with one hand.
“… It looks like it’s mad at me!”
“We’re just a few minutes away! Hang on!”
Tires screech, and we hear the sound of ripping tape.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m putting some tape over it,” Allen shouts.
“You know,” he says. “To keep it closed so the baby stays in.”
“Don’t tape her vagina shut!”
“Call for backup!” he shouts.
“We don’t need backup! Brace yourself!”
We’re going the wrong way down a one-way street.
No worries, though.
When people see us barreling toward them, they part like the Red Sea.
Mom screams in agony.
“Does she have the urge to push?”
In the rearview mirror, I see Allen’s face turn ghostly pale.
“I have an urge,” he says, “to jump into traffic.”
“Hang tight! We’re almost there! Call the hospital on the radio! Tell them we’re coming in hot!”
Amidst the background screams of the mom, Allen informs the hospital staff of our incoming delivery.
Within moments, we screech to a halt outside the emergency entrance.
Allen stumbles out, and we quickly wheel the mom on a stretcher, her legs splayed beneath a blanket.
We rush through the double doors.
“What room?” asks Allen.
The nurse at the triage desk, casually chewing gum, hands us a plastic card attached to a copper pipe.
The badge grants us access to the elevator leading to the labor and delivery floor.
“Down the hall! Keep moving! Don’t stop!”
Our footsteps shuffle, and the gurney wheels spin faster than ever.
“The baby’s coming,” she gasps.
Sweat pours from Allen’s brow as the elevator takes its sweet time.
When the doors finally slide open, we find a man with a towering meal cart inside. A hairnet covers his afro, and earphones pump beats into his skull. He watches us enter as though nothing unusual is happening.
The doors close.
Baby’s arrival is imminent.
Just a few more moments, and she’ll be in the care of the labor and delivery staff.
Suddenly, a loud bang shakes the floor.
The lights flicker.
The elevator grinds to a halt.
“No, no, no,” Allen mutters.
The meal cart guy rolls his eyes but continues nodding to the rhythm of his music.
Sweat streams down Allen’s face.
“It’s coming!” the mom cries out.
Allen’s pallor worsens.
“It’s okay. Take a deep breath. Get the OB kit. If this baby has to be delivered in an elevator, then so be it.”
But panic floods Allen’s features.
He didn’t bring the OB kit.
He’s not even wearing gloves.
“I didn’t know we’d make it this far,” he says. “I thought we were stopping in the ER, and they would deliver.”
Mom’s labored breaths turn into anguished wails.
The urge to push overwhelms her.
We lower the stretcher as close to the ground as possible and remove her blanket.
She sits with her legs spread wide.
“This isn’t happening,” Allen mumbles.
“Yes, it is.”
The baby’s head starts to emerge.
Every aspect of the female anatomy is now uncomfortably close to Allen.
“You can do this!”
“I can’t do this,” he protests.
“Babies have been delivered since the dawn of humanity. Cave dwellers once ushered their children into the world with nothing but dirt, rocks, and sticks.”
The man with the meal cart nods, either to the beat of his music or in agreement with the caveman’s statement.
“Coach Mom. This has to happen.”
The constant ringing of the elevator alarm provides a soundtrack to the mom’s screams as she labors without anesthesia.
“Grab a towel. Grab a sheet. Grab something because this baby is coming.”
Allen braces himself with his bare hands as if ready to catch a football.
“What the hell is that?” he demands.
“It’s the baby’s head.”
It’s slick and pushing through.
“Put it back,” he yells over the newborn’s wails. “This isn’t right!”
“The baby is coming out headfirst; that’s what we want.”
Allen studies the mom from head to toe.
“There’s a crying head at both ends!”
The baby stops at the shoulders.
“Just a few more pushes from Mom, and we’re home-free.”
Allen has to grip the baby’s head as the shoulders pass through.
Now he regrets not wearing gloves.
“One more big push from Mom, and the rest is a piece of cake.”
“Don’t say that,” Allen snaps. “I’ll never eat cake again!”
The mom grunts and bears down hard, delivering the shoulders.
The baby slips into Allen’s bare hands like it’s coming off a water slide.
“Here’s a towel. Wipe it off.”
“I thought Kraft Macaroni was the cheesiest,” Allen shouts. “Oh, God. What’s that smell?”
Mom smacks Allen with a towel.
“Just hold the baby. Warm it up.”
He needs to use the tools strapped to the pockets of his tactical pants.
He has to clamp the cord.
His hands shake.
“Not that! That’s the baby’s penis! You need to clamp the umbilical cord! Grab your scissors. You need to cut it, too.”
“No way,” says Allen. “Things don’t work when they’re not plugged in!”
The cord is cut.
The meal tray guy snickers, tapping his fingers to the beat on the side of his pants.
Allen gags a few times while holding the baby and wiping away its sticky goop with the towel.
“Smiling suppresses the gag reflex.”
The baby cries.
Allen, grinning from ear to ear, cries too.
“Congratulations to all three of you!”
The mom cradles the baby in her arms.
The alarm bell stops.
The elevator starts moving again.
Allen looks like he’s just been on a rollercoaster ride.
His eyes are wide, and his hair is a mess.
A moment later, the car slows to a stop.
The doors slide open, revealing a doctor, two nurses, and the mom’s husband standing in shock.
Their jaws hang open at the sight of the blood-stained elevator floor and the five of us.
As the bell dings once more, Mom delivers the placenta.
The only sound is it splattering on the elevator floor.
Allen stands and wipes his hands on his pants.
His eyes are fixed on the ground.
“Well,” he says, stepping out of the elevator. “What’s for dinner?”
We all watch Allen leave.
We’re all in disbelief.
So much we’re still standing there when the elevator doors close again.