I cut my very first episiotomy last week. It was my 70th delivery. Somehow, somewhere in the back of my mind I was thinking that my first episiotomy would come after a hundred births, at least….probably more. After all, there are absolutely no advantages to cutting routine episiotomies, and it seems like the reasons you’d actually need to cut one are few and far between. At the same time, I’ve been dreading this for quite some time. Back in January I had a rather scary and traumatic delivery where nearly everything that could have possibly torn on the woman did indeed tear: cervix, perineum (3rd degree laceration), bilateral sulcus tears, clitoris, labia and periurethrea. In retrospect, this had a lot more to do with the woman’s tissue integrity and nutritional status than it did with how I managed (or mismanaged) her birth, but I got some flack from a few of the doctors I work with regarding the blatant lack of episitomy with that delivery (it was a 9lb.13oz. baby, for the record, although none of us were anticipating such a large baby). The woman needed to be brought back to the operating room and sedated in order to complete the repairs, and I was called to the operating room by the doctors to watch some of the repair (I’m not sure if this was their well-intentioned way of teaching me how to do difficult repairs like this, or if it was their way of rubbing my nose in my mistakes, to teach me an altogether different sort of lesson). In any case, the question they kept asking was: why didn’t you cut an episiotomy?
Well, I didn’t cut one because it had never occurred to me that she would tear so badly (and in retrospect, if I had cut an episitomy, I’m pretty sure it would have been a 4th degree laceration rather than a 3rd, especially given how poor her tissue integrity was), and I’ve never seen any reason to cut an episiotomy just because you think it’s going to be a big baby (I’ve seen plenty of 9+ lbs. babies delivered over intact perineums, so why in the world would you actually cut??). Not to mention that the baby delivered so quickly that I barely had time to get my gloves on, let alone pick up a pair of scissors. I told the doctors that I had never cut an episiotomy before. I meant that I had never yet cut an episotomy, not that I never would cut one, but one of the doctors in particular thought that I was stating that I would never EVER cut an episiotomy, ever, and this person was so upset by this that they brought it to the attention of my supervisor. Anyway, to make a very long story short, the cutting (or not cutting) of episiotomies had been on my mind for awhile, and I knew that I would probably end up cutting one eventually, but I wasn’t sure when, and I was dreading it.
Just saying that makes it feel like some kind of rite of passage. Is that really the case? Does it have to be that way? Do all midwives have to cut an episiotomy at some point in their careers? Are there any midwives out there who have never cut an episiotomy, ever? I feel like in the case of hospital midwifery, the need for episiotomies is probably much more prevalent simply because the large number of interventions create more situations which call for episiotomies (and by this I mean situations which truly require an episiotomy, as opposed to routine episiotomies that are cut simply to speed up the birth process, or for convenience sake, etc., although those certainly occur more frequently in hospitals anyway).
I am learning that the trick about obstetrics has everything to do with making the right intervention call at the right time. I think this might be more true of hospital births than homebirths simply because of the time pressures which are always nipping at your heels in a hospital, and the fact that so many interventions are available in the hospital setting v. the homebirth setting, and that each intervention then begets even more interventions in that notorious slippery-slope fashion. In any case, it all comes down to judgement; to knowing when something is needed versus when it’s superfluous, and this is such a delicate skill to learn, especially because the line between necessary and unecessary can be razor thin, and becuase it often fluctuates and changes throughout the birth, so that something which was unnecessary 10 hours ago when the tracing was gorgeous suddenly seems brutally necessary 12 hours later, when the tracing has changed. The judgement comes in anticipating these changes—at least as many of them as can be anticipated (which, given how unpredictable and fluid birth can be…is not actually that many). And of course, your experience affects your judgement, too. If you’ve seen several serious obstetric emergencies unfold before your eyes, if you’ve ever seen a baby or woman die, if you’ve been sued…your judgement calls are going to be very different from those who have never experienced any of these things.
Navelgazing Midwife was recently talking about this in two of her posts: The Myth of the Vertex and The Gray, Grey Messenger: Trust. Part of what you’re relying on in your care provider—be she midwife or doctor—is her judgement. That’s why she’s there. In the case of homebirth, it’s really obvious: the midwife is the guardian watching from the birth from the corner of the room. So long as everything is progressing smoothly, she won’t lift a finger to intervene, but if things begin to slide off the road of normalcy and something more is needed, you really want her to step in at that time and do what needs to be done. Ideally, in a relationship based on trust, if she says “we need to go to the hospital now”, you’ll believe her and trust her and call the ambulance, because you know she wouldn’t even be suggesting it if that weren’t truly the case. The reason she’s there is because she’s seen hundreds (maybe thousands of births) and she knows when things are normal versus when something needs to be done. The Myth of the Vertex in particular speaks to this. Just because the baby’s head is down does not necessarily gaurantee that everything will proceed smoothly to a vaginal birth. When everything doesn’t go exactly to plan, it’s not a betrayal on the part of the midwife, it’s her responding to the changing circumstances of the birth by doing what needs to be done—recognizing the change, and knowing what needs to happen next. That’s her job. That’s her judgement call right there. That’s why she’s there. That’s what you’re paying her for.
I know this sounds very defensive. To be honest, I feel incredibly defensive about this. I feel like I need to stand up on stump and say: I cut an episiotomy, but here are all my reasons for doing so, and I really think it was what was needed at the time. That’s how strongly I feel about episiotomies. It wasn’t a phony episiotomy. It wasn’t cut just to cut one. I feel like I need to somehow justify this act to the woman, her family, the universe. I didn’t want to cut it! But in this situation, I think she absolutely needed one. She’d been pushing for over 2.5 hours, the baby had been sitting on the perineum at +3 station (i.e. the point where the head remains under the pubic bone in between pushes, and crowning is usually imminent) for the past half hour without crowning, and the baby’s heart rate was really starting to reflect the baby’s exhaustion, with variable decels that were deepening with each contraction into the 60s. She was exhausted herself after a long, hard primip labor. She had had some stadol earlier in the labor, but never an epidural, and she was feeling the burn and sting of crowning but couldn’t manage to push the baby past that point. Even after I cut the episiotomy, the baby still didn’t come out right away. We tried the Ritken maneuver, but that still didn’t bring the baby’s head up and out. Finally, in the end she needed a vacuum to help deliver the baby (and if I hadn’t cut an episiotomy, the doctor would have at this point to apply the vacuum).
Ugh. Having just typed all of that out…it suddenly seems pathetic: my sad attempt to try to justify why I cut an episiotomy. I’m sure someone will call me on it and say, bold as brass: she didn’t need one, you were wrong to cut one. Maybe I was. Or maybe I’m making way too big a deal of this? I don’t know why I’m typing all of this out, why I feel the need to hyper-analyze my defensiveness—in essence, defend my defensiveness. I made a judgement call, I cut an episiotomy, I think it was necessary. That should be that. And yet, as a midwife, I view myself as a defender of intact perineums everywhere. I feel like I let this woman down in some way. I feel that so clearly and so strongly, and yet, at the same time I find myself praying that I will always be able to make the right judgement call at the right moment—that in the future, when a woman really does need an episiotomy, I won’t hesitate. I’ll do what needs to be done.
This is a messy post, as Dark Daughta would say. In her book, that’s actually a compliment. I never promised I’d have all of the answers. My response to my first episiotomy has been very complex; it’s kind of taken my by surprise, how much this has affected me. How I feel about it has been varying tremendously from day to day, minute to minute. I promised to chronicle my adventures as a new midwife— the good, the bad, the ugly, the messy….so here you go. I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about this one. It’s all a work in progress.