‘m laying on top of a special mat designed to soak up bodily fluids wrapped in a hospital gown. The mat crunches like dry cereal each time I gingerly shift in the bed. A thin tube, like a straw, starts inside my body and hangs out, helping to drain the infection. In my hand is a cannula, an intravenous tube.
Periodically, a nurse comes to do observations or to hook me up to antibiotics, clear bags of fluid that run cool through my veins. I’m given morphine before I slowly shuffle to the toilet.
But I haven’t been in a car accident, had a nasty fall down the stairs, and I don’t have cancer. I am in this hospital bed because just four days before, I had given birth.
Nine months earlier, we were living in east London, and I’d just been promoted at my job at The Times. Our weekends consisted of sleeping in, roast lunches in cosy pubs or hopping over to Europe. Then, six weeks before our wedding day, I discovered the flu I thought I had over Christmas was actually a baby growing inside me. I did six tests to be sure and then I cried.
But I didn’t feel like I had any choice but to keep the baby — I wasn’t young (I was in my thirties) and we were about to be married. We were going to eventually try for a family, so it was just like our firstborn had just arrived unannounced and uninvited. We had to accept and adapt.
As my belly grew, I tried to imagine what birth would be like. I’d already decided on having the strongest pain relief short of general anesthetic and hoped the process would be as straightforward for me as it was for my mum.
Instead — after labouring on the side of the road while we waited for the Uber to take us to the maternity ward, curious glances being shot in my direction by bored commuters — my labor was long. And arduous. After more than an hour pushing, the words “fetal distress” and “emergency delivery” were uttered, and I was wheeled into theatre. More drugs were injected into my spine and I was commanded to PUSH while the obstetrician wielded a pair of forceps.
The next day, stitched up, exhausted and in pain, I was told I could go home. My husband, tiny son and I were bundled into a taxi and which delivered us to our flat where we wandered, dazed. For days we didn’t sleep, for days the pain became worse, and for days the baby screamed. The only thing that seemed to make him calm — apart from feeding — was taking him for walks.
The first time we went out as a family — an event I imagined to be full of joy and proudly sharing him off to gushing strangers — was so depressing I wished we could go back and practice safer sex. I could only take small, slow steps and eventually the pain grew so bad,
I sat on my husband’s jacket on a cold bench, while hot tears streamed down my face as I watched him walk effortlessly down the wooded path with my baby. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
But then, it got worse. One Sunday afternoon, I breastfed my son then handed him to my husband and sister-in-law to take him out. It was a chance for me to peel off the milk-stained clothes and have a hot shower. It was a chance to pass out from exhaustion. Not long after lying down, I started shivering. Then the shivering got so bad, I could hardly pick up my phone to call my husband.
When he answered, my jaw was clenched and I couldn’t get the words out. All I could manage was panicked grunts and then they were there, concerned and hovering and scared. Soon, though, it abated and I felt okay again — we chalked it down to blood sugar or cold, wet hair.
Just before midnight, it happened again. I called the hospital and they told me to come in.
In a fog, I walked out with my baby, not even taking a nappy bag. My temperature was over 40C (104F); the tremors came and went and my blood pressure was dangerously low. Immediately, I was admitted and wheeled back to the maternity ward for antibiotics. “You have an infection,” said the nurse. “We need to find out where it is.”
It wasn’t in my uterus, it wasn’t at the site of the stitches, it wasn’t anywhere they could see. Instead, an abscess had formed deep inside my glute muscle, perhaps from the forceps used to deliver my baby four long days before. Then, they said the words no new mother with stitches in her genitals wants to hear.
“We’re going to have to reopen the wound and drain the infection that way,” the surgeon said gently. I cried, far beyond hiding my distress from strangers.
While I was under GA, they found the infection. It was more than 2 inches wide. They cleaned out what they could and the rest was left to drain out through the thin tube.
Friends came to see the new baby, while I lay in bed, barely able to move, and watched, numb, as they laughed and cooed over my son.
Eventually, the catheter was removed and I was forced onto my feet to weakly make my way to the toilet to do a poo, the drain hanging between my legs like a hard tampon string and my labia so swollen it looked like testicles. “I need you to help wipe me,” I said to my new husband. “I don’t know where anything is any more.”
He stood outside until I was ready, and then gently cleaned me up. “I’m sorry,” I sobbed. “Don’t be sorry,” he said. “It’s nothing to worry about.” I’ve never loved him more than in that moment.
After a few days, the drain was removed, a painful process of tugging as the raw flesh inside me let it go. I was told they weren’t going to restitch it. They were going to let it heal “naturally”, from the “inside out” so they didn’t seal in any infection again. “But how can it heal without stitches and not be badly scarred?” I asked. I imagined a deep wound on my arm being left to heal on its own and how it would look. The doctors and nurses wouldn’t say.
Instead, they did something they called “packing”. It involved shoving gauze soaked in sterile solution being forced deep into the wound. It was removed and refreshed up to four times a day. More if it fell out while I was going to the toilet, which was often.
And it didn’t stop when I was sent home. A nurse would arrive and I would lay unceremoniously on our sofa, our reading lamp pointed between my legs. Our bookshelf became overrun with medical supplies and my husband would bring my drugs to me in little plastic shot glasses.
Weeks and weeks later, they said I was healed. I dug out a handheld mirror and hesitantly took a look. And cried. What looked to me like a second, smaller vagina was spliced onto my original one at a crude 45 degree angle.
“How can this be healed?” I asked the specialist wound nurse. “Is this is good as it will be?” She smiled and told me that it was no longer open and that the skin had healed nicely. Fixed, but disfigured.
As the months rolled by, the constant pain abated and I could walk longer and farther. I was able to sit on hard surfaces and even the anal fissure — a small tear that meant doing a poo was sheer agony — had been addressed by yet another specialist with expensive ointment and had healed.
A year later, I saw another obstetrician. “Technically, your vagina still functions — but there is a lot of scar tissue, so if you wanted to, you could get surgery after you’ve finished your family for aesthetic reasons,” he said.
I thought about it. I hated that, after swimming, water that had pooled there would gush out in a warm wave after standing up. I hated how it looked. I hated letting my husband venture down there during foreplay.
But… I wouldn’t get surgery to cover up the scar on my leg where I was sliced by an oyster shell. Or the one on my fingers where I picked up a shard of glass as a toddler.
Or the jagged one on my back, where a melanoma was cut out when I was 20. So why should this one — as big and as ugly as it is — be any different?
My scars tell my life story. And this one is a physical mark of the time I brought life into the world. It is proof that I could’ve died. But I didn’t. And I am happy to be reminded of that.