The Journey of Katarina Chapa

Katarina Chapa Website.jpg

The bright lights of the emergency room were something I was already familiar with when I first entered. I had been there 2 weeks previously when my baby boy stopped moving in my belly and they rushed me into an unplanned C-section. This time, however, I was here for a different reason. This time, I was the life that needed saving.

Our little Maxon was born April 14, 2018 and weighed 5lbs 14oz. He was born very pale and what doctors thought was just his complexion ended up being something more. Maxon was suffering from fetal maternal hemorrhage in the womb, a condition not much is known about because it is so rare. Blood has difficulty circulating and reentering the placenta and the result is a very anemic baby. Maxon ended up needing 5 blood transfusions and doctors said had we waited any longer, we wouldn’t have been so lucky. Maxon spent about 9 days in the NICU. These were the hardest days of my life. The first day Maxon was even born, he was rushed to the NICU and I didn’t get to see him until the next day. This was all so completely different from the traditional birth I was so looking forward to having. I wanted to give birth the natural way and hold and cuddle with my baby afterwards. I wanted to breastfeed him and know that he was perfectly fine. Everything was so opposite from this fairytale.  

When I first saw Maxon after giving birth, he had a tube down his throat that made it impossible for him to make any noises, not even cry. I felt like he was hurting but that there was nothing I could do for him. I immediately broke down and started crying. I felt like our little baby wasn’t going to make it. Doctors were still running tests to see how the blood loss affected his vital organs and the waiting game was oh so torturous. My fiancé kept optimistic the entire time, but I wanted to be realistic. My hormones were all over the place. I was perfectly fine one minute in my hospital room, but then when I’d think about Maxon, I’d begin to bawl. I remember crying uncontrollably after giving birth, before I even knew anything was wrong with Maxon. I just couldn’t stop crying. At the time, I remember saying I was crying because I couldn’t feel my legs, but I think I just had so many emotions running through my mind that I didn’t know how to express myself other than crying.  

Eventually Maxon got stronger and we were so blessed to find out that all of his organs seemed unharmed. After 9 days, we finally got to take him home. The part we had been looking forward to the most would become the part I would regret. Immediately the night Maxon was brought home, I didn’t feel myself. My fiancé’s family stopped by and I felt like a zombie, not knowing how to act.  My mother had driven in to spend the first night at home with us. She wanted to help us get some rest and offered to take over every other night feeding. She was such a big help. In the morning, she even helped me try to breastfeed Maxon. But he just wasn’t catching on. In the NICU, he was bottle-fed my breast milk the whole time, and I feel like this was new territory for him that he wasn’t comfortable with. We tried everything, including a nipple shield, but nothing seemed to convince him. He would drink for a few seconds and then stop. I decided I would go back to exclusively pumping for him until maybe he got stronger. But pumping was beginning to take a toll on me. I felt like a cow being milked and envied the bonding experience breastfeeding mothers had with their babies. I hated every part of the pumping experience. The pumping. The careful filling of the bags to make sure nothing spilled. The labeling with a Sharpie. Was this safe? Would the toxins in the Sharpie marker somehow permeate the plastic and enter the bag? The storage. How long should I keep it in the fridge before using it or freezing it? The Internet says so many different things. The warming of the milk. How long should I leave it under this running water? Is it warm yet or too warm? And lastly, the cleaning of the bottles. My least favorite part. Were the bottles cleaned well enough? Was the bottle brush contaminated and could I get my baby sick?

These internal thoughts eventually began to transcend into every aspect of being a mother for me. I couldn’t sleep at night, because I was scared that when I did, Maxon would stop breathing. I went to the extremes of putting a sock on him that monitors his oxygen and pulse. But the dang sock never fit quite right, so all night, I was constantly refreshing my phone to make sure the sock was still monitoring his levels correctly. I didn’t know when to sleep. They say sleep when your baby sleeps, but did that mean during the day too? I was exhausted all day and would take naps, but I desperately wanted some contact with the outside world. Being upstairs in our bedroom, I felt the most isolated I had ever felt. I remember going to CVS after Maxon’s first checkup and looking around at people and wondering if I would ever have that freedom and independence again. I didn’t think at the time that it was feasible for me to be one of those moms who just takes their baby everywhere with them. What if my baby started to cry in the store? Or what if I couldn’t get the stroller to open? My independence was something I loved so much prior to getting pregnant and I felt like it was gone now. My whole life now revolved around a little, tiny baby.  

My world felt like it was spiraling out of control. I wanted to have control of every aspect of my baby, but I couldn’t. I so desperately wanted to be the one doing all the feedings, because I was scared that my fiancé would drop Maxon as he was feeding him, but the pure exhaustion wouldn’t allow me the ability to do so. I felt so bad having Mike help with the feedings, because he was in his last semester of college and finals were quickly approaching. Even though I was in the same boat as well, I at least had extensions on all my assignments and was excused from going to class. Eventually, Mike would have to go back to class and I would be left all alone with Maxon. The day finally came and I was terrified. I began bawling as he left, but at the same time ensured him I would be okay. This became the new routine. Being alone all day, I would just cry. I didn’t feel comfortable being a mom and felt like a failure for everything going down the way it did. I began to wonder what life would be like not as a mother and envied friends who didn’t have this added responsibility. I began to lose a lot of weight, because I couldn’t eat. When I tried eating, I would vomit. The only thing I could get to stay down were liquids. My hygiene started slipping too. Taking a shower was such a chore, but I did it because I knew at least I could have some alone time and cry in silence. I finally decided I wanted to do something about it when I reached out to my OB/GYN. She tried to convince me that what I was feeling was normal and a part of being a new mom. I almost left empty-handed, but once my fiancé told her about how I had been experiencing uncontrollable crying, we got her attention. She prescribed me Zoloft but reminded me that it would take a while to kick in. I was happy to have finally gotten some acknowledgment that the way I had been feeling wasn’t entirely normal. But after one day of being on Zoloft, I reached my breaking point. I knew the medication wouldn’t kick in right away, but I had the unrealistic hope that maybe it would. When it didn’t, I began to panic. I found my thoughts wandering to thoughts of running away and how free I would be. Eventually, I found myself not wanting to live anymore. I would look over at my pill bottle and wonder if the whole bottle would do the trick. Fortunately, I was able to recognize that these thoughts weren’t my own and immediately called my mother. I went to the nursery and sat in the rocking chair crying to my mom asking for her guidance. She informed me to do what I had already planned on doing. I had my sister drive me to the nearest emergency room and we waited to be seen. I was so worried I wouldn’t be taken seriously and sent back home. I knew that if I was sent back home, I probably wouldn’t have lasted another night. Luckily, I was taken such good care of while in the emergency room. The nurse assured me that it wasn’t my fault and that I did the right thing by coming in. My mother made the 2 hour drive up to Corpus to be with me in the hospital and I remember asking her if she thought everyone was capable of being a mother. I felt deep in my heart that I was one of those women that just wasn’t meant to be a mom, despite what everyone kept telling me. I wanted to give up my child for adoption, because I just felt like I had lost my sense of identity. I didn’t know who I was anymore. My mother assured me it was postpartum depression talking and that I was going to be just fine.

Eventually, the nurse had me speak with an intake nurse at a local behavioral hospital to determine if I should be admitted. They asked me a series of questions regarding my family history of mental illnesses and my current symptoms. They determined that I matched their criteria and could be admitted to their facility. I was taken in an ambulance in the middle of the night to an unknown place. I had no idea where I was, but luckily, my mom was able to come along with me for the intake process. We were buzzed in and met with a nurse. The nurse asked me a series of questions and then the time came when my mother had to leave and go home. I was given a piece of paper to write down phone numbers on, because I’d have to give up my phone. I knew all of my important contact numbers by memory, as if I had been preparing for this moment my whole life. My mom and I said our goodbyes, and she whispered to me to look for the light. And that’s what I did the whole time I was there. 

It just so happens that week I spent at the behavioral hospital happens to be the same week as Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week. I find this to be no coincidence. I was taken to my room late at night and was placed with a roommate. All I saw was a foreign body asleep in the bed next to mine. I was changed into paper scrubs, checked for lice and then I finally had a chance to get some rest, or at least I would try. They left our door open and would check in on us every 15 minutes throughout the night to make sure we were okay. After many guilty thoughts of leaving my family behind, I was finally able to get some rest. I was awoken by the nurse drawing blood from my roommate’s arm. I was worried I’d be next because of my fear of needles, but luckily she just needed to check my vitals.  The light shined in through our frosted window, but I couldn’t see the sun or anything else outside. I worried that this place might feel lonelier than my home, but I was willing to give it a try. For the first day, I spent the day catching up on rest in my room. I’d come out from time to time and find people in the common’s area drawing or watching TV. I was scared of this new environment, but the patients there were so welcoming. I pulled up a seat next to them and they asked me about my story. Little by little, I learned everyone’ s story. Everyone there was just as normal as me. They were just facing the demon that is depression. One woman had just lost her son and was having a terrible time grieving. Another man’s 7-year relationship with the woman he loved had just come to an end and his ex-girlfriend had kept custody of their child. Some patients there were just long-time depression sufferers and needed a safe place to cope. Finally, I felt like I was somewhere where people understood me.

Everyday, we would wakeup and have group therapy, take a walk outside, go to the gym, make our phone calls, color, watch TV, and play dominoes. The food wasn’t so bad either. I finally had the chance to speak with a psychiatrist and he assured me that everything I was going through was all part of postpartum depression. I listed every intrusive thought I had, and once again he assured me it was all part of PPD. He prescribed me a medication that would help kick in the Zoloft quicker and asked that I stay a few more days to be monitored. I was okay that. I didn’t feel quite ready to leave yet. In the back of my head, I was hoping that he would prescribe me a medication that I couldn’t breastfeed with, but he was careful to find one that was safe. I was given time everyday to pump in the back room. I remember crying as I was pumping on my first day there, because my fiancé and mother were coming to visit me and I didn’t want them to see me like this, still in my paper scrubs. But the nurse motivated me pushed me to still go to visitation.

It was nice to see the familiar faces of my fiancé and mother for some time. They were happy that I was getting help, but I still felt guilty. Mike was in the middle of Final’s week caring for a newborn baby, and here I was playing dominoes and eating Rice Krispy Treats. But I knew while I was in there, I was getting better, so I stuck it out. On one particular day, I remember lying in my room and feeling a calmness overtake my body. I wasn’t anxious anymore. I felt at ease and the intrusive thoughts had finally gone away. I feel like this was the moment the medications finally began working. After 3 days of being hospitalized I was finally discharged to be with my family. I felt confident that I was on track to get better. I spent the first week home at my fiance’s mother’s house so that we could have extra help and I gave up breastfeeding, something that I feel also triggered my postpartum depression. Eventually, we moved back into our townhome and things became a lot easier. I was happier, less lonely, and could finally focus on enjoying the present. I was so grateful. I now have a beautiful 1-year old baby boy and the time I spent with untreated postpartum depression is now far in my past. The words NICU, C-section, formula, and postpartum depression are all words I did not see coming up in my future. They’re words that often times make mothers feel less than. But these words are a part of my story and I refuse to stop writing them because they have made me the strong mother I am today.