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Birth Stories from the Prairie

OOf all the people who live in small towns and rural or remote areas on the prairie, the bravest of the bunch are pregnant ladies.

A pregnant woman on the prairie has to be willing to spend hours driving to and from decent medical centers for prenatal care. Those terribly long drives tend to cause an aching back, frequent pee stops in less than ideal bathrooms, hunger pains with no McDonalds in sight, and many other uncivilized obstacles. But, perhaps the bravest move of all is living everyday with the possibility that she could deliver her baby before she is able to reach her doctor.

Watford City definitely qualifies as the prairie of western North Dakota. Pregnant ladies in this rural area can doctor in Williston, 45 minutes away, or Dickinson, an hour and a half away. Some with higher risk pregnancies or more intensive needs opt to travel even further to bigger hospitals.

The distance between a pregnant lady and her hospital can make a huge impact on a woman’s birth plan, birth reality, and everything in between. I sat down and talked to four Watford City moms about the unique and exciting circumstances surrounding their babies’ births.

Close Call

Megan Grames very nearly had her baby in the car last May, on the drive from Watford City to St. Alexius Hospital in Dickinson.

Megan went in for an appointment with her OBGYN at 37 weeks and when the baby was not moving as much as the doctor would have liked, she sent Megan over to the hospital to be monitored. Megan was 5 cm dilated and 70% effaced but the baby appeared to be fine and the doctors at St. Alexius didn’t detect any signs of labor so they sent Megan home.

Megan and her husband, Aaron, then made the hour and a half trek back to Watford City.

They arrived home around 7:30 pm and within 30 minutes Megan began to feel labor pains.

“At first I wasn’t quite sure if what I was feeling was really labor,” remembers Megan. “But within a few minutes, I knew it was time and that we needed to get right back on the road. Doing that drive again was not only exhausting but the long trip ahead of us made me feel panicked.”

Aaron was on the phone with the hospital trying to decide whether or not to call an ambulance while he pushed the speed limit and his wife breathed loudly beside him.

“I wasn’t screaming, I wasn’t swearing, I think I was just trying to keep it together until we got to the hospital,” says Megan. “I kept telling Aaron to drive faster. The contractions came faster and faster and pretty soon there was no reprieve between contractions and I knew we are nearly out of time.”

When they got to the hospital, Megan immediately asked for an epidural. At this point she could barely walk and the doctor quickly helped her get halfway undressed, and checked her.

“Sorry Megan, if you want this pain to stop, you just have to push. There is no time for an epidural,” the doctor told her firmly.

The doctor then broke her water and a few pushes later, little Oliver was born.

An ambulance delivery

Jillian Hunsaker with her family and the McKenzie County ambulance crew that delivered her baby

Jillian Hunsaker did deliver her baby on the road, in an ambulance, on the drive to Mercy Medical Center in Williston.

“It was the day before I was supposed to be induced, I was 39 weeks,” remembers Jillian. “I was madly cleaning my house, getting everything ready. I received a stressful phone call from my mother, and it was all downhill from there!”

Jillian got into the shower and before her hair was even washed, labor hit, and it hit hard.

“I told my husband Will that it was happening and he jumped in the car to take our other kids to a friend’s house,” says Jillian. “I got my doula, who is also an EMT, on the phone and she told me I needed to call an ambulance.”

By this time, contractions were coming on top of each other. When Will got home he met the responding police officers at the door. Jillian was pacing, unable to stand up or sit down because she was so uncomfortable.

“I think the funniest part of the whole thing was when one of the officers asked me if I wanted to put on a shirt,” laughs Jillian. “I hadn’t even realized I was completely naked. I could not have cared less.”

The ambulance arrived and Jillian and her doula, Teri Nicholson, rode in the ambulance while Will followed them in a car behind.

“We were not on the road very long before I realized that my baby was going to be born in the ambulance,” says Jillian. “Teri leaned over to me and said that I wouldn’t be getting an epidural, but I had already figured that part out, it was time for me to be tough.”

In minutes, the baby was crowning and a few pushes later she was out. She quickly got settled in on her mama’s chest and began breast-feeding.

“The best part was Will’s face when the ambulance doors opened and I was laying there with our baby!” say Jillian.

A Planned Home Birth

Another mother, Abigail Lawrence, opted to forego the drama of getting to a hospital and decided to just prepare for a home birth. She lives in town in Watford City.

“I just believed that my labor would go the smoothest in the place where I am most comfortable – which is my home,” says Abigail. “I feel so uneasy in hospitals, so uneasy going to a place where you go when you’re sick to have a baby.”

Having already had a homebirth with her first daughter in Montana, Abigail was confident in her ability to do it again. A midwife had recently relocated a few miles outside of Watford City and was more than happy to help Abigail reach her dream of a Watford City homebirth.

“Once labor started, when I was almost 41 weeks, everything happened so fast,” remembers Abigail. “We had set the pool up at 38 weeks so it was easy to get it filled with warm water and to continue my labor in there. It didn’t take long until I started to shake, my knees became weak and my water broke – I knew I was in transition and about ready to push.”

The midwife was still on the road on the way to the Lawrence’s home when Abigail started to push. She walked in the door to see little Indie in her mother’s arms, delivered by the baby’s mother and father.

“My experience delivering Indie was very empowering,” says Abigail. “It felt crazy to do it by ourselves, very warrior-like. It made me feel beyond capable with my body.”

Abigail says that she would have delivered her baby at home whether she lived near a hospital or not. It was her dream, and living on the prairie was not going to stop her.

Unplanned Circumstances

Pregnant ladies in rural North Dakota also have to be willing to be flexible if things don’t go as planned once their babies arrive.

“Women who are most at risk of having complications related to the hospital being so far away, are those who labor really fast,” says Nancy Merrell, mother of six in Watford City. “I am in that category, so when I was pregnant with twins, I opted to have a planned c-section to avoid any possible dangers that way.”

And as happens sometimes with c-sections, Nancy’s second twin, Londyn, ingested some fluid and got pneumonia shortly after her birth.

As doctors were getting baby Londyn on a 48 hour antibiotic to treat her pneumonia, the first twin, Landon, developed a pneumothorax, which is when air collects in the chest cavity and can cause a lung to collapse.

“The doctors were worried because the nursery at St. Joseph’s in Dickinson was not equipped to deal with a pneumothorax,” says Nancy. “They wanted to transport him over to the NICU in Bismarck before we were in an emergency situation.”

The problem was, however, that Londyn had to stay and finish her rounds of antibiotics before they would release her from Dickinson and Landon needed to get to Bismarck as soon as possible.

“My husband, Woody, went to Bismarck and I stayed back with Londyn,” says Nancy. “As soon as she was released, we went to Bismarck and my husband went home to Watford City to be with our other kids.”

Alone, unable to drive and stuck in a vacant room at the hospital, Nancy visited the NICU every four hours and took care of her other baby for her six day stay.

“Already prone to postpartum depression, it was a very dark time for me,” remembers Nancy. “I was so isolated, and my friends and family were so far away. It was so difficult to be alone.”

The stories of these rural North Dakota mothers paints them as a tough breed, not afraid to do what’s required of them to deliver their babies in whatever insane circumstances that might occur.

“My best advice is just to be as prepared as possible,” says Jillian Hunsaker. “Listen to your body and get yourself to a hospital sooner than later. If all else fails though, have faith in your body and in the great first responders in our area who are trained to help you. Babies are ultimately going to come when and how they want to, we are just along for the ride.

Written by Betsy Ryan

Betsy Ryan

Betsy Ryan resides in Watford City and is a recent transplant to Western North Dakota. She is learning to navigate her new landscape along with her husband and their two boys. Betsy writes for the McKenzie County Farmer and also shares her experiences in North Dakota on her blog, oilgoesboom.com

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