A year ago, I began teaching an online Introduction to Sociology class at a local private university. Since the university mostly offers health-related disciplines to its students, the class is merely a prerequisite for MCAT takers rather than a subject that students voluntarily choose to study. To make the coursework more meaningful and relevant for the students, I’ve designed the course to center on health and medicine, as they are related to people’s class, gender, and race. One of the topics we cover is health disparity. To explain how different systems of oppression such as racism and sexism affect real people’s lives, we discuss how some groups in our society are more likely to get sick and others less likely so.
Because pregnancy constitutes a limited time period (making it easier to isolate the control variables) and health records related to birth and pregnancy are often accessible with consent, pregnancy outcomes make one of the best health indicators in the research of medical sociology. Perhaps not surprisingly, black and Hispanic mothers are more likely than white mothers to have negative birth outcomes. Moreover, studies have found that racism has a direct impact on pregnancy outcomes such as infant mortality and preterm delivery. While I was teaching the class, I couldn’t help but wonder if T’s preterm birth was related to the chronic psychosocial stress caused by my own perceived racism—Have I been too self-conscious about my race? Am I too afraid to show my “ethnic heritage” in a predominantly white society? What is my ethnic heritage anyway? Portuguese? Chinese? Nicaraguan?
For a while, there was some confusion about whether giant pandas are related to bears or raccoons. In the modern world, experts like to put things in groups to help them organize knowledge. But not everything fits neatly into the groups that experts have created. Scientifically speaking, giant pandas are considered bears, but they are also strictly vegetarian, which makes them an oddball in the bear family. Metaphorically speaking, pandas are black and white, and they come from China, so I guess that makes them Asian.
Did my confusion about my own race and ambivalence about my racial identity make me more self-conscious as I move through different spaces in my daily life? Did these internal anxieties cause my preterm delivery? Am I responsible for T’s prematurity? Was it my fault?
Back in the antepartum unit, everything was moving too quickly for me to stop and think. I was wheeled into a tiny room filled with machines adjacent to the room I was staying. Before I could process what was going on, a medical technician was performing a final ultrasound scan on my belly. She measured the size of my baby’s head, her torso, her legs, her arms meticulously and repeatedly, questioning the readings back and forth to ensure that she didn’t make any mistakes. Meanwhile, the doctor was looking closely to interpret the numbers on the screen. Every new number seemed to yield a different plan. At the end, the doctor said to me, “Due to the condition, the baby had stopped growing in the womb for about a week now.” My heart sank. “Did I hear it right? A week? What does that mean?”, I thought to myself.
Soon, I changed into a hospital gown. A nurse then hurried to inject me with steroid to spurt T’s growth inside my womb—they needed her lungs to grow as fast and as much as possible. A needle was injected into the left side of my thigh. I had never seen a needle with a diameter so wide—I could see through it! When the nurse pulled out the needle, she said, “The worst part is over now.” Except it wasn’t.
It was Friday 8pm. I got on a wheelchair. The nurse, Jimmy and I took the elevator upstairs. I felt a bit disoriented—I didn’t know where I was going. Soon, I was wheeled into a spacious room. A hospital bed sat in the middle of this warmly lit room with fancy wood wall and hardwood floor. There was a beige couch by the window—It looked like it was made of cotton from afar, but really it was vinyl. The color scheme reminded me of a standard room in Comfort Inn—brown, beige, umber, chestnut and more brown. If I were to ignore the machines and the hospital bed, it looked like a showroom appeared in a Raymour & Flanigan catalog or in one of those furniture commercials during late night TV. But then, I thought this room looked familiar not only because it was generic—I had seen this particular room before.
About two months before, I was adamant about dragging Jimmy with me to a childbirth class organized by the same hospital. The class was a day long, and being an introvert, I generally dislike going to group classes. Nevertheless, the thought of Jimmy’s trying on the pregnant belly motivated me to sign up for the class and show up on a Saturday morning. The class wasn’t anything remarkable. But three things stood out to me—of course, Jimmy tried on the pregnancy belly. Most of the men in the classroom felt apprehensive about the belly. Only one expectant dad eagerly raised his hand to volunteer; he smiled and showed it off to the class; then his partner took pictures of him while he posed with his two thumbs up. Other men looked at each other; I wondered what went through their minds. Did they wonder if it would be more appropriate to glare at the man with the belly or to approve of his attempt of empathy? Did they calculate if it would be safer to preserve their masculinity by not wearing the belly versus to act like a supportive partner by wearing it? I kicked Jimmy’s foot impatiently and stared at him. After two more men volunteered, he hesitantly raised his hand. At the end, every partner tried on the belly. The expectant moms were pleased.
As one could imagine, the class was characterized by frequent bathroom breaks. From the books I read about pregnancy, I knew I was supposed to urinate much more than usual. But I didn’t need to go to the bathroom frequently, and I wondered if I interpreted the information in the books incorrectly. During this class, I felt compelled to do what others did—to go to the bathroom. I discreetly listened to the sound of my classmates’ urine hitting the toilet water. “Wow, that’s a lot!” I thought. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t pee as much.
The birth class presented a lot of information—breathing techniques, tools that doctors would use during labor, possible complications, etc. I didn’t pay much attention. After hours of being stuck in the same classroom and reading off of PowerPoint slides from a projected screen, we were excited and relieved to get a tour of the childbirth floor and the labor/delivery room. The room looked cozy—everything was in a shade of brown except for the machines and the birthing bed.
“Ah! I’m back,” I thought. Although neither the decors nor the color scheme was my style, at the minimum, the familiarity offered some comfort. “Am I going to give birth in this room?” I asked the nurse. “Yes,” she pointed at the bed and replied, “you’ll give birth on this bed.” I looked at the analog clock on the wall. It was 8:15pm—only 15 minutes had passed. As the nurse left the room, another nurse came in and told me that she was the night-shift nurse. Her name was Jenny. Jenny hooked me up to the blood pressure monitor, and she put cold gel and a sticky pad on my belly to trace my baby’s heartbeat using another machine. She told me that they needed to put me on IV to keep me hydrated; and since the medication that the doctor would later give me had the side effects of upset stomach, nausea, and vomiting, I would get my nutrients through IV during the process.
Given that I was slightly traumatized by the fresh steroid shot, I was nervous about having another needle stick into my skin. Jenny noticed my edginess and said, “Don’t worry. We’ll ask the IV Queen to come by and administer the injection. She’s the best on this floor and you won’t feel a thing.” I was simulatenously comforted by Jenny’s thoughtfulness and slightly entertained by the idea of the IV Queen. I wondered what she looked like. Jenny walked toward the other side of my bed and started writing on the small white board on the wall. She wrote, “Today’s date: April 14th, 2016. Weather: chilly. Goals: keep blood pressure low.” Then, she turned her head and asked, “Are there any goals you want me to put up here?” I thought for a few seconds, then I replied, “To stay positive.” Jenny wrote down those exact words and drew a smiley face next to them. “That’s a good one,” she said. Jenny smiled and left.
When I was by myself, I looked at the waving lines on the EKG screen. I could see my baby’s heartbeat. I wondered how she felt. I said to her softly, “I can feel that you can’t wait to come out. I’ll see you soon. Let’s work hard together, OK?” Every few minutes, the blood pressure monitor would squeeze my arm and produce a long beeping sound together with the most current reading. 150. 160. My blood pressure was still high. Then, a petite Asian woman with long black hair entered the room. She waved hello to me and said that someone sent her here to give me IV. “You must be the IV Queen,” I said. “Yes, I am,” she chuckled embarrassingly. As promised, she was extremely good at her job: I almost didn’t feel anything when she injected me with the IV. “Done! See?” she said. I nodded happily.
Not long after, a doctor came in and gave me magnesium through my IV. The drug was supposed to help relax all the muscles of my body, including those of my stomach and throat—I would not able to eat or drink or speak clearly. The upside was that it would be unlikely for me to have a seizure. The medicine took effect almost immediately. Before I knew it, I drifted off to the rhythm of my baby’s heartbeat and the beeping sounds of my blood pressure readings. Together, T and I swam into this impossible symphonic overture.
To be continued…
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