Early in my career as a firefighter I had already collected three stork pins. Granted, two came after delivering one set of twins. When my newest call came in for an imminent birth, I calmly strolled to the rig. I sensed anxiety as the rest of the crew piled into the cab. The captain and driver had yet to deliver one baby.
“Don’t worry guys, I’m a baby catching pro,” I bragged.
“If that baby pops before the medics arrive, it’s all yours,” the captain shot back.
“I heard she’s a baby magnet,” the driver reported.
A baby run was where I felt most appreciated in the male dominated fire department. In spite of some resentment, assuming the role where the guys felt I was best suited, I had to admit, it felt good to be wanted.
We arrived at the address and parked behind the ambulance. The medics were already inside.
“No baby catching for you today,” the captain almost sang.
I hid my disappointment with a chuckle and retrieved the OB Kit, just in case. The wailing of a woman in labor amplified as we entered the home. The shades pulled in the darkened living room couldn’t hide the worry on the faces of the two young men sitting on the couch. Our patient, no longer screaming, stood in the kitchen leaning against the counter with her head buried in the crook of her arm. The medics arranged a canvas stretcher on the worn linoleum floor and helped the woman to the canvas.
“Her water isn’t broke but she’s in too much pain to walk. We gotta carry her.”
I dropped the OB Kit onto the stretcher between her ankles and lifted the poles, threaded through loops, by her head. The driver commandeered the poles by her feet and together we maneuvered back through the living room and loaded her onto the cot inside the ambulance. The driver slammed the rear doors closed.
Alone with the patient in the ambulance I smiled for reassurance and said, “Looks like you’re going to make it to the hospital to deliver.”
I opened the cabinet to get the IV supplies and when I turned back to the expectant mother, her brows frowned. She moaned.
“The baby’s comin’,” she said. And then louder, “I can’t hold him.”
If I learned one thing from the few babies I had previously caught—when a woman says it’s coming—it’s coming. I lifted the sheet. Since her water still hadn’t broke, I lowered the cover but checked quick for crowning, just in case. A dark mass bulged between her legs. It didn’t look like any baby crown I had seen before. It was more like a tie-dyed gray and red balloon. I instinctively placed my hands between her legs and the ball dropped into my palms. I inspected the ball and from inside a scrunched face pushed against the translucent wall. I called to the medics, but they couldn’t hear me over their laughter and the chatter of my crew, yukking it up with the guys from the living room.
“A little help in here,” I shouted.
More laughter. For a split moment I panicked. You know the feeling—you realize you have to do something but every option you consider doesn’t feel quite right. With my hands full I peered at the face inside the translucent sphere. I thought, you better not be waiting for me to release you so you can rip me apart with your alien sharp teeth.
I had watched way too many sci-fi movies. The mother’s eyes were closed, too tired to give me advice. Plus, this is my job. She did her part. I shrugged, and then I did what made most sense to me in the moment. I poked a hole in the sac with my gloved finger. Water gushed onto my shoes and the baby, instead of crying, cooed. I pulled a blanket from the OB kit and wrapped him. I suctioned the mucous from his nose and mouth with the bulb syringe, but I left the cord attached and placed the baby on his mother’s chest. She slowly opened her eyes.
“What’s his name?” I asked.
“Eleven,” she said.
“Yes. His name is Eleven. Would you go get my husband?”
I opened the door to the ambulance where several men were huddled in a circle, like guys strategizing the next play in a football game. I turned to the mother, “Which one is he? What’s his name?”
I wanted the full story but part of being a good firefighter is patient awareness and I could see, she was exhausted. I let it go.
On the drive back to the fire station I locked the details of the call in the vault of my mind—not for safe keeping but to keep me safe. Forgetting is an effective defense mechanism. I believed getting invested in the outcome of an emergency call, leads more to disappointment than to feeling heroic. I kept them all, good and bad, in the same place. My vault of forget enabled me to go from delivering a baby, to a gunshot victim— from performing CPR, to a house fully involved in fire and still belly up to the table for a full plate of spaghetti and meatballs. After Eleven was born I didn’t think about him again for seven years.
I had promoted to captain and was in charge of my own rig. We had returned to the station after a small kitchen fire and finished cleaning hose when the red phone rang.
“Station 16, Captain Moore,” I answered.
“T. Moore it’s Chief 2. Put on your badge uniforms and take the rig to Corcoran Park, they’re having some kind of festival for kids.”
The driver, Simone pulled the engine into the lot at the park. Kids surrounded the truck and took the standard tour by climbing into the back seat, pushing themselves back to lean against the air tank and widening their eyes in awe.
I stood on the opposite side waiting for kids to exit the cab, ready to soften the landing when the more adventurous kids took a leap from the rig to the pavement. The next group of three entered the cab and I overheard Simone say, “Look at your smile. What’s your name?”
I peered into the cab as the seven-year-old puffed out his chest, “My name is Eleven.”
I hopped up and leaned into the back seat. “Your name is Eleven?”
He shook his head yes.
“What’s your dad’s name?”
“Forty,” he said.
The surprise of the situation flooded me with excitement. “I delivered you!”
He looked at me sideways. I clarified. “When you were a baby. You were born in the back of the ambulance and I caught you coming out.”
He smiled and whether or not he really understood, I don’t know.
Like Eleven, his birth was buried in my unconscious. The reunion called me inside my vault of emergencies with unknown endings. In truth, we shared an extraordinary experience. Later I learned that being born in the sac, en caul, is rare. One in 80,000 births remain in the sac and it’s considered good luck. Seeing Eleven as a seven-year-old couldn’t be random, it felt magical. Like the universe was giving me permission to hope for and to feel—a happy ending.
By- Retired Captain Tracy Moore