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Catch a falling baby

Sandra sent me two videos to watch.

In the first, Vanessa, looking like a Cranach Madonna or an early Renaissance painting of St. Cecelia, pours the elegance and order of Bach from her Cello de Gamba. This is her award-winning performance from an international competition. As I watch, I marvel at the miracle entailed by a person playing an instrument so beautifully. I see the strength in the small muscles of her hand as it dances along the fingerboard, the graceful precision of her arm and shoulder as the bow caresses the strings of this antique instrument converting the vibrations of wood, metal and gut strings into sounds that are unique yet inevitably true. Most importantly, it’s the miracle of the human brain. Here is a complex arrangement of movements, not simply “chained together” as I was taught in those far off days of my Psych undergrad, but arranged, performed and composed, so that many centres in our brains are triggered by the music to respond with pleasure and other emotions—and even new ideas.

I met Sandra and her husband Gary as a young couple, newly arrived from Saskatoon. Gary had a position as a cellist in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Sandra achieved a position as the pianist at the Unitarian Church, not long after their brilliant but very troubled organist tried to express distress and frustration about her life, her relationships, the low pay of her position and the poor maintenance of the organ, by creating a pile of hymn books and musical scores, soaking them with gasoline, setting it all on fire. She succeeded in destroying the masterpiece of that late Victorian arts and crafts style church, and unintentionally killing two firefighters in the process. I always think that Sandra got the job because not only was she an excellent pianist but she exuded warmth, cheerfulness and a down to earth normality that must have been anodyne to the reeling church board members.

Sandra and Gary’s first child’s delivery was long and hard, an induction for post-dates, and in a snowstorm. The baby was occiput posterior and after many hours of labour he needed to go to the NICU for a brief observation. With the second pregnancy Gary and Sandra were well established members of Montreal’s musical community and had just bought their own home. I remember having a serious talk with Gary about getting a contractor despite his prairie boy DYI upbringing. “If you cut the tip of your finger off with a skill saw that is not going to be good for anyone!” I said.

Gary’s parents had arrived a few weeks early to help with this second birth and care for baby Matt. Anticipating that there were still two weeks to go they went out to a concert with Gary. Sandra felt her labour starting and was dancing around their newly finished studio humming and leaning on the piano. 

By the time Gary called in after the concert Sandra had progressed from humming to moaning and when they hurried home she was leaning against the wall. But she was still smiling. Gary’s mom, a retired nurse, took one look at Sandra and said, “Get in the car, unless you want to do a home birth right here.” They called me on the way to the hospital and I was there when she arrived. Sandra says she remembers getting out of the car as Gary threw the keys to the parking valet. She was hugging one of the trees in front of the building feeling as if holding on to this tree was the most important thing she could do. The security guard offered her a wheelchair but that struck her as funny. Holding onto her husband and laughing, they made it up to the Case Room. 

My resident Chryssi and I were already there, but there was a problem of biblical proportions, there was literally no room at the inn! All the labour rooms were full. At this point, Sandra was in rip roaring labour. I looked at the nurse in charge, she looked at me. “Let’s get a stretcher into the OR and hope that no one needs a stat section before she delivers,” she said. We went to the back rooms, where women used to deliver on narrow operating tables, hands and feet strapped to the handles and stirrups, so that they would not “contaminate the sterile field”. When Chryssi and I examined her, Sandra was seven to eight centimetres with bulging membranes. “Can I stay standing?” she asked. “Ok,” I said. “But if your waters break, you need to get up on the table.” It seemed only a few minutes later that there was a gush of fluid on the floor and we helped Sandra onto the table. The nurse started setting up for the delivery. We were leaning against the porcelain tiled wall as Gary tried to get Sandra settled on that hard and narrow OR table. 

“This is so uncomfortable!” Sandra was grunting in that way that made me pretty sure that she was almost fully dilated. “Can I move to the stretcher?” “OK,” I said, “But don’t get up . . .” Before I could finish my sentence Sandra had hopped off the bed. At that moment she made a strange noise. I looked up, startled, seeing her almost squatting beside the OR table, her perineum bulging. In a move I could not do now, I slid across the floor and, squatting like Gary Carter, I caught the baby before she hit the floor. 

Sandra also sent me a video of their retirement project. Sandra and Gary have started a foundation to provide free cello lessons with access to cellos for children who would otherwise not be able to afford music lessons. This video showed their little cohort of students doing a concert at Parc Lafontaine. 

I am grateful to have been a small part of Gary and Sandra’s story. I am glad to know these exceptionally kind, good and talented people.

Happy Birthday Vanessa, I am glad you didn’t fall on your head.