Thursday, August 27, 2009

Reflections of a Bilingual Labor Coach


On Saturday morning at 6:50AM I was jolted from my dreamless slumber by a loud phone call from my co-labor coach. Our patient had called her at 4AM and said she was going into labor.

I am a volunteer labor coach through Asian Health Services in Oakland, CA. Most patients are new immigrants from China who only speak Cantonese, so I help them through the labor process by interpreting what the doctors say to her, teaching her breathing and pushing techniques, and act as her emotional and physical support during the labor.

YES. MY FIRST LIVE DELIVERY. EVER. It was truly epic. EPIC! I picked up my co-coach from the bart and we rushed to Highland Hospital in Oakland, where the patient was already having contractions every eight minutes.

I proceeded to introduce myself, and told her that I was the interpreter from Asian Health. I tried to make small talk with her so she could focus her pain on something else, and chatted lightly about what the baby’s name was going to be, about the color of the baby’s room, of the chicken-ginger soup her mother-in-law was cooking for her. The doctors rushed in and out of the room, anxious to see how dilated her cervix was. The nurse who stood by me asked me to translate for her and asked for me to reposition her body and to console her through the wrenching contractions. Her husband stood by nervously, eager to understand what was going on in the blur of English sentences and half a dozen of medical staff coming in and out of the room.

I stayed by her hour after hour, wiped the sweat off her forehead. When the contractions became more frequent, grabbed her hand, and told her to concentrate. I told her in Cantonese that she was doing great—that if she could conserve all her energy and push as hard as she could, the baby would be out.

And to make a long story short........ Yes, I saw a real live vaginal delivery. The patient was in labor for four long hours. Yes, there was a boatload of blood, gore, pus, vaginal fluid, pee (they deflated her bladder using a catheter!), poop (the baby pooped), hair, amniotic fluid (water broke), genitalia, umbilical cord, a gigantic and fleshy placenta..... and more. She didn't use an epidural or any other pain medication.. she just ... toughed it out.

To anyone who doubts the pain and agony that a woman goes through labor and delivery.. ask any mother or have one of your own. I offered my hand for her to squeeze quite a few times during her contractions. I could barely feel my fingers afterwards.

What blows my mind is how strong and persevering the mother was. She just overcame the pain and worked so incredibly hard to push out her beautiful baby boy, and really, when I saw the head of the baby come out, I nearly cried from joy and relief and just pride for what she had done. It was beautiful….Absolutely surreal.

The baby boy's name is Eric. He came out healthy but what delayed his delivery was he had trouble getting out since his hand was reaching upwards and the umbilical cord was dangerously wrapped around his neck. After the delivery, the mom was getting stitched up (the doctor said that her vagina was "really torn up") and she asked me if I wanted to hold her newborn. I hesitated at first (I doubted my own child-rearing / child-holding abilities) but she insisted and there I was, holding this little life in my arms that was less than an hour old. I was at a total loss of words..................

Despite the long hours and the sporadic nature of being a labor coach, I continue to volunteer because I know that these people really need me and our services. There really is no one else there for them. I can’t imagine being pregnant and checking into a hospital but not knowing the language or being able to communicate with the medical staff. Thus, to participate in such an intimate situation with a total stranger, where I see a breathing, crying baby emerge as a result of coaching makes me proud that I could help, and grateful that the delivery was a success. Through a common language and culture, I am happy that I was able to impact someone’s life.


If you are interested in becoming a volunteer labor coach, check out and contact Thuy for more information. There are training sessions every several months, and AHS is always looking for interpreters who speak Cantonese, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Tagalog, Khmer, Mongolian, Lao, Korean, and other languages.

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