Of Piglets and Other Unrelated Matters

Taking one or two years of science was a requirement at the college.  Biology was famous for the piglet we all had to dissect.  We did this in the lab in groups of two and most of us became quite fond of our dead piglet fetuses in their formaldehyde solution in their next-to-last resting places, little plastic bags.  Part of the fun, I must confess was watching the reactions of the squeamish.  The lecture sections were considerably more boring, and didn’t teach as much as the “hands on” experience in the lab.

Geology was great because of what it taught about geologic time, the evolution of the physical world as well as the origin and types of rocks.  While some of this information was interesting in its own right, it has come to be particularly useful in discussions with Creationists.  Field trips to various geologic features to identify rocks in nature were particularly enjoyable, and I will never forget scrambling for olivine on the Palisades in New Jersey.  Learning about rocks and their origins made any walk in a park even a greater pleasure than it had been.  Although I was much more interested in reading “La Celestina” (by Fernando de Rojas), my science education was not wasted.  For me, it was a fresh, new way of seeing the world.

While it is difficult to impossible to remember everything I learned at college, it sometimes became amazingly useful and practical.  The purpose of the following little anecdote is to show the quality of the education I was getting all across the board.

We had to take (yes, there were requirements) some sort of health-related course.  While taking this course we were shown the movie “Thank You, Dr. Laurent.”  I believe Jean Gabin played the starring role, but I can’t be sure.  I can’t even find a reference to this movie in Wikipedia.   It was an advocacy film about the benefits of natural childbirth, particularly the Lamaze Method.  The movie was a biopic of Dr. Lamaze, renamed for this purpose “Dr. Laurent”, and the development of his ideas. It made quite an impression on me.  I was convinced.  Years later, after I’d married my first wife (after nearly fifty years, I’m still married to her), while she was pregnant with our son, we jointly decided that the Lamaze Method was the way to go for the delivery.  She was also convinced. She didn’t want to be “absent” during one of the most important moments of her life.

I must have seen “Dr. Laurent” around 1958, and by 1965, in all of New York there was only one hospital (Beth Israel) that allowed natural childbirth.  There was also only one doctor (coincidentally, years earlier he had delivered my then brother-in-law) who would use the Lamaze Method, Dr. Benjamin Segal, and he allowed me to be one of the first fathers in New York to be moderately useful at the birth of our son.  The story would be incomplete if I didn’t mention the fact that I was able to pay partially for my son’s birth by donating a couple of pints of blood to the hospital’s blood bank.


About AlexLevy

Dr. Alex Levy is a retired English teacher who survived World War II and the "Final Solution" by hiding in a Catholic orphanage for girls in Belgium for several years.
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5 Responses to Of Piglets and Other Unrelated Matters

  1. Myron Pulier says:

    Just after Anita did a Lamaze birth at Glen Cove Hospital she declined to allow a little cohort of student nurses to give her a bed bath and as the annoyed instructor stalked out of the room she remarked contemptuously to the others, “She’s one of those NORMAL CHILDBIRTH mothers.”

  2. Karell says:

    What was the norm for childbirth before Lamaze?

    • AlexLevy says:

      As I didn’t know how to answer your question, I asked my friend, Myron (who is an MD), to reply to you. Here’s what he wrote:
      “As far as I know, before Lamaze there was voluntary “natural childbirth”, but very few educated women in the US partook of that option and for nearly all who did, there was no general approach to the pain other than bearing it, as it were. Being a psychiatrist, I did help one patient of mine through labor with hypnosis, which still is an excellent option, but, oddly, not common.

      The standard medical procedure in hospitals, where the overwhelming majority of births took place, had women putting off coming in until the “labor pains” were less than 5 minutes apart and lasting something like 1/2 a minute, if I remember correctly. Usually this got nearly all women making it into the labor room and staying for a while, but sometimes that would be for quite a while and sometimes delivery would be rushed or would occur en route to the hospital. One would wait longer for a first delivery, and less if a woman had already delivered full-term, especially if she had a history of relatively brief labor.

      We would medicate the women for pain, even though the approach was pretty weird. Women would get “Demerol” (the brand name for meperidine, a semi-synthetic narcotic) and scopolamine (a natural drug similar to belladonna, the substance women used to put in their eyes to make their pupils bigger by paralyzing the iris muscles, and that figures large in Borgia homicidal activities). Demerol is pretty effective for reducing or eliminating many kinds of pain, but does nothing for labor pain. However, give enough and it gets a person to drowse (AKA nod out) and it reduces anxiety by inducing a sense of not caring about anything. As a result of the Demerol, women would drowse between labor contractions, then would be roused and would experience the pain unabated until the contraction would subside. The scopolamine? Give enough and you get a toxic reaction where the brain is unable to convert short-term memory into long-term memory. Thus, the women have the pain, but could not recall it postpartum, and would think that they had a relatively easy labor.

      Usually this kind of treatment would not seem to impair the health or function of the fetus or newborn.

      Once the woman was brought into the delivery room, the Demerol and scopolamine would become irrelevant, since the labor would be very active, the head of the fetus would be moving down the birth canal and stretching everything as it went, there would be a lot of excitement and the woman would be fully awake and busy responding to commands to “push”.

      The usual notion was that the final exit of the head through the vulva would usually cause lasting harm by stretching the muscles beyond recovery, and that there was a high risk of a tear of the tissues, possibly one extending into the anus. Therefore it was common practice to perform an episiotomy, deliberately making a sharp cut (with scissors) to relax the opening, necessitating sewing the wound closed after the placenta was expelled. The cut would usually not be painful because it would be done after the pressure of the emerging head had sufficiently compressed the target area as to thoroughly numb it. However, the sewing was sometimes remembered as the worst part of giving birth, and the episiotomy area would be very sore for a few days. Nowadays, routine episiotomy has fallen into disfavor, and it seems that most women are better off without it (although it is still considered indicated under certain circumstances).

      I think that as Lamaze-enhanced deliveries were becoming more common, epidural anaesthesia was also beginning to catch on. Here a “spinal tap” is performed and a chemical is injected that paralyzes/numbs the nearby nerves as they emerge from the spinal cord. The advantage of this is that most of the discomfort of labor and delivery is gone. The disadvantage (aside from the obvious small risks of the procedure) is that the woman cannot push. “Bearing down” by breathing in then trying to breathe out with the throat closed adds considerable force to that exerted by uterine contractions and helps drive the fetus down the birth canal against the resistance put up by the pelvic bones, which the head has to wedge out of its way. External assistance is often required to get the baby out, and this takes the form of someone pushing down with their hands on the mother’s abdomen and the obstetrician grasping the baby’s head with forceps and pulling. This adds risk to all concerned, but usually turns out OK.

      Another strategy was to give a woman a few whiffs of anesthetic gas during the delivery. I don’t know anything about that.”
      And thank you, Myron!

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