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Giving birth during the blizzard of 2022 – while fighting COVID

Carrie Clayton, as told to Anne Borden King

On Jan. 17, as a record-breaking blizzard descended upon the city, Carrie Clayton navigated her 2008 Sebring past a half-mile line of frozen streetcars in Toronto’s downtown core. She was on the way to the hospital to give birth – and she had COVID. A native of Georgian Bay, Carrie was an expert at driving on icy roads. But she was not prepared for what awaited her in the maternity ward. Here’s her story:

In March of 2020, when the news was coming out about COVID, I said to my husband, Kevin: “Are we going to die?” We had no idea what was going to happen to us or the world. What was this all going to look like?

As it turns out, March of 2020 was the month I decided to have another child, via in vitro fertilization – and my journey of getting pregnant and giving birth to Genevieve has all been through a COVID lens. My husband was left out of all the appointments because of COVID restrictions. He wasn’t allowed to be there for the embryo transferring; he wasn’t allowed to come to any ultrasound or other appointments. For a long time, I would joke with Kevin: “At least you’ll get to come to the delivery.” But in the end, he couldn’t be there even for that.

When the vaccine became available, I got in line. My first vaccination was five weeks into my pregnancy and I had a second vaccine within the standard timeframe. But then I was caught in the queue to get a booster, at 36 weeks pregnant. I called local pharmacies and explained my situation, but I could not get an earlier appointment. I took my son, Nathaniel, who’s 6, to get his first vaccine and I begged a nurse while in line to allow me to get a booster at the kids’ clinic. First, the person giving the vaccines told me, “You’re not on the list.” Then the nurse came over and said, very firmly, “We should give her a booster.”

I’m so thankful for her. Being pregnant, it was not that I was more susceptible to catching the virus, but I knew that if I did get it, it could be worse for me than for other people.

Nathaniel was the first in our family to get sick, on the morning of Jan. 7. He felt better a day later, but then my husband tested positive. By Jan. 10, I knew I was sick, too – and within a few days I actually thought I might have to be hospitalized. I’m a tough cookie, but for days the headaches were so intense I thought my head was going to explode. I’ve never been that sick in my life. But I didn’t want to go to the ER because I had full-blown COVID and I didn’t want to spread it to anyone. I called the nurses, and they gave me permission to take some Benadryl and nasal sprays just to get some sleep. I knew I had to go into the hospital on Jan. 17 to have labour induced and I wanted to be somewhat rested for that!

My team wanted me induced because of my age and IVF. And while the provincial guideline for COVID isolation was five days, the hospital’s guideline was 10 days, with my induction date falling outside of the five but within the 10. This meant Kevin couldn’t come with me to the delivery. I was going to have my baby alone.

Carrie Clayton in the hospital with new baby, Genevieve.

On the morning of Jan. 17, the blizzard was coming down hard. I had to be at the maternity ward by 10 a.m. and I was determined to be on time, snowstorm or not. I said to Kevin, “load up,” we got into the old Sebring, and he drove us out of the condo garage. That was our first tackle of the day. The area outside of the garage wasn’t even plowed yet, at 8:15. Nothing was plowed. We got to the top of the ramp and we got stuck!

Kevin was getting out to push the car and I noticed this young guy walking – with like, ankle socks on, just out quickly with his dog. He said, “I’ll help you.” The two of them pushed the car onto the street, a side street, and at that point I had to keep driving because if I stopped the car it was going to get stuck. Kevin was running beside the car and then jumped in, Dukes of Hazzard style! We were determined to get to the hospital, and nothing was going to stop us.

I’m from the snow belt, Owen Sound, so this driving is what I was born to do. I was on Queen St. seeing people who have never driven in snow … and then those of us who know what we’re doing. We got to the hospital and the main entrance to Emergency wasn’t plowed yet. The guy had just arrived with the plow. I drove down to the back driveway into the Emergency zone. Someone said, “You can’t park here,” and I said “…I’m here to give birth. Give me a second.” We switched drivers and I said goodbye to Kevin. The sidewalk wasn’t cleared so a security guard had to help me to the hospital doors.

As soon as we got in, I had to fill out the COVID form confirming that yes, I had it. The front desk staff said, “One moment please,” and everybody put on their PPE. I was escorted to a private room in Labour and Delivery. It had two double doors and a big notice that read: “This Patient is Positive for COVID-19.”

The hospital was short-staffed that day. So many of the nurses couldn’t get into the downtown core for work because highways were blocked, and transit was disrupted. Amazingly, my night nurse walked miles from her home in the Beaches to Hospital Row to get to her 12-hour shift. The nurses were so impressive; they didn’t come off as burnt out. They were present and there for me.

You know that “new baby smell?” I had lost my sense of smell, so I couldn’t sense it at all.

I realized at some point that I’d been wearing the same mask the whole time. It was the mask I was given when I first arrived. I was vomiting for two hours before I delivered, so it was take the mask off, vomit, put the mask on, over and over. I wasn’t thinking about asking for a new mask when I was having contractions.

The second stage of labour was fast. After three pushes, Genevieve was out. The doctor looked at me and asked, “Would you like to cut the cord?” and I told her, “I think I’ve done enough for today, thanks!” I’m sure there’s a superhero woman out there that cuts her own cord, but I had driven myself through the snowstorm, done all the things I needed to do and delivered this baby; I was done.

The recovery period was strange. I was still recovering from COVID, with congestion and other symptoms. You know that “new baby smell?” I had lost my sense of smell, so I couldn’t sense it at all. They gave Genevieve a PCR test; she tested negative and had no symptoms. But because of our infections, she was labeled “COVID-suspect,” and they moved her from place to place in a device that looked like a large incubator. There was one very emotional moment when a group of doctors came in and I said, “Oh, I think you want to wear PPE because I have COVID.” One doctor was startled and said, “Oh my God!” and I just burst into tears. I had been worried for so long that somehow, they were not going to want to help me because I had COVID.

Carrie’s daughter Genevieve bundled up after delivery.

In the end, the teams were just phenomenal. For example, I told one nurse, “You can just leave my pills outside my door area, and I can get them.” She said: “I’m going to come in if only for your mental health, just to say hi.” She knew my feelings – isolation from the world, where I normally should be sharing this experience.

I’m sure there are a million other stories of health care and crises, of people being alone for so much of their care. Such as my friend who got her cancer diagnosis – as well as her treatments –alone. There is a lot of loss in all of this. You can’t even describe it, these intimate moments in life when you would like not to be alone, but then you are. And you have no choice.

My husband and son had been on their own at our condo while I was at hospital. The day they came to pick me up, I was taken straight out to the car, so the first time Nathaniel saw his sister was in the back seat.

It came full circle – just like the way we started. Everybody in the car, trying to get through the city, which was still covered in snow.

Top photo: Carrie and baby safely back at home.

Photos courtesy of Carrie Clayton.

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Authors

Anne Borden King

Deputy editor

Anne Borden King is the founder of the Campaign Against Phony Autism Cures, Canada and the host of Noncompliant, a podcast about neurodiversity. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times and the Globe and Mail, among other publications. She is the winner of the 2021 Helen Henderson Literary Award from the Centre for Independent Living Toronto.

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