Nitrous oxide for labor? Common Health asks why the drug, which is so readily used in other countries, is no where to be found in labor and delivery rooms in the United States.
Why don’t women in the U.S. have access to nitrous oxide, a safe, inexpensive and fairly simple option for alleviating pain during labor, when women in almost all other developed countries use it widely?
A small band of midwives, doctors and mothers are trying to find out.
Sure, nitrous oxide (aka laughing gas, like you get in the dentist’s office) doesn’t have the super-pain-relieving magic of an epidural. Instead, it offers something closer to an elixir of dulled pain tempered by nonchalance, says William Camann, chief of obstetric anesthesia at the Brigham & Women’s Hospital and the co-author of the book “Easy Labor.” “The pain may still exist for some women but the gas may create a feeling of, ‘Painful contraction? Who cares?’”
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So, while nitrous oxide is used by about 50% of laboring women the United Kingdom; 60% in Finland and widely in Canada, according to a published review, it’s available only in two U.S. hospitals.
It seems like the major roadblock is just that since we’ve never used it, it never occurs to the U.S. medical system to try.
However, hospitals to occasionally use laughing gas during births, as I can attest. During my own extended labor we discovered that each epidural “boost” was becoming less effective, including the one that was given to me prior to my emergency c-section. When the final injection wore off during the middle of my surgery, I was given the option of total anesthesia, which I knew would make me unconscious for hours, or the use of laughing gas to get me through the final removal of the placenta and the subsequent sewing up.
I chose the nitrous oxide, knowing that it meant I would be awake, mostly alert and able to move around more quickly during my post-op recovery. I most definitely felt the pain, but it tempered it enough to get me through surgery, which was all I wanted at that point.
Could laughing gas be a viable option for the actual act of labor? I’m not sure, but it will be difficult to ever know if we aren’t given an option to try it.
It's time for a shift in the use of “self-care” that creates space for actual care apart from the extra kindnesses and important, small indulgences that may be part of our self-care rituals, depending on our ability to access such activities.
As a chronically ill, chronically poor person, I have feelings about when, why, and how the phrase “self-care” is invoked. When International Self-Care Day came to my attention, I realized that while I laud the effort to prevent some of the 16 million people the World Health Organization reports die prematurely every year from noncommunicable diseases, the American notion of self-care—ironically—needs some work.
I propose a shift in the use of “self-care” that creates space for actual care apart from the extra kindnesses and important, small indulgences that may be part of our self-care rituals, depending on our ability to access such activities. How we think about what constitutes vital versus optional care affects whether/when we do those things we should for our health and well-being. Some of what we have come to designate as self-care—getting sufficient sleep, treating chronic illness, allowing ourselves needed sick days—shouldn’t be seen as optional; our culture should prioritize these things rather than praising us when we scrape by without them.
International Self-Care Day began in China, and it has spread over the past few years to include other countries and an effort seeking official recognition at the United Nations of July 24 (get it? 7/24: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week) as an important advocacy day. The online academic journal SelfCare calls its namesake “a very broad concept” that by definition varies from person to person.
“Self-care means different things to different people: to the person with a headache it might mean a buying a tablet, but to the person with a chronic illness it can mean every element of self-management that takes place outside the doctor’s office,” according to SelfCare. “[I]n the broadest sense of the term, self-care is a philosophy that transcends national boundaries and the healthcare systems which they contain.”
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In short, self-care was never intended to be the health version of duct tape—a way to patch ourselves up when we’re in pieces from the outrageous demands of our work-centric society. It’s supposed to be part of our preventive care plan alongside working out, eating right, getting enough sleep, and/or other activities that are important for our personalized needs.
The notion of self-care has gotten a recent visibility boost as those of us who work in human rights and/or are activists encourage each other publicly to recharge. Most of the people I know who remind themselves and those in our movements to take time off do so to combat the productivity anxiety embedded in our work. We’re underpaid and overworked, but still feel guilty taking a break or, worse, spending money on ourselves when it could go to something movement- or bill-related.
The guilt is intensified by our capitalist system having infected the self-care philosophy, much as it seems to have infected everything else. Our bootstrap, do-it-yourself culture demands we work to the point of exhaustion—some of us because it’s the only way to almost make ends meet and others because putting work/career first is expected and applauded. Our previous president called it “uniquely American” that someone at his Omaha, Nebraska, event promoting “reform” of (aka cuts to) Social Security worked three jobs.
“Uniquely American, isn’t it?” he said. “I mean, that is fantastic that you’re doing that. (Applause.) Get any sleep? (Laughter.)”
The audience was applauding working hours that are disastrous for health and well-being, laughing at sleep as though our bodies don’t require it to function properly. Bush actually nailed it: Throughout our country, we hold Who Worked the Most Hours This Week competitions and attempt to one-up the people at the coffee shop, bar, gym, or book club with what we accomplished. We have reached a point where we consider getting more than five or six hours of sleep a night to be “self-care” even though it should simply be part of regular care.
Most of us know intuitively that, in general, we don’t take good enough care of ourselves on a day-to-day basis. This isn’t something that just happened; it’s a function of our work culture. Don’t let the statistic that we work on average 34.4 hours per week fool you—that includes people working part time by choice or necessity, which distorts the reality for those of us who work full time. (Full time is defined by the Internal Revenue Service as 30 or more hours per week.) Gallup’s annual Work and Education Survey conducted in 2014 found that 39 percent of us work 50 or more hours per week. Only 8 percent of us on average work less than 40 hours per week. Millennials are projected to enjoy a lifetime of multiple jobs or a full-time job with one or more side hustles via the “gig economy.”
Despite worker productivity skyrocketing during the past 40 years, we don’t work fewer hours or make more money once cost of living is factored in. As Gillian White outlined at the Atlantic last year, despite politicians and “job creators” blaming financial crises for wage stagnation, it’s more about priorities:
Though productivity (defined as the output of goods and services per hours worked) grew by about 74 percent between 1973 and 2013, compensation for workers grew at a much slower rate of only 9 percent during the same time period, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute.
It’s no wonder we don’t sleep. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been sounding the alarm for some time. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society recommend people between 18 and 60 years old get seven or more hours sleep each night “to promote optimal health and well-being.” The CDC website has an entire section under the heading “Insufficient Sleep Is a Public Health Problem,” outlining statistics and negative outcomes from our inability to find time to tend to this most basic need.
We also don’t get to the doctor when we should for preventive care. Roughly half of us, according to the CDC, never visit a primary care or family physician for an annual check-up. We go in when we are sick, but not to have screenings and discuss a basic wellness plan. And rarely do those of us who do go tell our doctors about all of our symptoms.
I recently had my first really wonderful check-up with a new primary care physician who made a point of asking about all the “little things” leading her to encourage me to consider further diagnosis for fibromyalgia. I started crying in her office, relieved that someone had finally listened and at the idea that my headaches, difficulty sleeping, recovering from illness, exhaustion, and pain might have an actual source.
Considering our deeply-ingrained priority problems, it’s no wonder that when I post on social media that I’ve taken a sick day—a concept I’ve struggled with after 20 years of working multiple jobs, often more than 80 hours a week trying to make ends meet—people applaud me for “doing self-care.” Calling my sick day “self-care” tells me that the commenter sees my post-traumatic stress disorder or depression as something I could work through if I so chose, amplifying the stigma I’m pushing back on by owning that a mental illness is an appropriate reason to take off work. And it’s not the commenter’s fault; the notion that working constantly is a virtue is so pervasive, it affects all of us.
Things in addition to sick days and sleep that I’ve had to learn are not engaging in self-care: going to the doctor, eating, taking my meds, going to therapy, turning off my computer after a 12-hour day, drinking enough water, writing, and traveling for work. Because it’s so important, I’m going to say it separately: Preventive health care—Pap smears, check-ups, cancer screenings, follow-ups—is not self-care. We do extras and nice things for ourselves to prevent burnout, not as bandaids to put ourselves back together when we break down. You can’t bandaid over skipping doctors appointments, not sleeping, and working your body until it’s a breath away from collapsing. If you’re already at that point, you need straight-up care.
Plenty of activities are self-care! My absolutely not comprehensive personal list includes: brunch with friends, adult coloring (especially the swear word books and glitter pens), soy wax with essential oils, painting my toenails, reading a book that’s not for review, a glass of wine with dinner, ice cream, spending time outside, last-minute dinner with my boyfriend, the puzzle app on my iPad, Netflix, participating in Caturday, and alone time.
My someday self-care wish list includes things like vacation, concerts, the theater, regular massages, visiting my nieces, decent wine, the occasional dinner out, and so very, very many books. A lot of what constitutes self-care is rather expensive (think weekly pedicures, spa days, and hobbies with gear and/or outfit requirements)—which leads to the privilege of getting to call any part of one’s routine self-care in the first place.
It would serve us well to consciously add an intersectional view to our enthusiasm for self-care when encouraging others to engage in activities that may be out of reach financially, may disregard disability, or may not be right for them for a variety of other reasons, including compounded oppression and violence, which affects women of color differently.
I hear the term self-care a lot and often it is defined as practicing yoga, journaling, speaking positive affirmations and meditation. I agree that those are successful and inspiring forms of self-care, but what we often don’t hear people talking about is self-care at the intersection of race and trauma, social justice and most importantly, the unawareness of repressed emotional issues that make us victims of our past.
The often-quoted Audre Lorde wrote in A Burst of Light: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
But as we continue to talk about self-care, we need to be clear about the difference between self-care and actual care and work to bring the necessities of life within reach for everyone. Actual care should not have to be optional. It should be a priority in our culture so that it can be a priority in all our lives.
According to the new law, the jail should have been prohibited from using any type of restraint on Gamble during labor, and using of leg and waist restraints on her during and immediately after her pregnancy. It also guaranteed her minimum standards of pregnancy care and required—as with everyone incarcerated while in their second or third trimesters—that she be transported in the jail’s vehicles with seat belts whenever she was taken to court, medical appointments, or anywhere outside the jail.
But that wasn’t the case for Gamble. Instead, she says, when it came time for her to give birth, she was left to labor in a cell for eight hours before finally being handcuffed, placed in the back of a police cruiser without a seatbelt, and driven to a hospital, where she was shackled to the bed with a leg iron after delivering.
In addition to analyzing policies, they spoke with women who were pregnant while in custody and learned that women continue to be handcuffed during labor, restrained to the bed postpartum, and placed in full restraints—including leg irons and waist chains—after giving birth.
“The promise to respect the human rights of pregnant women in prison and jail has been broken,” the report’s authors concluded.
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“The Massachusetts law is part of a national trend and is one of the most comprehensive in protecting pregnant and postpartum women from the risks of restraints,” said Roth in an interview with Rewire. “However, like most other states, the Massachusetts law doesn’t have any oversight built in. This report clearly shows the need for staff training and enforcement so that women who are incarcerated will be treated the way the legislature intended.”
Gamble learned all of this firsthand. In the month before her arrest, Gamble had undergone a cervical cerclage, in which a doctor temporarily stitches up the cervix to prevent premature labor. She had weekly visits to a gynecologist to monitor the development of her fetus. The cerclage was scheduled to be removed at 37 weeks. But then she was arrested and sent to jail.
Gamble told jail medical staff that hers was a high-risk pregnancy, that she had had a cerclage, and that her first child had been born six weeks prematurely. Still, she says she waited two months before seeing an obstetrician.
As her due date drew closer, the doctor, concerned about the lack of amniotic fluid, scheduled Gamble for an induction on Feb. 19, 2015. But, she says, jail staff cancelled her induction without telling her why.
That same evening, around 5 p.m., Gamble went into labor. Jail staff took her to the medical unit. There, according to Gamble, the jail’s nurses took her blood pressure and did a quick exam, but did not send her to the hospital. “They [the nurses] thought I was ‘acting up’ because my induction was canceled,” she told Rewire.
She was placed in a see-through cell where, as the hours progressed, her labor pains grew worse. “I kept calling to get the [correctional officers] to get the nurse,” Gamble recalled. By the time a nurse came, Gamble was bleeding. “The nurse made me pull down my pants to show her the blood—in front of a male [correctional officer]!” Gamble stated. Still, she says, no one called for an ambulance or made arrangements to drive her to the hospital.
At 1:45 in the morning, over eight hours after she first went into labor, the jail’s captain learned that Gamble was in labor. “[He] must have heard all the commotion, and he called to find out what was going on,” she said. He ordered his staff to call an ambulance and bring her to the hospital.
But instead of calling an ambulance, Gamble says jail staff handcuffed her, placed her in the back of a police cruiser without a seatbelt—in violation of the law—and drove her to Charlton Memorial Hospital. “My body was already starting to push the baby out,” she said. She recalled that the officers driving the car worried that they would have to pull over and she would give birth by the side of the road.
Gamble made it to the hospital, but just barely. Nine minutes after arriving, she gave birth: “I didn’t even make it to Labor and Delivery,” she remembered.
But her ordeal wasn’t over. Gamble’s mother, who had contacted Prisoners’ Legal Services and Prison Birth Project weeks earlier, knew that the law prohibited postpartum restraints. So did Gamble, who had received a packet in jail outlining the law and her rights from Prisoners’ Legal Services. When an officer approached her bed with a leg iron and chain, she told him that, by law, she should not be restrained and asked him to call the jail to confirm. He called, then told her that she was indeed supposed to be shackled. Gamble says she spent the night with her left leg shackled to the bed.
When the female officer working the morning shift arrived, she was outraged. “Why is she shackled to the bed?” Gamble recalled the officer demanding. “Every day in roll call they go over the fact that a pregnant woman is not to be shackled to anything after having a baby.” The officer removed the restraint, allowing Gamble to move around.
According to advocates, it’s not unusual for staff at the same jail to have different understandings of the law. For Gamble, that meant that when the shift changed, so did her ability to move. When the morning shift was over, she says, the next officer once again shackled Gamble’s leg to the bed. “I was so tired, I just went along with it,” Gamble recounted.
Two days after she had given birth, it was time for Gamble to return to the jail. Despite Massachusetts’ prohibition on leg and waist restraints for women postpartum, Gamble says she was fully shackled. That meant handcuffs around her wrists, leg irons around her ankles, a chain around her waist,g and a black box that pulled her handcuffs tightly to the waist chain. That was how she endured the 20-minute drive back to the jail.
Gamble’s jail records do not discuss restraints. According to Petit, who reviewed the records, that’s not unusual. “Because correctional officers don’t see it as out of the ordinary to [shackle], they do not record it,” she explained. “It’s not so much a misapplication of the extraordinary circumstances requirement as failure to apply it at all, whether because they don’t know or they intentionally ignore it.”
While Bristol County Sheriff’s Office Women’s Center’s policies ban shackling during labor, they currently do not prohibit restraints during postpartum recovery in the hospital or on the drive back to the jail. They also do not ban leg and waist restraints during pregnancy. Jonathan Darling, the public information officer for the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office, told Rewire that the jail is currently reviewing and updating policies to reflect the 2014 law. Meanwhile, administrators provide updates and new information about policy and law changes at its daily roll call. For staff not present during roll call, the jail makes these updates, including hospital details, available on its east post. (Roll call announcements are not available to the public.)
“Part of the problem is the difference in interpretation between us and the jurisdictions, particularly in postpartum coverage,” explained Petit to Rewire. Massachusetts has 14 county jails, but only four (and the state prison at Framingham) hold women awaiting trial. As Breaking Promises noted: “Whether or not counties incarcerate women in their jails, every county sheriff is, at minimum, responsible for driving women who were arrested in their county to court and medical appointments. Because of this responsibility, they are all required to have a written policy that spells out how employees should comply with the 2014 law’s restrictions on the use of restraints.”
Four jurisdictions, including the state Department of Correction, have policies that expressly prohibit leg and waist restraints during the postpartum period, but limit that postpartum period to the time before a woman is taken from the hospital back to the jail or prison, rather than the medical standard of six weeks following birth. Jails in 11 other counties, however, have written policies that violate the prohibition on leg and waist shackles during pregnancy, and the postpartum prohibition on restraints when being driven back to the jail or prison.
Even institutions with policies that correctly reflected the law in this regard sometimes failed to follow them: Advocates found that in some counties, women reported being restrained to the bed after giving birth in conflict with the jail’s own policies.
“When the nurse left, the officer stood up and said that since I was not confirmed to be in ‘active labor,’ she would need to restrain me and that she was sorry, but those were the rules,” one woman reported, even though the law prohibits restraining women in any stage of labor.
But shackling pregnant women during and after labor is only one part of the law that falls short. The law requires that pregnant women be provided with regular prenatal and postpartum medical care, including periodic monitoring and evaluation; a diet with the nutrients necessary to maintain a healthy pregnancy; written information about prenatal nutrition; appropriate clothing; and a postpartum screening for depression. Long waits before transporting women in labor to the hospital are another recurring complaint. So are routinely being given meals without fruits and vegetables, not receiving a postpartum obstetrician visit, and waiting long stretches for postpartum care.
That was also the case with Gamble. It was the middle of the night one week after her son’s birth when Gamble felt as if a rock was coming through her brain. That was all she remembered. One hour later, she woke to find herself back at the hospital, this time in the Critical Care Unit, where staff told her she had suffered a seizure. She later learned that her cellmate, a certified nursing assistant, immediately got help when Gamble’s seizure began. (The cell doors at the jail are not locked.)
Hospital staff told her that she had preeclampsia, a pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure. Postpartum preeclampsia is rare, but can occur when a woman has high blood pressure and excess protein in her urine soon after childbirth. She was prescribed medications for preeclampsia; she never had another seizure, but continued to suffer multiple headaches each day.
Dr. Carolyn Sufrin is an assistant professor of gynecology and obstetrics at Johns Hopkins Medicine. She has also provided pregnancy-related care for women at the San Francisco County Jail. “Preeclampsia is a leading cause of maternal mortality,” she told Rewire. Delayed preeclampsia, or postpartum preeclampsia, which develops within one to two weeks after labor and delivery, is a very rare condition. The patient suffering seizures as a result of the postpartum preeclampsia is even more rare.
Postpartum preeclampsia not only needs to be treated immediately, Sufrin said, but follow-up care within a week at most is urgent. If no follow-up is provided, the patient risks having uncontrolled high blood pressure, stroke, and heart failure. Another risk, though much rarer, is the development of abnormal kidney functions.
While Sufrin has never had to treat postpartum preeclampsia in a jail setting, she stated that “the protocol if someone needs obstetrical follow-up, is to give them that follow-up. Follow through. Have continuity with the hospital. Follow their instructions.”
But that didn’t happen for Gamble, who was scheduled for a two-week follow-up visit. She says she was not brought to that appointment. It was only two months later that she finally saw a doctor, shortly before she was paroled.
As they gathered stories like Gamble’s and information for their report, advocates with the Prison Birth Project and Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts met with Rep. Kay Khan (D-Newton), to bring her attention to the lack of compliance by both county jails and the state prison system. In June 2015, Khan introduced An Act to Ensure Compliance With the Anti-Shackling Law for Pregnant Incarcerated Women (Bill H 3679) to address the concerns raised by both organizations.
The act defines the postpartum period in which a woman cannot be restrained as six weeks. It also requires annual staff trainings about the law and that, if restraints are used, that the jail or prison administration report it to the Secretary of Public Safety and Security within 48 hours. To monitor compliance, the act also includes the requirement that an annual report about all use of restraints be made to the legislature; the report will be public record. Like other statutes and bills across the country, the act does not have specific penalties for noncompliance.
In December 2015, Gamble’s son was 9 months old and Gamble had been out of jail for several months. Nonetheless, both Gamble and her mother drove to Boston to testify at a Public Safety Committee hearing, urging them to pass the bill. “I am angered, appalled, and saddened that they shackled her,” Gamble’s mother told legislators. “What my daughter faced is cruel and unusual punishment. It endangered my daughter’s life, as well as her baby.”
Though she has left the jail behind, Gamble wants to ensure that the law is followed. “Because of the pain I went through, I don’t ever want anyone to go through what I did,” she explained to Rewire. “Even though you’re in jail and you’re being punished, you still have rights. You’re a human being.”