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On Call

January 31, 2019

The nurses wheeled someone into the room at eleven thirteen p.m. Late. Perhaps not by the standards of the outside world, but disastrously so in here.

 

Photo by Julian Hanslmaier on Unsplash

 

The antepartum floor was no place of rest to begin with, with the constant stream of medication, nurses, babies and baby monitors, doctors, meals, well-meaning visitors, in and out until ten in the evening at the earliest, starting again at five. The other patient, in the other bed, was tired, in pain, short on empathy. A green and purple curtain was drawn for privacy, dividing the double room.

 

She turned her back to it all the same, angrily stared out the window - the whole city was lit – then, in spite of her, she heard the heartbeats: mother’s and foetus’s. The blood pressure pump inflate, deflate; the beep of the digital thermometer; the Attending on call walk in. The mother’s medical history. Her whimpers; she could not understand English. She was scared and from Mexico. And a faint, annoying, jingling sound. Jewellery? Seriously?

 

Millenia ago, the Mayans of Mexico had a tradition known as the ‘Llamador de Angeles,’ Angel Caller: a long chain at the end of which hung a spherical pendant with a bell. It tinkled softly. Legend had it that the sound had the ‘magical ability to summon the guardian angel of its wearer,’ who would accompany and protect them.

 

‘Put her on the monitors, and page me if you notice any change at all; a rise in the mother’s blood pressure, a drop in the baby’s heart rate.’

 

the Attending told the nurses.

 

‘I am on call all night.’

 

Jingle. So would be everyone else in that room, it seemed.

 

Since Mayan times, Angel Callers have been given to pregnant women, who wear them long around their necks, hanging low over their abdomens. The pendant chimes as the mother moves through the day, breathes through the night. After the little one is born, she wears it on a shortened chain.

 

People believe the foetus can hear it, that the sound is comforting. That the little silver bell in the pendant tells the unborn soul it is safe. They have no way of proving that this is true. They do not need one, just as they do not need to see guardian angels to believe they are on call.

 

Footsteps: the Attending leaving. Beep: the monitor starting up. Thumps, recurrent, like a mustang tearing through a field: the baby’s heart rate. Behind the curtain, the hope of any sleep replaced by sharp irritation. The other patient wished - she now cringes as she remembers – for everything to go quiet.

 

The thumping and jingling hammered on in her ears for a few minutes, then…

 

No.

 

No. No, no! She had not meant it!

 

‘Page the Attending on call!’

 

Running. On either side of the purple and green curtain, nobody could be heard breathing.

 

The feet ran back in.

 

‘Labour and delivery! Now!’

 

Then the patient heard it: the jingle, saccadic now, like a hiccup. It was not a hiccup; the woman whose baby’s heart rate had disappeared had understood enough. She was crying.

 

Research has shown that at eighteen weeks of development, a foetus can hear. At twenty-four, distinguish between sounds. At twenty-five to twenty-six, the little one begins to react to them. Because the uterus is filled with amniotic fluid, not air, most sounds are muffled, distorted. The closer, the clearer; the mother’s voice, a bell jingling in a pendant.

 

Now, in the room, the bell was the only thing anybody could hear. And crying. The other patient rose from her bed, slippers on, blanket wrapped around her shoulders, her own round belly throwing her, just slightly, off balance. She crossed the curtain.

 

‘Señora. Señora?’

 

The woman looked up at her, surprised. She was no señora; she was a child. So did the nurses.

 

‘I speak some Spanish,’

 

the standing patient explained.

 

‘Would you like me to try to translate?’

 

‘Absolutely!’

 

said the Attending, who had just walked in.

 

‘Tell her we are here to help.’

 

‘Señora, hablo un poco de español. Un poco, really, not a lot. Do not be afraid, they are going to help your baby. Van a … ayudar? Ayudar el bebe.’

 

The jingling Angel Caller around the frightened mother’s neck stilled. Her tears stopped. Her whole being seemed to hang on her roommate’s disastrous Spanish.

 

‘Umm, ok: la situacion es que… What is the situation?’

 

‘We need to deliver the baby now.’

 

That terminology had not come up in Introduction to Spanish.

 

‘El bebe, oh dear … must come? Debe venir. Ahora. Ok? Ahora.’

 

To the large and terrified eyes in front of her, she added:

 

‘Todo sera bien. All will be well.’

 

And to reinforce her own prognosis, the patient smiled confidently. It seemed to work; the jingles quieted and the mother-to-be’s breathing calmed.

 

The Angel Caller exists all around the world. In Ireland, it is called a Fairy Ball. In Bali, India, Indonesia, Harmony Ball. When the baby is born, it is hung over the cradle or stitched onto a comforter. It reminds the little one of warmth, safety, and love. And that all will be well.

 

The mother and her baby and necklace were soon wheeled out of the room, to which silence returned, now unwelcome. The other patient went to bed. She lay awake all night, till the nurse and her pills came in at five, straining, in spite of herself, to hear the faint sound of a bell in the silence.

 

The adjoining bed was still empty the next day. And the next. And the staff could not violate the rules and tell the patient what had happened. She was left with her faltering Spanish, window, green and purple curtain, and the hope that the Angel Caller had called loud enough to be heard.

 

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