By Georgia Ragonetti-Zebell, MD
When I was in residency, our local zoo was loaned two giraffes (Autumn and Walter) as part of a breeding program, the Species Survival Project. The entire city was thrilled when Autumn became pregnant with her first baby. The zoo set up a webcam in her stall so the whole world could watch. There was even a contest to name the little baby giraffe. As she neared her due date, the excitement heightened. There was a designated computer on Labor and Delivery that had the webcam pulled up. We were all riveted.
I remember one day when everyone thought she was in labor. She was in her stall, surrounded by cement walls. She seemed uncomfortable, pacing around. She would fling her head towards her back end, and flip her tail. This is it, we thought. She is in labor. Everyone on L&D was concerned. “Oh, she’s in pain! Someone help her!” “Poor thing. I wish she could have an epidural.” “They can’t monitor the baby? How do they know it’s ok?” All of the women were glued to the screen, concerned for poor Autumn.
Except it wasn’t Autumn. It was Walter. With a fly on his butt.
The giraffe wasn’t in pain. The baby wasn’t in danger from not being monitored. So much of our personal fears had been projected onto the wrong giraffe. Fear of pain in childbirth, fear of a bad baby. And none of it was true.
Autumn did give birth a week or so later. It was around midnight, and my husband woke me up to watch the video on YouTube. Autumn paced in her stall. Membranes and fluid began to appear. And then with a huge splash (and a long drop to the ground), Kiko was born. Autumn had jolted forward at the moment of delivery, seemingly shocked by what had just come out of her. The baby lay in a heap on the dirt floor of the stall. He didn’t move for a full minute. Even I, usually very patient, was wanting a little stimulation of the baby just to perk him up a little. Autumn seemed traumatized, and she didn’t go near the calf initially. But, eventually, Kiko took his first breath and would later stand on wobbly legs.
I was (oddly) proud of Autumn. She didn’t need pitocin. She didn’t need an epidural. And she didn’t need her baby monitored. She moved freely, she listened to her body, and through the awesomeness that is nature, she birthed, and now her species continues on. The hospital staff and the community as a whole celebrated. Kids could visit Kiko for free, if they came to the zoo dressed as a giraffe.
Autumn was pregnant again a couple years later. She labored at night and delivered. But this time, the baby never took a breath.
All was going well with the pregnancy, according to the zoo. They could see movement of the baby the day before Autumn delivered. But when she went into labor, they noticed that the baby was not well positioned. I’m not a veterinarian, but from the news reports, the baby was delivered hind feet first, similar to footling breech in humans. The zoo was concerned, enough to turn off the webcams. Cesarean sections are not often performed in animals, and the zoo only knew of one successful giraffe cesarean. So Autumn was left alone to labor, but the stress of delivery was too much. The baby did not survive.
Last month, Autumn had her rainbow baby. His name is Tatu, which means “third” in Swahili. Our city celebrates once again.
Nature is amazing…and sometimes tragic. I think about this little giraffe family as I care for women throughout their pregnancies. Everything I do is to prevent what happened to Autumn’s second baby. All of the measuring and monitoring, the urine dips and lab work, it is all focused on preventing the loss of a precious baby. We are far from perfect; the unthinkable still happens, but we try. And every time a woman gives birth to a healthy baby that takes in that first breath and lets out a cry, I am again in awe of what our bodies can do. To create and grow perfect little people, with tiny little noses and chubby, unworn feet. To bring them forth into this world, by navigating the tightest of squeezes, or, thanks to medical advances, by life saving surgery. I work hard to strike the balance. To create the safest of spaces, where nature can continue the species, and where medical intervention can sometimes prevent the tragedies.
Georgia Ragonetti-Zebell, MD is an OB/GYN practicing in Upstate South Carolina, and is mommy to four (yes, FOUR) boys. She is a graduate of the Women’s Health Pathway at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and completed her residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology with the Greenville Health System in Greenville, South Carolina. She has a special interest in natural childbirth, breastfeeding, and alternative methods in labor and delivery. She enjoys yoga, crochet, and reading, but spends most of her free time cleaning up poop while trying not to step on Legos.