On my sixteenth birthday, just after I had blown out the candles on a fairy cake, my mother told me that I was born dead.
“I’m so happy that you made it,” she said.
I pulled the fork out of my mouth.
“Oh,” she said. “I guess we never told you. If not for aunt Kirah you wouldn’t even have made it through your first day.”
Aunt Kirah. Nurse Kirah.
My mother’s contractions started in her lunch break, two months early. She was at the hospital twenty minutes later and another hour after that she pushed my head out of her body.
Like most babies, I didn’t breathe. The doctor gave me a light slap, like for all babies. Another light slap, like for some babies. Then a stronger slap.
At that point my mother started screaming. A thick stream of blood ran out of her lower body. The doctor handed me over to a young nurse who tried another slap and then quickly passed me on to a 24 year old nurse. Nurse Kirah.
Kirah wrapped her mouth around mine and blew air into my nose. She used two of her fingers to quickly massage my chest. She paused, blew another gust of air into my lungs and kept massaging. Over and over again.
My mother stopped screaming. They managed to stop her bleeding too.
They told nurse Kirah to stop the cpr. They said it was hopeless. The doctor tried to pull her hand away from my small and still chest. When that didn’t succeed he declared me dead.
Two days after my sixteenth birthday I met Kirah again. To me she had always been aunt Kirah, never nurse Kirah.
“The world just disappeared,” she said. “It was like there was only you and me and my whole life seemed to have led to that moment.”
She took a bite of the fairy cake and smiled.
“It’s strange, but I don’t even remember moving my fingers or giving you mouth-to-mouth. I just wanted to save you and in that moment nothing else mattered, not even my own life. I just knew you would live.”
“Even when everyone told you to stop?”
“Even then. I knew that you would live and I would have done anything just to make you take that first breath.”
“It’s okay. I’m happy that I did. Make sure you bring good to the world.”
Three days after my sixteenth birthday I announced to my parents that I would become a nurse. By the time I turned seventeen they had convinced me to become a doctor instead.
Studying medicine was the most difficult time of my life – or at least the most difficult time that I remember.
Before I gave them a tour of the grounds my parents had never even entered a lecture hall. They had supported me in school, but universit was different and when my trouble with deadlines and stacks of learn-this-by-heart sheets started they didn’t know how to help.
Aunt Kirah did know. She came and showed me the best books. She taught me mnemonics for the most important bones and muscles. She even taught me how to take proper notes and where to sit in the lecture hall – not in the first two or three rows so you don’t get picked on, but in the first third of the hall.
“The ones in the back,” Kirah said, “Are either shy or don’t want to listen. As a doctor you shouldn’t be shy and as a smart girl you should want to listen. It’s not cool to sit in the back. It’s the seats of those that want to chat and gossip or sleep. It’s the seats of those that want to fail and it’s not cool to fail.”
I would be lying if I said my grades were great. But I never failed an exam and my grades were high enough that, when my first placement went well, they allowed me to join the neonatology specialisation. It felt like the right thing to do, the right thing to give back.
When I graduated I had three parents to watch my hat fly. There were my parents, of course, and aunt Kirah sat to the left of my mom with a big smile on her face.
Kirah also helped me get my first job – in her hospital. In the hospital in which I was born dead.
She showed me the way around and introduced me to the other nurses. Aunt Kirah told me how to learn the most and how to handle those wrinkly, small and fragile humans with care, but she also scolded me with her soft voice whenever I handled a newborn too roughly or made decisions that she thought were not ideal.
Just for one year I had that pleasure. I wish I would have thanked her more often.
The doctor’s life is hard. You have to be calm and compassionate to your patients all day. That life doesn’t allow you to take rest and think of yourself. But most of all it doesn’t give you time to sit back and see all the other people in your life that would need your compassion.
I knew that her husband had died long ago, but aunt Kirah never wore a sad face. I also heard the rumors but with my thoughts on the patients I quickly discarded those words from my mental stack.
“Can’t have children.”
“Always just at work.”
I always asked her how she was and she always said she was fine. A whole year and I didn’t listen.
She was standing behind me while I was giving advice to a soon-to-be mother. I felt her hand on my shoulder and then she pulled it away.
“… and we even offer a water birth, if …”
The patient turned white.
“Oh my god,” the patient said. “Oh my god.”
A “What?” left my mouth but before she could answer I heard the heavy thud behind me.
Aunt Kirah’s arms and legs were twitching, then cramped. Her lower jaw was pulled down and her eyes turned inside.
We gave her muscle relaxants but her mouth never closed again.
Kirah was in that bed for a week. There were so many flowers that even the second table didn’t suffice.
There were always people in her room, holding her hand and saying kind words. Only when I said that I was a doctor and needed privacy, then they would leave and I would sit down and cry with my head on her chest.
When she fell her head had hit the floor. An aneurysm. Brain dead.
I hadn’t paid attention to that hand on my shoulder; to that hand pulling on my coat.
After a week her doctor made the decision to pull the plug.
“Please don’t,” I said.
He looked at her face.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “But you know she’s dead already.”
That afternoon my parents came. Kirah’s sister and her two nephews too.
One after the other a slow procession of nurses and doctors went through the room to squeeze her hand or kiss her forehead.
All except my parents and her sister and nephews left. I was the one that pulled the plug.
There is no sound like that steady, long beep. No sound where you hope so much that it would sound different.
A week later I emptied her locker. Another nurse, one around Kirah’s age, came into the room while I was folding a blue sweater.
The nurse looked around the room, then quickly approached me. She held a file towards me. It had Kirah’s name on it and a patient number.
“We shouldn’t give this out,” she said. “But I think you might want it.”
“You will see.”
That night, with the basket of Kirah’s possessions on a chair and a glass of sour white wine on the table, I opened that file.
There were not many pages of the first years. Just her profile and insurance data. A few standard tests.
I felt a stone in my stomach when I saw the pregnancy test. Positive.
There were several more lab results. An admission sheet. One word was scribbed in red letters at the top of the page.
My training took over. I looked through the data on the page and didn’t find a cause. For nearly half an hour I read through the sheet and the lab results stapled to the yellow cardboard. All results seemed fine. She had been admitted in the afternoon with pain and bleeding, but there didn’t seem to be a cause.
There was an operation report too. They removed her uterus.
I sank the file on the table and felt tears roll down my cheeks.
I had never listened. I had never wondered why she was alone.
That’s why she had always cared for me so much. She had saved me. She had given life to me. I had been her replacement child.
I took the glass and raised it.
“I would have done anything just to make you take that first breath,” she had said.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
It was in that moment, when my eyes were somewhere on the ceiling and the cold of the glass touched my lips.
The page had turned back to the page with the red letters at the top.
My eyes moved back to the page. I looked at the large scribbled word with the capital M. My eyes moved down the page. Then I saw the date.