'My Birth Was Traumatic—50 Years Later, I Discovered the Truth'

Most normal people's lives start at birth. To hear my mother tell it, mine started when I was about four years old. It was as if she had plopped me down into my life that had started without me, like beginning a book in chapter three or four.

I always wondered: What if there was a clue or a line at the beginning we missed?

The details surrounding my birth are sparse. I was born a month early. My mother's doctor was in the Caribbean. It was a Sunday. My father was off to play his customary round of golf even after my mother told him the baby was coming. He countered her remark with: "What do you know about babies Elizabeth? You never even babysat before."

My mother persisted. She was good at that. When she called the clubhouse, golf carts were dispatched to find my father. They found him chipping in a putt on the eighth hole. There was no time for Daddy's shower or even for a trip to the big city hospital that they had intended.

Leslie Hooton and her mother
Leslie Hooton and her mother, nicknamed "Sarge," then and now. Leslie Hooton

I was in a hurry, so they rushed to the local hospital which had only one operating room that also functioned as a delivery room. My mother was whisked away as my father was relegated to the waiting room to read old magazines. Soon I was born, weighing in at just five pounds.

The nurses stuck me in an incubator.

Someone forgot to plug it in.

Another forgot to turn it on.

Three years later my mother was convinced something was wrong with me. I scooched on my bottom instead of crawling, I was slow to walk and the most infuriating thing for my mother was that I preferred my left hand instead of my right. Was I destined to be a criminal?

My left side looked strong and healthy, and my right side looked like a dried-up prune.

My mother carted me to doctor after doctor in her search for an answer. One doctor finally submitted to her entreaties and ordered tests. After a thorough examination, he proclaimed me to be brain damaged, probably from the incubator not being plugged in. He pointed to the lack of normal development of my motor skills on my right side.

He said my maladies would only grow worse over time. He gently suggested to my mother a very nice facility that would take me in and care for me.

Not so gently, my mother, the persistent one, brushed his offer aside. She had observed my little eyes darting around with curiosity, a characteristic she revered as much as persistence. Sarge would teach me, and furthermore, she would find a doctor to fix me.

I gave my mother the nickname "Sarge." I could say she earned it. I could say like all good nicknames, it fit. I got the sense that my mother could confidently stand up to anyone. Like the men in white coats, I fell into line behind her.

Even though we lived in rural Alabama, my mother made it her mission to research doctors. She became a one-woman Google before Google. She went to the library, got telephone numbers of orthopedic surgeons, and began her campaign to interview them for the privilege of fixing her daughter. After narrowing her candidates down to two orthopedic surgeons, one in San Francisco and one in New Orleans, she bestowed the honor on the top-notch doctor.

I sometimes wonder if before we even arrived in New Orleans they had flagged my chart—not because of me, but because of Sarge. "Beware of the mother... she bites."

Nothing else was discussed about what happened the day I was born. But it gnawed at me like a book that didn't have an ending. Or beginning.

Decades sped by, but the on-rush of medical advancements brought no new answers. The doctors all nodded their heads, and some had a genuine curiosity about what happened on my "birth" day. I was a full-fledged adult by this time. But no one pushed for answers. I couldn't get my doctors to join me in my quest. Even my mother saw the beginning of my life as a chapter she had no interest in rereading.

That is until I worked up enough courage and bravery to challenge one of the white coats. I was 50 years old! I was not my mother's daughter for nothing. I had become persistent in my own right.

My neurosurgeon admitted that he didn't believe that the lack of oxygen in the incubator was the culprit. What then? What happened on the day I was born that caused so much damage to my right side and affected my life so greatly?

Once again, I was poked and prodded. After ordering new tests, my neurosurgeon presented me with the answer.

He gestured to his computer screen. There, an area of my brain glowed like a pinpoint of light.

Proof! I focused on the spot he pointed to. It was a tiny white spot on the left internal capsule of my brain. He opined that I had a stroke, probably in the birth canal. It looked like a drop of bleach that trashes your favorite pair of jeans.

That speck of white wreaked such havoc on my life. My doctor said the location affected my motor skills, my math, and my spatial coordination (now that would've helped with all my various house moves and my insisting to my brother that the sofa could fit in that tiny space).

I was insulted. How could something so tiny be so ruthless?

My doctor insisted it was because of its location. I responded: "Brain injuries must be a lot like real estate. It's all about location, location, location."

Did the first few seconds of my birth determine the rest of my life?

It didn't take a neurosurgeon's answer to make me thankful for my mother. Her unyielding persistence to help and challenge me allowed me to move into a future where I could push for my own answers.

Without my knowing, Sarge made me curious and persistent. She also made me confident to stand up to the men in white coats who have populated the landscape of my life from the very beginning. I am persistent, just like my mother.

I refused to let some tiny speck on my brain dictate the arc of the rest of my story. It turned out that the clue was on my "birth" day after all. Just maybe it was this mystery that made me who I am and what I am. I am a writer who writes the entire story.

Leslie Hooton is the author of Before Anyone Else which garnered a Zibby nomination, The Secret of Rainy Days which was a book club favorite, and After Everyone Else forthcoming on June 28, 2022. Originally from Alabama, Leslie resides in Charlotte, North Carolina, and is at work on her next novel.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

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