There for Mom
A longtime Sibley hospital nurse on helping patients stay calm in the delivery room—and getting to meet the babies
In her 35 years as a labor and delivery nurse, Lillian Del Priore has seen parents bring some unusual things to the hospital.
“Texas dirt,” she says. “For people from Texas, the baby has to be born over Texas soil. They put it in a bag under the bed—and it’s happened more than once.” Then there was the professional baseball player who brought 30 baseballs with him so he could put the newborn’s footprint on each one. The plan was to give them to friends instead of cigars. “That was kind of fun and creative,” says Del Priore, who lives in Garrett Park.
At Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C., “Labor Lill,” as she’s known on the floor, helps moms stay calm and focused on their job. To reassure a woman in labor, Del Priore often squeezes her hand tightly and says, “You are going to be OK—I’m going to take good care of you.” If the baby is coming quickly, the veteran nurse might get in the patient’s face, sometimes panting until the mom-to-be naturally mimics her calming breaths. “Often, taking the time and touching them brings [the stress] down a peg,” she says.
Del Priore, 57, grew up on Long Island, attended Catholic University in Washington, D.C, and ended up staying in the area. Drawn to helping people, she says she always wanted to be a nurse. She worked at D.C.’s Columbia Hospital for Women (now closed) before going to Sibley in 2001. She was also a volunteer EMT for a decade with the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad, where she met her husband, Todd. They have two sons, now 22 and 25.
Del Priore finds that women giving birth are generally more anxious now than they were when her career began, in part because of pressure from social media. “Everybody has access to see how everybody else’s labor went,” she says. “We are such a judgy society. We set ourselves up for expectations of perfection.” Instead of focusing on a “perfect” story, she says the goal should be to have a healthy baby.
It’s the difficult deliveries that stick with Del Priore. Although rare, a patient may have to be rushed into the operating room for an emergency cesarean section, or go through labor when a baby no longer has a heartbeat. “But 99.9% of the time, the outcome is beautiful,” says Del Priore, who estimates that she’s helped deliver about 7,000 babies.
Several years ago, after Del Priore helped a patient through a premature labor, the woman and her husband decided to name their daughter Lillian. Del Priore attended Lily’s baptism and still stays in touch with the family today. She keeps every note of thanks from her patients in a file cabinet at home.
The work is physically and emotionally exhausting, but Del Priore loves it. “You get to experience a miracle pretty much every day,” she says. “You hear that baby crying and your inner body just kind of melts.”
“There are a lot of factors at play in giving birth. I call them the Four P’s: The passenger (the baby), the passageway (your pelvis), the powers (your contractions), and the power of positivity, or your psyche. You need to keep all of those in line, and it’s kind of hard. It’s like making Thanksgiving dinner—you all have to come together in a beautiful symphony.”
One Thing at a Time
“With technology, it can be hard. In general, people are pretty good. But once I was teaching someone to breastfeed—literally my hand is on her breast—and she answers the phone. I felt like I was essentially breastfeeding the baby while she was on the phone. Did I really have to say, ‘I think we need to concentrate on breastfeeding now?’ ”
Dealing with the Unexpected
“When a woman wants an epidural to manage the pain but can’t get one, it’s like going to an ice cream store and saying, ‘Everyone else can have ice cream, but you can’t. You have to eat all spinach.’ It’s horrible. Once, I helped the woman labor without an epidural all through my night shift. There wasn’t a part of her body that I didn’t rub. Afterward she told me, ‘I don’t know why I have a doctor—you are the one who saved me.’ ”
Staying until the end
“We work 12-hour shifts. I like it that way because I feel my chance of getting ripped off is a little less. You are working so hard for someone that you want to meet the sweetheart. It’s not always possible, but if a mom is pushing, sometimes I say, ‘I can’t leave now.’ ”
Room for Everyone
“We don’t have a strict policy about how many people are allowed in the room. I once had a patient who had 15 women with her. They begged to stay. We didn’t have enough chairs, but they wanted to sit on the floor. We had a verbal contract: ‘You can stay if you don’t get in my way.’ It worked out fine. We set our guidance; they were respectful.”