¡Ay! ¡Que Frio!

People often think of Guatemala as a tropical land, because aren't all places in Latin America hot? It is true that areas of Guatemala are low-lying palm tree dotted tropics, but that is only on the Caribbean side (which I wrote about in my account of Guatemalan banana country) and a narrow strip along the Pacific ocean. In fact, much of Guatemala, including the entire center of the nation, where most of the country's population is concentrated, is very mountainous.

In this mountainous climate the temperature can actually be very temperate with Guatemala City (at about 5,000 feet of elevation) having spring-like weather year-round. Xela at over 8,000 feet has weather more fall-like weather: day time highs are in 70s and nighttime lows typically in the 40s (though it can get down to freezing during the height of the US winter in December, January, and February). We find this weather to be ideal: warm, but not hot, during the day and good cool sleeping at night.

While we may find Xela weather ideal, Guatemalans have a different idea. Any time you tell anyone in the entire country that you live in Xela, 98% of the time the first words out of their mouths are "Ay! Que frio!" (or Whoa! So cold!).

If the conversation progresses beyond this initial reaction, we often explain to people that the weather in the United States is much colder and that Xela isn't really that cold. Usually we can bring them around to this view once we tell them that snow falls in the US (a very impressive fact to most Guatemalans who have never seen snow except for the movies- though it is likely that we are simultaneously convincing them that we are completely insane: who would live in place where there is snow?!).

If living in Xela brings good insight into the Guatemalan sense of temperature, then having a baby is like a PhD thesis on this topic. Guatemalans, even those in Xela that would seemingly be better temperature adjusted, seem to have the idea that every baby should be dressed in at least 6 layers.

So even when it is 75 degrees, the idea that the baby would be wearing only 1 or 2 layers, even if has long sleeves, is shocking. Thus the first thing that every Guatemalan says when they see Jack is the familiar "¡Ay! ¡Que frio!" This exclamation is often followed by asking "you don't want to cover him with a blanket?" The slightly more restrained people, who are able to omit the former shocked exclamation, go straight to the latter blanket question.

When Jack left the hospital after he was born, the nurses were appalled that we were going to leave the hospital with him dressed in only a long sleeve onesie and a hat, even though it was 85 degrees outside. In fact, one of the nurses chased Meg down the hall to put a blanket over Jack's head to protect him from the cold (then she suggested that he sit in the front seat on Meg's lap rather than in the back in his car seat- not exactly a proper assessment of the relative dangers of the two situations).

Being a pediatrician, which seems to involve examining a lot of babies, Meg has quite a bit of experience in what Guatemalans consider appropriate dress for infants- that is, at least 6 layers of clothing. While a onesie, short sleeve shirt, long sleeve shirt, pants, sweater, jacket, and blanket are some of the clothing options we choose between when dressing our child, Guatemalans don't choose; they just put all those clothes on the baby at once. Then they add a hat, gloves, and another blanket just for good measure and that's when it's 60 degrees out.

In fact, when seeing patients at her clinic, normal baby check-ups routinely take five minutes longer than they should because of all the time it takes to remove all of the baby's clothes before they can be examined. Meg has now learned to ignore the look of horror on the parent's faces when she removes even a few of the layers to try do to a proper exam (in a very warm exam room). It can be especially challenging to get the child's actual weight when they are outfitted this way.

The amount of clothing may also explain why a common complaint by parents is that their baby "has a fever because their skin feels hot". Well, your skin would feel hot too if you were wearing 6 layers on clothing on a warm day. Needless to say when a thermometer is used very few of these children have a temperature above normal.

So for those that think Guatemala is a tropical land, in fact it is often ¡Que Frio!

The Story of Jack

If you've found your way here, then you already know the end of the story:

Jack Sullivan Herrmann was born at 10:02pm on February 3, 2011 in Guatemala City, Guatemala.


But here's how we got there (or at least the final part of the journey):

Meg's due date was February 17, 2011 (which actually happens to be Jed's mother's birthday). So come the end of January, Meg began having very regular appointments with the obstetrician. At the same time, Meg was also pretty tired of being pregnant. That is being constantly tired, very unwieldy, and having odd aches and pains was taking its toll. And that's leaving out the self-image issue of looking huge (after looking in the mirror towards the end of the pregnancy, Meg turned to Jed and said "I look like a bear").

Our plan for the delivery was that Meg would give birth in Guatemala City at Herrera Llerandi hospital, which delivers US standard medical care but with an extreme level of customer service (at one point after the delivery it seemed that both Meg and Jack each had their own exclusive doctor and nurse, respectively). In addition to the standard of care we chose Herrera Llerandi because several friends of ours had given birth there and been very pleased with their experiences. But given that our home in Xela is about 4 hours from Guatemala City, we knew that the old fashioned "we'll just go to the hospital when she starts to go into labor" plan wouldn't work too well (unless we wanted to chance having the child born at 10,000 feet on the mountainous highway that connects Xela and Guatemala City).

So we developed an alternative plan of renting a house for the month of February in the town of Antigua, which is an easy 45 minute drive from the hospital in Guatemala City. This plan drastically reduced the chances of giving birth on top of a mountain (though it didn't entirely eliminate this chance as a few months previous some friends with a similar plan ended up giving birth at the gas station about 1/3 of the way to Guatemala City).

Living in Antigua for the month also increased the chances that our parents would be able to be present at the birth of their grandchild- Jed's parents first grandchild and Meg's parents second (with Jack's cousin beating him to the first position by a mere 7 months). Our plan with our parents was to call them in NYC when Meg went into labor so they could get on the first plane and try to get to Guatemala as soon as possible. (Rumor has it that both our mothers had the schedules of all the possible flights to Guatemala memorized and also walked around with their passports in their purses). To assist in this plan, Jed's mother even took the momentous step of promising not only to carry her cell phone with her but to actually turn it on!

So on the morning of February 3, Meg had a regular doctor's appointment in Guatemala City. On the drive into the city, Meg noted how odd it was that at this point in the pregnancy she still hadn't had a single contraction. But she did complain about the sharp pains in her back which had been around for several weeks. Jed postulated that these "back pains" might actually be contractions.

After a quick exam, the obstetrician informed Meg that she was 4 centimeters dilated, in active labor, and needed to be admitted to the hospital immediately. Meg was quick to protest that she didn't feel like she was in labor and that she wasn't even having any contractions. So we all agreed that she would be hooked up to a monitor and observed for half an hour. If this test showed that she was having contractions close together then she would be admitted.

After seeing two relatively strong contractions in the first 3 minutes Meg was hooked up to the monitor we all knew where this was going. It felt strange to be finally on the brink of the moment for which we'd been waiting for so many months. On the one hand (especially for Meg and her "bear" stomach) it was nice to be done with pregnancy. On the other hand, birth and labor can be full of unexpected, nerve-wracking, and physical challenges.

While Meg was admitted to the hospital, Jed put the parent (soon to be grandparent) plan into action. His first call to his mother's cell phone went unanswered. As did the next five- though in fairness her cell phone was actually on, if even she wasn't answering it. He gave up on her and called his father, who upon hearing that Meg was 4 centimeters dilated asked if they should plan on "coming to Guatemala tomorrow for the birth". Jed replied that he might want to be here a little sooner and, in fact, should get on a plane right now as the baby was coming pronto.

Jed didn't need to impress the urgency of the situation on Meg's mother. She picked up the phone by saying "Oh my god, it's time, isn't it?" and ended 2 minutes later by saying that she was already out the door and on the way to the airport. Our parents ended up getting booked on the same flight from Miami to Guatemala City, which was scheduled to land at 8pm.

As we waited for our Jack and our parents to arrive, we made some more phone calls to our siblings and watched the contractions get more frequent and intense. Finally when the monitor measured the third contraction in a row over 90 (with 100 being the top of the scale), Meg decided it might be time to do something about pain medication. Enter the epidural!

Things progressed well through the early afternoon as Meg's contractions became more regular and she became more dilated. But as we entered the evening hours, the contractions continued but Meg's dilation stalled and Jack remained high up and had not descended into the birth canal. After much back and forth, negotiation, and extended deadlines we reluctantly agreed with the doctor that it was time for a cesarean section.

In the meantime, our parents had arrived in Guatemala as scheduled and we're at the hospital before 9pm. So we got to spend some time with them before Meg went into the operating room for her c-section. She was in the operating room for a while and then an unmistakable scream and Jack had arrived! He was happy (well, sort of), healthy (very) and 7 pounds, 4 ounces and 20 inches. It took a while so sew Meg up but by 11pm she was back in the room, tired but happy.

And as a final touch, here's how this story was written: