SANFORD — It’s not like Alethea Bruno to be a slave to the calendar, but she had this pregnancy all planned out.
Counting back from her Aug. 22 due date, she had scheduled the nursery decorating, the furniture delivery, the baby shower, the family coming in from Colorado. Most important, her fiancé, Army 1st Sgt. Andy Davis, was set to come home from Afghanistan in time for the birth.
But babies have their own schedules, and this one – they settled on Melina Cheyenne for a name – was in a hurry. So Friday afternoon, a month early, before the furniture had arrived, before she had even toured the birth center at Central Carolina Hospital in Sanford – Bruno was in a maternity suite with regular contractions and the soft flutter of the baby’s heartbeat playing through a monitor.
“He’s trying to get here,” she said of Davis. “He really wants to be here.”
Maybe he can be here, hospital workers said. You have a laptop? Can he get to a computer? Do you have a Skype account?
As Central Carolina has become increasingly popular among Army moms from nearby Fort Bragg, the hospital has embraced Internet communications as a way to arrange what the military and even the Red Cross often can’t. The hospital provides free Wi-Fi, and the couple arrange the rest.
“It’s not quite the same as having him be able to reach out and touch her,” said Mary Florit, head of obstetrics at the hospital. “But it’s awfully darn close.”
Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg, which averages 270 births a month, does not have wireless Internet and can’t provide a similar service. Cape Fear Valley Medical Center in Fayetteville, where some mothers go, can make advance arrangements for temporary wireless accounts that allow dads to witness births. Hospital spokesman Donnie Byers said Cape Fear has done so six or eight times since 2008.
At Central Carolina, midwife Peggy Davis, no relation to Bruno’s fiancé, says she finds that the dad’s electronic presence has a calming effect on a mother in labor. And being there, even as a picture on a laptop or a smartphone, is a powerful experience for the father.
“It brings the couple closer together,” Davis said. “It brings the family closer.”
Time was finally right
Since Bruno and Davis became friends in high school in the 1990s, they had been there for each other through it all: boyfriends, girlfriends, graduation, jobs, marriages to other people, children, his divorce, her separation and then her husband’s death in a motorcycle crash.
So many times through the years, Davis had asked Bruno to go out with him, to build a life and a family with him, but the timing never seemed right. Finally, they began dating last year, and Bruno got pregnant with their daughter. Davis knew he wanted to be there for the baby’s birth.
“This is what he’s dreamed of forever,” Bruno said.
By Saturday afternoon, it was clear that Melina was on her way and that her father would be staying with his infantry unit at a remote base in Afghanistan, most likely until the group returns from deployment in August or September.
Gretchen Wester, a friend of Bruno’s, had been in touch with Davis through the day to let him know how things were progressing. Mid-afternoon Sanford time – around 11 p.m. in Afghanistan – Davis hiked over to a bank of computers on base and dialed in.
Once connected, Davis looked a little like a worried TV talk-show host on an empty set. Bruno’s computer sat on her bedside table, pulled as close as possible to her side, approximately at the place where Davis would have been sitting if he were in the room. The sound on Bruno’s laptop didn’t work right, so to hear and talk with him, Bruno had to use a set of bright pink ear buds with a microphone on the cord. As the contractions became more frequent and intense, Bruno couldn’t stand to have the buds in her ears, so they lay on the pillow above her head.
Able to hear the screaming
“At least he gets to hear me scream and curse,” Bruno said between bouts of pushing.
Melina made her entrance into the world a little after 5 p.m. Within seconds, she lay on Bruno’s chest, her tiny face turned toward the computer so her father could see.
“She’s beautiful,” Bruno told Davis as he wiped away tears.
Bruno took the ear buds, put one in her ear and held the other next to the baby, who was still tethered to her mother by an umbilical cord and now to her father by a wireless connection.
“Hi, this is your dad,” Davis cooed from 7,000 miles away. “I love you.”
It was 2 a.m. in Afghanistan, and Davis had a class to teach to members of the Afghan army in a few hours. He looked almost as tired as Bruno.
“I’m so glad I got to be here,” he said. “I got here just in time.”