These hospital valets are the unsung heroes of the obstetric world.
During her pregnancy, my wife, Maggie, and I practiced our drive to the hospital so many times that by the third trimester, even our baby knew the route. She’d kick left or right for turns and stomp on the bottom of the womb just before the pothole on Michigan Avenue. Still, I was concerned about getting Maggie out of the car smoothly once we arrived at the hospital, so I practiced at home with our dog, Nugget. I’d whip the car into the driveway, race around to the passenger seat, open the door and unbuckle the seatbelt, then heave my dog onto a waiting skateboard. I was fairly certain that Maggie wouldn’t bite as hard as Nugget.
I needn’t have worried. Our destination—Prentice Maternity Center at Northwestern Memorial Hospital—not only delivers more new Chicagoans than any other hospital in the city, but it also has a crew of car parkers who greet expectant parents at the hospital’s drop-off area. These baby valets are the pros of the birthing process—the pit crew of natal NASCAR. They’ve seen more deliveries than some midwives have (when’s the last time you saw one with a “Joe” nametag sewn onto her windbreaker?) and witnessed enough auto mishaps to announce the Indy 500.
Crew member Brian Wilson has seen babies born in the back seats of cars. And he’s watched cars plow into barricades after frazzled husbands forgot to shift into “park.” But the most panicked people Wilson deals with are the cabbies. “They fly into the driveway, screaming for us to get these women out of their cabs,” he says. Wilson’s most vivid memory is of a woman who announced her arrival well before she reached the hospital. “We could hear her screaming from down the block,” he says. “And that was with her windows rolled up.”
Ayappa Thumu was initiated—baptized, so to speak—on his first week on the job. As he helped a woman who’d just gone into labor from her car, her water broke—all over him. “I looked down and my pants were soaked,” Thumu recalls.
As with any specialty, these guys’ skills are honed by practice. Just as an experienced cook can eyeball a quart or a carpenter can pick out the perfect-size plank, the baby valet learns how to estimate degrees of dilation. A crowning set of twins in the back seat of a ’76 Impala is considered a slow day. “It can get pretty hectic,” says Thumu. “We just try to help the mother.”
Both men agree that the fathers are usually more nervous. “The mothers are calm—unless they’re already in labor,” Wilson says. “Then they express their emotions a little more.” (To understand the phrase “express their emotions,” pick up the latest Eminem album.) Wilson once was the victim of a laboring woman’s death-grip handhold. “She dragged me up to the fourth floor and began delivering the baby before I could sneak out of the room,” he recalls.
These baby valets deal with more panic than psychiatrists and more spilled water than plumbers. Yet, they insist, they’re just working a normal gig. “When you’re hired, you don’t really need any special skills,” Wilson admits. “You pick up the ones you need pretty quickly.” Like knowing how to dodge amniotic fluid and get stains out.