By Duane Preimsberger
When I signed on to be a Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff in October of 1961 I certainly had no expectation or realization that as a part of my duties I’d be delivering babies. I was expecting to be battling the forces of evil and making sure that the community was well protected from the bad guys. Being involved in obstetrics was the furthest thing from my mind. When I started the Sheriff’s Academy a few weeks later I was very surprised to find in the curriculum a class titled, “Emergency Aspects of Childbirth.” Up to that time my knowledge about the human birthing process had come from a college health class and viewing a film that graphically portrayed a calf being born. I also knew a lot of medical terms from hanging around the soda fountain at the local drug store as I grew up.
The Academy class on the subject was a couple of hours long
and was taught by a R.N. from the OB/GYN Department of the
I was a rookie Patrol Deputy assigned to duties out of Firestone Station, working in the Watts- Willowbrook area. Partnered with Almus Stewart, a seasoned training officer, we roamed the streets in a radio car responding to calls through the early morning watch. It was a tough neighborhood with plenty to do and a lot of opportunity to learn how to be a street cop.
One of the first things that happened to me that caused me to re-evaluate the benefits of classroom lecture vs. real world experience occurred on a chilly, rainy February morning. The radio crackled with our unit’s call letters as a nasally voiced female dispatcher broadcast our call.
“15 Adam, a nine-oh-two (902) maternity,
I picked up the mike and ack’ed the call, “15 Adam, ten-four, 15 Adam.” Almus, a tall, black Deputy Sheriff with hands as big as bibles periodically turned on the red lights and siren and depressed the horn ring sending a shock wave of wailing through the early mornings rainy skies.
In the early 1960’s, a time before Paramedics, Deputy Sheriffs had the responsibility for attending to person sick and injured calls. Al had told me that women, especially in poorer neighborhoods, who were about to give birth would call the Sheriffs Department to obtain an ambulance ride to emergency medical assistance. It wasn’t unusual to have them meet you at the door with a small, packed suitcase in hand.
“Hey Al!” I shouted over the scream of our siren, the whirring of the heater, the bap-bap, bap-bap of the windshield wipers and the dispatchers’ voice sending other radio cars on various missions. “I don’t know how to deliver a kid. What do we do if it’s going to come out while we’re there and the ambulance guys aren’t?”
“I’ll tell you when we get there, now sit back and watch out for cross traffic so that no deaf drunk sneaks up and runs into us.”
A few minutes later we pulled to the curb at our destination. It was a small, old wood framed house that could have used some yard work and a paint job. A young black man raced down the front steps and ran toward us as we got out of the car.
“Please! Y’all come quick, my wife’s having a baby and it’s coming right now!”
“Relax man,” said Almus as we entered the house, there’s an ambulance coming to take them to the hospital. We’ve delivered a hundred babies and if the stork beats the ambulance my partner and I can take care of this business.”
I looked out of the corner of my eye at my training officer who’d just fabricated one of the most audacious tales I’d ever heard. My personal experience with actual childbirth ranked me at the very bottom end of any list. This was business that I’d never done before.
Just then a spine chilling, hair-raising cry reverberated from the bedroom.
“LORD, GOD, JESUS, SOMEBODY, HELP ME, OOOOHHHHHHHH!”
She lay on her back in the big bed; she looked very young and small. The bed sheet covering her was wrinkled and twisted in her hands and was pulled over the big mound of her belly. Her eyes had a wounded animal look to them and beads of sweat had damped the bed where she lay writhing and grimacing.
“Is it time little momma?” asked Almus. “Yes, yes,” she panted.
“If we’re going to help you, you’ll have to let us take off the sheet and then your husband can help you undress the lower part of your body. OK?” She shook her head yes as her husband took off the covering and removed her underwear. “OK. Dad, now get us some clean newspaper.” Al ordered. “Newspaper”? What are we going to do with that?” I asked. “When dad gets back with it, you unfold eight or nine sheets full length and put them under her thighs. You’ll see what it’s for.”
The cries from the young woman grew more frequent and seconds after I’d placed the papers under her, a gush of fluid dampened the top layers. I removed these, leaving clean dry ones underneath. “Pretty good idea Al.”
“Won’t be long now buddy,” Al whispered to me. “Things look like they’re going to be OK. You take care of momma and I’ll take dad in the other room and have him boil water so he stays out of the way and then I’ll check and see how long before that ambulance gets here.
I want you to remember some things: don’t touch the birth canal or the umbilical cord while it’s still connected to momma- she can get a bad infection if you do. Make sure the baby is breathing after it pops out. Rub his back with your palm if he’s not but don’t slap him, they only do that in the movies. You may have to clean out his nose and mouth with your fingers so he can breathe. After he’s going, put him on his momma’s belly but be careful lifting him, he’ll be real slippery. If you really need me, I’ll be in the front room.”
My job turned out to be mostly pretending that I knew what I was doing. After I got “breathe” and “push” down pat I let momma hold my hand in an iron grip during her contractions. I watched awe struck as the miracle of birth unfolded before me. First just the top of the head appeared; and then as the young woman’s body rebelled again and again against the intruder the entire head appeared and then the shoulders came into view. Little by little a new human being was making its way into the world.
Momma gave a couple of more yells and then pushed real hard and the rest of the child was propelled into the room, headlong into the classified ads.
It was a little girl and she started breathing by herself. The umbilical cord wasn’t wound around her neck and I guess she looked OK. All her parts seemed to be in the right places. She was bluish red, wrinkled and ugly, like all newborn kids. She didn’t smell very good, but I guess nobody would after being cooped up in close, unventilated quarters for nine long months.
There was enough umbilical cord protruding to put her onto momma’s belly. When I picked that little girl up I learned that that film covering her was indeed pretty slippery stuff. As I placed her there I looked into the woman’s eyes and I could see some of the pain wash from her face. “Thank you, she smiled, thank you very much,” At the same time tears made of love came into her eyes as she felt her newborn warm on her belly.
The ambulance guys arrived and took mother and daughter to the hospital and a proud dad, clutching a packed woman’s overnight case rode up front with the driver.
A half-hour after we received the call Al and I were back on the streets.
“Did I do OK?”
“Sure you did, those people will always think you were an expert.”
“Can we get some coffee?”
At the end of our watch, I told everybody who would listen that I’d delivered a baby. Some were impressed and listened politely and others weren’t, so I quit telling the story. It was pretty much history until a few days later when after attending the watch briefing at the beginning of our tour Al and I were summoned to the Lieutenants office.
“Got something for you guys,” Lieutenant “Rags” Greenleaf said, holding out two cigars. “A guy came in during the evening watch to commend you both on your great job of home delivery and to leave these for you, Good work.”
Being a cop can involve situations that are unpleasant, distasteful, dangerous and sometimes scary. Over the course of years, I delivered seven more kids. Five were born in homes although there was one who graced the world in the back seat of a car and another began life in the grassy parkway next to a curb. Whenever it happened it was always a remarkable experience to be able to help a tiny human being enter this world. As I look back on working at Firestone Station the good memories far exceed the bad and being at the beginnings of a new life is one of the best of those memories.