Lake Bell is used to a life in the spotlight. The actress, 40, is known for her roles in movies like Man Up and No Strings Attached. But she recently opened up about a very personal experience few people were aware of: the dramatic moments after the home birth of her now two-year-old son, who was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck.
“We had two home births," Bell told her Bless This Mess costar, Dax Shepard, on Shepard's podcast, Armchair Expert. "The first was with Nova [Bell's daughter, now 4] in Brooklyn. I felt very empowered," she recalled on the show. "The home birth was this amazing primal bonding.”
Nova was born with her umbilical cord around her neck, Bell explained. Fortunately, the midwife present at the birth was able to step in just in time.
"The midwife gave her three lifesaving breaths on my chest and my husband was there," Lake shared. "She came to life and we saw it.”
Yet Bell’s second home birth to son Ozgood, 2, didn’t go as smoothly.
"I was huge, he was 11 pounds," Lake said. "The same thing happened, I was at home and he had the cord wrapped around and he was on my chest." But this time, the newborn was "not coming to.”
Bell said that she and her husband, Scott Campbell, had to call paramedics after they realized their son was not breathing. (Typically a midwife will be at a home birth, but it's unclear if Bell had one during her son's birth.)
“Now you’re in really fucking life and death," Lake continued. "Your child is there and the entire room is trying to resuscitate him and they can’t. The paramedics are on their way, he’s still there. This person you don’t know.”
An umbilical cord that is wound around a baby's neck is medically known as a "nuchal cord." While not uncommon, nuchal cords can be deadly.
“A nuchal cord occurs when the umbilical cord is wrapped around at least 75% of the baby’s neck,” Christine Greves, MD, an ob-gyn at the center for obstetrics and gynecology at Orlando Health in Florida, tells Health. “They’re pretty common, but they're random and we don't have a ton of research to prove what causes them to happen.”
According to a 2018 study in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, a nuchal cord is found in 20% of normal deliveries. Dr. Greves explaines that while doctors can find a nuchal cord on an ultrasound, there's not much that can be done about it until birth.
“Because these occurrences are random, you can’t fix a nuchal cord until after the baby has been delivered,” Dr. Greves says. “Hospitals are usually able to fix a nuchal cord once the baby is delivered, so the chances of fetal asphyxiation as a result are very rare."
In Bell's case, she said that she left the umbilical cord attached to Ozgood so he would still be getting oxygen through her bloodstream while they waited for the paramedics. However, at some point between waiting for paramedics and after the paramedics arrived and brought Ozgood to the hospital, Bell says her son was deprived of oxygen for more than four minutes.
Because if this, "we were told that he could [have] cerebral palsy or never walk or talk," she added. "That was our reality." While most nuchal cord cases don't have long-term affects on the baby, they can potentially result in cerebral palsy and developmental disabilities, according to an article in the Journal of Maternal Health, Neonatology and Perinatology.
Bell stayed behind at home as she recovered from the birth while her husband went to the hospital with Ozgood. “I was looking at my phone as they were sewing me up and I get a little video from Scott—little Ozzy just barely taking breaths with the oxygen mask and I just passed out. Because I was like, ‘He’s alive,’ and then I just passed out."
Luckily, Ozgood was discharged from the hospital without any long-term health issues. But the incident left Bell shaken.
“I took it on because I insisted on having a home birth," she said. "I’ve dealt with that since. You could blame the midwife, you could blame yourself, but ultimately the result is the only thing that matters."
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