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Delivering my son: 'Breathe, baby, breathe!'

By Josh Levs, CNN
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Delivering his own son gives Josh Levs "unique connection to my son, one I'll feel throughout our lives."
  • CNN's Josh Levs delivered his son at home, just moments after his wife went into labor
  • "My heart started pounding even faster, and my adrenaline went from overdrive to supersonic"
  • "To this day, I can still see and feel just about everything about that moment"

CNN's Josh Levs delivered his son at home in an emergency situation. He shares his story with Dr. Sanjay Gupta on "SGMD," 7:30 a.m. ET Saturday-Sunday

(CNN) -- As I knelt on the bedroom floor, on the phone with 911, I didn't understand what was happening at first. I thought something had gone wrong -- or at least that the paramedics would have plenty of time to arrive.

When your wife is pregnant, no one tells you, "By the way, she might skip labor, suddenly fall to the floor, and give birth. Oh, and the umbilical cord might be tangled around the baby's neck five times."

But that's what happened at our house.

Minutes earlier, things had been fine. My wife thought that perhaps contractions were beginning, and it was possible -- she was about three weeks from her due date. We have a son who's 3 years older. For his birth, she labored at home for about 16 hours before we went to the hospital, and still waited eight hours for the baby.

This time, she suddenly doubled over, saying she was having intense contractions and needed me to do what I had done three years earlier -- push down on her hips to help relieve the pain. But it wasn't enough. She quickly got down on all fours, moaning, and managed to get out the words, "Call an ambulance."

I thought that meant she'd need a stretcher to get to the hospital. Turns out, she knew that our kid had decided to come crashing into the world without all the usual fanfare. But she was hurting too much to speak. All the agony of childbirth had hit her in a single wave.

I told the 911 operator about the "glop of blood" coming out, and followed her instructions to set up towels and help my wife lie on her back -- though actually she lay on her side. Then: "Oh my God it's the head. It's the head. What do I do? I'm holding my baby's head!"

Most people who hear I delivered my son imagine a sitcom. If this were one, the camera would zoom over to the list of delivery plans that my wife had created with our doula. In a hospital room, she would use "yoga techniques," massage, a "birth ball," and music as pain management techniques.

Best laid plans.

"OK listen, I want you to support the shoulders and hold the hips and legs firmly. And remember the baby will be slippery so don't drop it OK?" the 911 operator said.

I reached in, palms facing up, put my pointer fingers into the baby's armpits, and helped guide the baby out. That's when my heart started pounding even faster, and my adrenaline went from overdrive to supersonic.

The umbilical cord was snaked around the baby's neck, tightly. Think a turtleneck with five circles. The baby's eyes were shut and I saw no sign of breathing. As far as I knew, no sign of life.

So as the operator went on reading the standard directions: "Wrap the baby in a clean cloth or towel... tie a shoelace tightly around the umbilical cord..." I stopped following her. I focused on the neck. Didn't even look down to see what gender the baby was.

"Oh my God, the baby's not breathing," I said. "Breathe baby, breathe."

My mind operates with briefcases of information. I opened up one filled with everything I had ever heard about real life births, including a child I know who was born not breathing for a couple of minutes. He turned out perfectly fine -- he had been getting oxygen through the umbilical cord. So I didn't want to tie it off just yet.

I carefully unraveled the cord from his neck, trying not to jostle him, and placed him down on the towel.

"Let me give you CPR instructions," the operator offered.

But then, when I stroked him gently a couple of times, the baby opened his eyes, began to move, and began to breathe -- about a minute after he was out.

I used a shoelace to tie off the cord just as the paramedics arrived. I picked up our 3-year-old, who was on the other side of the room for all of this, and whom I had been reassuring throughout the whole process. "It's OK buddy, don't worry, everything's fine, this just happens," I kept telling him. Together we ran downstairs to let the paramedics in.

We all ran back up to the bedroom. That's when my wife looked at me and spoke her first words since collapsing 14 minutes earlier: "It's a boy."

For weeks after, that first image of my beautiful son as he emerged -- eyes closed, still, so pure in his newness -- was emblazoned on the inside of my eyelids. I saw it every time I blinked. To this day, I can still see and feel just about everything about that moment.

I wouldn't recommend this, and it's not something we'd choose to do. If anything had gone wrong, the minutes it could take to get to the hospital could be the difference between life and death.

But for my family, it turned out to be an incredible thing. It will always have been an experience of a lifetime, one the four of us shared -- just us. Our older child already likes to tell the story of how Daddy caught his brother, who was "covered in red paint."

It gives me a unique connection to my son, one I'll feel throughout our lives. Knowing that the first thing he heard upon emerging from the womb was me making sure he could breathe, that the first thing he felt was me holding him and unwrapping the cord, changes my relationship to him a little. It reinforces, in a powerful way, what just about all dads want our kids to have -- the feeling, the knowledge, that we will take care of them, protect them, provide for them.

And don't think I won't hold this over his head when we go through his rebellious teen phase.

It's given me a new appreciation for doctors who successfully deliver thousands of babies, and most of all for the heroics of women -- especially my wife -- in that moment, suffering through all they suffer through for the sake of bringing life into the world. I am in awe. And grateful beyond description.

It's also heightened my own awareness of the gift of life. When it's up to you to help your kid take his first breaths, you appreciate not only his but your own in a new way. The whole adventure of life -- growing, exploring, contributing, loving, all of it -- feels more exciting and more precious.

It's easy to get caught up in the rat race, the excitement of work, and the inner drive to chase all the great things the world has to offer. We all sometimes fall into traps that make us forget to seek balance -- to try to carve out enough time for family and for just enjoying life. But in the moment I delivered my son, what matters most -- my real values and priorities -- became crystal clear. Nothing else even existed.

Every time I look at him, I'm reminded of that feeling. By being born into my arms, my son gave me the ultimate reality check.

Josh will be answering your questions and discussing this story on Facebook and Twitter.