Mark and I were chatty and upbeat as we drove to lunch, that Monday. The weather was good; still cold, because it was a New England February and it didn’t have much choice, but the sky was clear and there was no wind to speak of. The spring semester had just started to pick up steam, and we had no shared classes, so there was plenty of gossip and complaining to do, with little overlap.
I was feeling especially cheerful, because just that morning I’d had my first regular, non-emergency, non-anxiety-provoking OB-GYN appointment of the pregnancy. The previous fall, 2003, I’d had a miscarriage at 13 weeks, requiring medical and surgical intervention and causing a heavy amount of emotional damage, as well. I’d gotten pregnant again quickly, probably too quickly, just six weeks later, and at 7 and 10 weeks gestation I’d had bleeds scary enough to ruin my days. Each time, I’d called the doctor’s office, to hear the same thing: “Well, it sounds like a miscarriage, so just keep an eye on it. If you’re needing more than one pad an hour, go to the ER; otherwise, rest and come into the office tomorrow.” And each time, despite all signs pointing to No, the pregnancy persisted. Now, at 11 weeks pregnant, the last bleed had resolved itself and I was within shouting distance of the second trimester. We had seen the heartbeat on an ultrasound, and were told that seeing the heartbeat made for a significantly lower chance of miscarriage. That morning’s appointment had gone smoothly, even though they couldn’t find the heartbeat with the little external Doppler wand. “Don’t worry,” they said. “It’s very common not to be able to hear the heartbeat until 12 weeks. Come back in next week and we’ll try again, and in the meantime just assume that everything is OK.”
I couldn’t fully meet their “don’t worry” request, but I was trying. There was no reason to assume anything was wrong, I felt great – just sore and tired enough to be reassured but otherwise feeling fine – and the doctor had no reason to offer false hope if they thought something wasn’t right.
So we drove away from the school, chatting away, and I was started to relax and just enjoy the moment. Lunch with a friend, a married guy with a child of his own and so he was neither a threat to my relationship nor squeamish about the finer points of pregnancy, on a pretty winter day. My husband was plugging away at a job he despised, but for the most part I could ignore that and concentrate on the things I could impact. My daughter was spending her day at her Montessori preschool, happily surrounded by other kids that were able to keep up with her boundless energy and enthusiasm. Life was… if not quite good yet, it was in the vicinity.
Mark pulled up to the curb, and got out to feed the meter. I took a bit longer to open the door and climb out, amused that, even this early in the pregnancy, my center of gravity was beginning to shift and a Saturn sedan felt more like a low-slung race car. I stood up, turned toward the building, and felt a distinct pop. Immediately I was covered in blood from the waist down, with no pain except for the excruciating band of panic around my heart.
We dove back into the car – I took off my winter coat and sat on it, to try and protect Mark’s car a little – and he brought me home. He wanted to take me to the ER, but I knew there was nothing they could do there. Nothing anybody could do. I wanted to be home, and I needed my husband.
Once home – a drive that is blessedly absent from my memory altogether – I closeted myself in the bathroom with both the house phone and my cell phone. With one ear, I was listening to the nurse find an appointment time for me that afternoon, and with the other, I listened to Willem make plans to hand his classroom over to someone else and come home. After the phone calls were finished, I sat there and cried, and continued to lose blood at a truly alarming rate. Mark paced up and down the hallway outside the bathroom, pausing to ask, “Is there anything I can do? Do you need anything at all?”
The only thing I needed from him was, as per my doctor’s instructions, a Tupperware container. I was to gather any of the – and there is no way to word this more delicately – more solid matter, for them to examine in an effort to confirm miscarriage. That, right there, qualifies as the single most disturbing, upsetting, scary moment of my entire life so far: blindly fishing for proof of a lost baby.
I spent the next little while – again, blissfully, much of that afternoon is lost to conscious thought – scrubbing the floors and walls of the bathroom, because it looked like a slasher movie had been filmed there. When Willem arrived home, he found a change of clothes for me – I had ruined an entire outfit, from coat to shoes – and away we went.
I do remember that drive as being one of intense silence. There were just no words to offer. I was beyond terrified, and hopeless, and feeling weak and lightheaded from blood loss. Willem was smart enough to realize that there were no words of comfort or reassurance that would actually help, and concentrated instead on navigating through the winding roads of rural New Hampshire. I’d stopped crying, because why bother? It wasn’t fixing anything, and I knew I’d end up crying plenty more later on, once it sunk in again.
We arrived at the doctor’s office in record time, and were escorted directly into an exam room. Apparently they thought that my white-faced panic and potential for fainting might not contribute to the best ambiance for the other patients in the waiting room. A doctor walked in, looking appropriately solemn and sympathetic, and hooked up his fetal Doppler monitor. I explained that they hadn’t been able to find a heartbeat that morning, and he nodded but said he wanted to try, just in case.
He put the wand just below my belly button, turned on the machine, and there, instantly, clear as a bell, was the whoosh-whoosh-whoosh of the fetal heartbeat, plugging away at 150some beats per minute, solid and strong and steady. Any composure or dignity I had managed to scrape together during the drive evaporated, and I laid there and sobbed. He let me listen to the heartbeat for, easily, five full minutes – much longer than they normally would – and then let me listen again before I left the room.
He poked through the horrible Tupperware container, and asked about my symptoms, and eventually offered his diagnosis: having gotten pregnant so quickly after the prior miscarriage, there was likely scar tissue remaining, and the placenta had not quite fully attached to the uterine wall. It was mostly there, but a corner of it – just a few blood vessels, really – kept breaking off, reforming, and breaking off again. There was nothing they could do to cause it to heal any faster or better; it would either fix itself in time, or it wouldn’t.
“I have to tell you, it doesn’t look good,” the doctor warned. “I haven’t seen very many times when it has successfully healed itself. I would give you about a 90% chance of miscarriage now, and even if you do carry to term, it’s likely to be a low birth-weight baby. I don’t tell you this to be depressing, but I think it’s important that you know what you’re up against.”
I nodded, numb. He told me that I was anemic due to the blood loss, and that if I wasn’t pregnant he would order a blood transfusion. But they try to minimize that sort of procedure among pregnant women, and so instead I was to go home, consume just as much iron as I could, and place myself on full bed rest. I could get up once an hour to use the bathroom, and once a day I could take a 10-minute shower. Otherwise, I was to remain reclined or horizontal, and if the bleeding picked up or restarted, I was to go directly to the nearest emergency room and request a blood transfusion, regardless of pregnancy status. “And… good luck.”
I spent the next month on full bed rest, with restricted activity for the remainder of the pregnancy. I couldn’t even partially relax about my chances of delivering a healthy baby until many months later, and I was never able to fully enjoy and appreciate the pregnancy, itself. It became an ordeal, complete with several other complications and near-misses over the next six months, and by the time my water broke, a month before my due date, I was beyond ready to get this baby out and into the world.
That baby, that 10% chance of living fetus, was born at 36 weeks gestation, weighing 7 pounds even. He weighed 10 pounds on his due date, so he failed to meet the low-birth-rate forecast. He was a healthy, happy, mellow little guy, and continues to be so to this day.
And while I wouldn’t wish that level of fear and uncontrol on my worst enemy, I can’t regret it. Through no skill of mine, the pregnancy continued, with no more bleeding. And Jacob has been worth every bit of the stress and angst.
It’s Madhouse Wednesday, and if you’ve ever played along (or just read along and have ideas), please drop me a line with some topic ideas, would you? I’m running out of the preselected ones, and would love some input on future ones.
Been known to participate in the past…