“I need your expert opinion on something,” I said a bit hysterically to my mother over FaceTime.
“Uh... OK,” she replied, unsure how to react to my desperate mood. She had just picked up the phone on the second ring and I hadn’t even bother to say hello.
“Does this look like two pink lines to you?”
“Sure does,” she laughed.
This is unexpected. Not just unplanned, but actively planned against. Although I totally believe that I will win the lottery, I didn’t expect this. In fact, when my doctor told me that IUDs were 99.6 percent effective, I really believed that I would fall into that majority category.
“Mom, I can’t be pregnant! I have an IUD!” I sobbed. “I’m almost 40. My husband is almost 50! There will be a near decade age difference between this child and my firstborn! I just quit my job! I’m going to Hawaii…or Paris…or Spain! I'm going to write a novel! I have plans! We were just about to downsize our car!”
“What’s that saying? Life happens when you're busy making other plans?" my mom said. "Move over, Michael Phelps, because this baby is one strong swimmer!”
But I couldn't even be annoyed at her jokes. I was too wound up on all the reasons there cannot — MUST NOT — be two pink lines on this white stick.
The next day, I sat in an unfamiliar OB-GYN clinic waiting for them to call my name. There were soft faces and big bellies all around me. I sat as far away from the stacks of pregnancy magazines as I possibly could.
Before I even looked up, I knew it was the voice of a friend. Oh no, I thought. As soon as our eyes locked and I saw the look on her face, tears threatened to spill down my cheeks.
“I have an IUD,” I stammered. “I haven’t told my husband.” She hugged me, and we both held our breath as she looked to see what secrets lie beneath my belly.
Except that she saw nothing. I was either only a “blip” pregnant, as she put it, or I was at the end of a pregnancy that's not viable.
Blood had to be drawn to help determine what I was facing.
“The IUD needs to come out," a doctor I'd never ever met before said to me after an ultrasound. I recalled all those stories I heard long ago.
“But won’t that abort the baby?” I asked, and it caught me off guard because I could hear the motherly worry in my own voice. Where did that come from? I wondered to myself. I wasn’t even happy about this baby — or was I?
“If your pregnancy is viable, the IUD may compromise that. If it is not, then the IUD has already proven that it is defective. It needs to come out.”
I nodded, speechless, lying back and watching her put on her rubber gloves. In one quick cramp, she held the offending hardware up for my view.
“You need to tell your husband," she told me, concerned. “We aren’t sure what you are facing yet, and not only do you need the support, but he needs to be watching for signs that you need to go to the ER.”
I went home that night with the twinge of sharp pains in my belly and a little bit of spotting, not knowing if I was growing a baby or losing one. When my husband got home and asked me how my day was, I said I wasn't feeling good. When he unexpectedly brought me a hot cup of tea, I started to cry.
“Baby, what's going on?” he said, worried.
Before I could even reason through whether or not it was a good idea to tell him, the past two days rushed out of me in one run-on sentence. He turned white at the news, and his eyes bulged. And then he composed himself, and then we laughed. We laughed so hard that tears streamed down our cheeks. He reminded me that no matter what we are facing, we are in this together.
The next day, I went in for more blood tests. That night, as I was making dinner, my elbow caught my wine glass full of water and shattered it on the floor. As I picked up the shards, it hit me: I want this baby. I want this baby more than I have ever wanted anything in my entire life.
I started to cry on the kitchen floor just as my husband walked in.
“I’m so scared that we are going to lose this little life. How ridiculous is that? I didn’t even want this baby, and now I am petrified that I will lose it.”
“It’s not ridiculous at all,” he said softly, taking the broken shards from my hand. “You are a mother. You were born to be a mother. Of course you love this baby. Of course you want to protect this baby.”
Nothing else mattered anymore. Gone was the focus on why I can’t have this baby, replaced by all the reasons why I simply must. I didn’t need to go to Hawaii or Paris or Spain. I didn’t need to write a book right this second.
The following day, I sat in front of my computer, hands trembling. The results of my blood test should have been posted, and I silently cursed my slow computer as I waited for them to load. I felt as nervous as I was when I was checking the results of my bar exam.
And then it appeared in black and white: “HCG Quantitative Pregnancy.” All I had to do was click and find out. Were my levels rising or dropping? Was this pregnancy viable or not? Would my foursome of a family become a fivesome? Did we need to keep our gas hog of a car?
I clicked on the link and discovered my pregnancy hormone had doubled. We are having a baby. Laughter erupted out of me. I was elated.
The doctor called an hour later to confirm.
“Looks like you better prepare for a baby,” she said. I could feel her smile through the telephone. She asked me to come back to her office in a few days for another ultrasound, and I enthusiastically agreed.
I grew more and more excited over the next few days. My husband and I busied ourselves coming up with names, brainstorming ideas on how to tell our children, and laughing over this unexpected gift. I made a point of being gentler with myself and resting when I needed to. I stopped drinking coffee and replaced it with herbal tea. I went to Target and purchased a bottle of prenatal vitamins. I worked harder at being actively patient with my children, hoping they'd mimic my actions when it came time for them to be the big brother and big sister. I spent my shower time talking softly to my baby, just as I did with my older children. I purchased a fancy new phone with a top-of-the-line camera.
When Monday rolled around, I put on a nice dress and curled my hair. This would be the first time I'd see my baby, and I wanted to look pretty. But when the ultrasound tech started probing around for the gestational sac, I could tell from her face that there was something wrong.
She got the doctor. My husband squeezed my hand. I looked away and tried not to cry. They didn't see the baby on the ultrasound, and according to my HCG levels, they should have.
“Jaci, I am pretty sure you have an ectopic pregnancy,” the doctor said to me after the empty ultrasound. I got off the paper-lined bed to pace around the room, my stupid curls bouncing as I walked. “Your left ovary has enlarged quite a bit since last week, and there is no visible pregnancy in your uterus. You need to get a shot of methotrexate, a type of chemo, to dissolve the pregnancy before your ovary ruptures. This is serious.”
I was stunned. After all of this? After getting pregnant despite an IUD? After waiting 48 hours in between blood draws to make sure the pregnancy hormone has doubled? After spending the weekend dreaming and planning with my husband? And now the baby is not going to make it? I couldn't wrap my head around it.
“Are you sure?” I asked. When she ignored my question, I asked again. “Are you sure?”
“I am 95 percent sure,” she said. “We will draw some more blood to confirm, but if you were my daughter, I would be extremely worried about you, and I would want you to get the shot. If you do not and it ruptures, it very well could kill you. If the blood results are good, you need to get the shot; otherwise, you may have to have emergency surgery.”
I avoided making eye contact with my husband as the nurse drew my blood; it was easier for me to avoid sobbing if I trap everything inside of me. We headed home to wait for the phone call that would tell me whether I needed to go to the hospital for surgery or report back for a shot.
The doctor’s office called to tell me she believed my blood results confirmed her suspicion: I needed to get back to the office immediately for the shot.
Except that I couldn't. I just couldn't. Last week, a doctor’s 95 percent certainty would have been enough for me. But this week? After having a 0.4 percent chance of getting pregnant, all of a sudden a 5 percent margin of error seemed gigantic.
“Don’t think of it as a baby. Think about it as saving your life,” the ultrasound tech, a friend of mine, told me later that night over the phone after finding out that I didn’t go get the shot.
But I couldn't. My husband was right. I'm a mother. I was born to be a mother. Of course it's a baby to me. Perhaps unplanned and planned against, but created in love just the same. Mothers are supposed to protect their children. It's ingrained in us. This goes against every fiber of my being. It's contrary to my soul. I just couldn't do it.
I spent the night hiding in my room and Googling various medical terms. I found out that 1 in 50 pregnancies is ectopic and that out of those ectopic pregnancies, only 1 percent are in the ovary. I read story after story of women who were incorrectly diagnosed as having an ectopic pregnancy. There were even stories of women who were misdiagnosed, took the chemo shot, and then went on to find they had viable pregnancies, resulting in babies with deformities. The stories took turns petrifying me and giving me hope. Maybe the doctor is wrong. Maybe this pregnancy is viable. It just needs a little more time.
I needed a second opinion.
That night, I cried myself to sleep. I dreamed that my ovary ruptured and I was dying. When my kids each took a turn getting into my bed with their own bad dreams, I held them closely. By morning, I was exhausted as I got them ready for their first day of school. I beamed forced smiles at them, made a million promises that they will have a great year, and rushed them out the door.
On the phone making an appointment for a second opinion, I told the receptionist that I was diagnosed as ectopic; she put me on hold and then moved my appointment up by several hours.
Please, God, I pleaded in the shower, please spare this baby. I asked God that if we are meant to have this baby that we please see it on the ultrasound.
I meticulously curled my hair before my appointment — a testament of my faith that we would see our baby that day.
But we did not. The second doctor believed there was an 80 to 90 percent chance that the baby was growing in my left ovary, but also acknowledged he could be wrong and the pregnancy could be fine. He outlined my options: Take the shot of chemo to dissolve the pregnancy, have surgery to remove the pregnancy, or wait it out for a few days, have more blood tests and another ultrasound — and take the risk my ovary will rupture in the meantime and potentially kill me.
Each option sucks.
“How am I supposed to choose?” I asked him, voice trembling.
“I do not know,” he replied, “but you must.”
I told him that I need to call my mom, that I need some time — another hour to debate with myself. What if I take the shot and it turns out the pregnancy is viable? What if I don’t take it and it kills me? I considered each scenario in turn. The analytical lawyer in me took over: I needed to make an informed decision, gather all facts, and make the best decision I could based upon those facts, knowing, of course, that hindsight is always 20/20.
Over an uneaten lunch, my husband and I took turns asking each other what we should do. My phone rang. It was a doctor friend — one whose opinion I trust more than all other doctors put together. He knows me, he knows my husband, he knows my kids. This was probably our 15th phone call since this whole situation began. He was emotionally invested. He loves us.
“What do I do?” I asked. I pleaded with him to make the decision for me.
“I cannot advise you on that, Jaci. You must make this decision.”
“Then tell me, what would you want your wife to do?”
He sighs. “Please don’t ask me that.”
“Too late, I did, and I need you to answer,” I responded desperately.
“I would want her to take the shot,” he said quietly.
And with that, I knew what I had to do, even though tears were pouring down my cheeks and my guts were on fire. I thought of my children coming home from their first day of school in a few hours. I couldn't chance them having to grow up motherless. I thought of my husband, nervously waiting for me in the restaurant. We'd been through a lifetime in 12 years; we're a team. I couldn't risk leaving him. I knew that if the situation were reversed, there wouldn’t even be a question in my mind — I would be giving my husband that shot myself.
I loved this baby. I loved this baby with my whole heart, but I love them more — my little foursome family I can see and touch and hold. I love them enough to have made the decision to save my own life.
I walked into the clinic and willed myself to get a grip.
“Jaci, I'm ready for you,” the nurse said, and instructing me to pull down my pants and count to 10.
I felt a pinch, then a burning sensation as the poison rushed into my body. I tried to make myself cry more silently, more motionlessly, so as not to dislodge the needle and risk having to redo it.
And then it was done.
On the way home, my husband and I held hands. The 15-minute drive home took a solid year. No music. No small talk. No big talk. Just silence, the air heavy with our crushed tandem breath.
“I’m so sorry, baby,” my husband whispered, holding me tightly as soon as he parked in our driveway. “If you want another baby, we can try for another baby.”
And I was sorry, too. So sorry. I internally apologized to God, to the baby, to my husband, and then to myself for making one of the most excruciating decisions I have ever been faced with.
I threw away the positive pregnancy test and the ultrasound pictures — the ones I was saving for the baby book. I felt like I'd been stabbed in the heart, but my son and daughter would be home soon, bubbling over with excitement to tell me all about their day. I needed and wanted to be present in that moment. I knew I was not finished grieving this loss, but it was not the right time.
One by one, I started going through my list of the abundance of blessings I have to be grateful for. I started with things like clean air and fresh water and continued until I reached weighty things that made up my gravity — things like my doctor friend, my ultrasound tech friend, my mother, my husband, and my two beautiful children. By the time I finished, my tears had stopped and my breath was less painful. I may not know why this had to happen, but I reminded myself for the millionth time that I trust in God and that God does have a plan, even if I am not privy to it.
I heard my husband return from the elementary school with our first grader and third grader. They were full of chitter-chatter and excitement and so much joy. So much enthusiasm. So much life.
With a deep breath, I picked myself up off the couch, washed my face, and headed to the door to greet my two children — the only ones I will ever have — and genuinely listen as they tell story after story about their day.