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I am young. I am healthy. Cold season takes my husband down multiple times, but barely gives me a sniffle. So when I woke up on the morning of my 31st birthday feeling as though I’d been mowed down by a Zamboni, I knew that something was very, very wrong. However, it was hard for me to put my finger on it because I kept fading in and out of consciousness, rousing only to keep a steady stream of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse cartoons playing for my 1-year-old son.
My husband took our son to daycare, leaving me curled under the duvet in our bedroom, slick with sweat yet shaking from a phantom chill. Cloudy half-dreams kept me occupied until I wrested enough awareness together to realize that I needed medical help. After a call to the nurse at my OB’s office ended in the monotonous tone of the answering service, a trip to the ER seemed my only option.
I was unwashed, unbrushed, and braless, but it mattered little. A small robe lent me enough modesty to leave the house, and I directed my husband to drive to the nearest ER. Had I been thinking clearly, we would have gone to a facility with a maternity ward. Funny how sepsis dulls one’s little gray cells.
Inside the ER, I approached a woman sitting behind the intake desk.
“I think I’m having a miscarriage,” I said. These words were a nightmare to speak aloud, but it was the only conclusion I could reach.
Completely unruffled, she had me fill out paperwork. Despite it being my birthday, I could not remember the date. I could barely register the time on the clock. Paperwork completed, I took a seat with my husband in a pair of worn vinyl chairs. Ten minutes passed. Twenty minutes passed. It felt like an extraordinarily long time for a place specializing in emergencies.
Once admitted, my clothes were traded for a blue sheet of fabric, the vinyl chair for a rolling bed in a claustrophobic room. Needles repeatedly pricked my flesh, probing for blood. Urine was taken. More blood was siphoned. Doctors and nurses needed information about symptoms and allergies. In the midst of this, roaring waves of pain seized my core. Contractions. I’d experienced them during labor with my son until they were silenced by an epidural.
But I was assured by the ER doctor that I was not feeling contractions. At 19 weeks, just shy of being halfway through my pregnancy, it was far too soon. Instead, he said they were simply bladder spasms, due to a bladder or a kidney infection.
An ultrasound was performed as my teeth and jaw rattled violently from chills. The baby was fine, alive and moving. I’d known for a few weeks that it was a she. A daughter. The completing piece of our picture-perfect family.
With the ultrasound concluded, it was announced that the hospital done all they could for me with their resources and that I needed to be transported to a hospital with a maternity ward. We waited four hours for an ambulance. Two hours into the wait, my husband asked if he could simply drive me across town. We were told that the blood ports on both arms would need to be removed, my exit would be declared “Against Medical Advice” and I would have to start from ground zero at the next ER. We stayed. A drunk man roared occasionally in the hallway, demanding attention.
The ambulance finally arrived and my bed was lifted and strapped securely inside. “What kind of music do you like? Country?” the kind medic named Frank asked me. I abhor country music, but I could not fathom voicing a preference at that moment. The ambulance rolled away and there I was, on my birthday, listening to a twangy tune as I zipped from out of the frying pan and into the fire.
At the next hospital, technicians collected more blood, more urine. Doctors and nurses again needed symptoms and allergies. One doctor let me drink cranberry juice, the first liquid I’d had since early morning. I hate cranberry juice about as much as I hate country music, but I was too thirsty to care.
My OB arrived. She brandished her speculum and glanced inside. Grim news: I was three centimeters dilated and the amniotic sac was protruding.
“You need to know that you could lose this pregnancy,” she said.
I was wheeled away and put on bedrest on the Labor & Delivery ward. The hope was to clear my infection before putting in a cerclage stitch to close my cervix. My doctor had said something else, but all I registered was the word “hysterectomy.” Later I learned that if the stitch were to be put in before ensuring the infection was gone, I could end up needed a hysterectomy.
The “bladder spasms” had abated, but that night, they returned with multiplied force — the worse pain I had ever felt. There was no pretending that these were anything other than contractions. Moments later, with the timing of a screwball comedy, the ultrasound technician arrived.
“What’s the point?” I yelled. “She’s going to die, anyway.”
My husband tried to comfort me while a nurse handed me a green pill and gave me a shot of something. I cursed in pain throughout the entire ultrasound, refusing to look at the screen. At one point, all I had wanted for my birthday was a massage. Now, all I wanted was to not share my birthday with my child.
The next morning, I took another green pill and a prenatal. Another day passed and my septic symptoms began to dissipate. Everything was as fine as it could be given the situation.
Then I needed to take a bowel movement.
“Don’t strain” was the only advice the nurse gave me before she left the room to give me privacy with the bedpan. I don’t think I strained. All I know is that when I looked down, a bubble appeared, and inside it, floated a pale tiny foot.
You can imagine the grade-A batshit freakout that ensued. Multiple nurses appeared in my line of vision, trying to calm me. One repeatedly said that everything was OK, that the sac had gone back inside, leaving us right where we had started. I disagreed. My husband and I demanded to speak with a doctor. Via telephone, a specialist confirmed the grim truth: the pregnancy was no longer viable.
The next morning, the prenatal pill was absent, and in its place, a dose of Prozac. Pitocin was started and a few hours later, my water broke. However, my child would not budge. Nurse R., a kindly older woman with years of experience, placed pills in my vagina. When those failed, she put them in my butt. I wish I was making this up. Hours passed. With 20 minutes left of her shift, Nurse R. came back. With her hand up my vagina and with me pushing, it ended in a sickening “plop.”
We had been asked if we wanted to wrap the body in a blanket, hold it, take pictures, bury it. To me and my husband, these ideas were inconceivable. Visually confronting the destruction of the next chapter of our lives would tear us asunder. Recording the confrontation would merely create a keepsake from hell.
Of course, the nightmare was far from over. The placenta was stuck fast, as if in as great a state of disbelief as everyone else over the proceedings. It took a trip to the OR, a cocktail of heavy drugs and an hour to dislodge it. I will forever remain thankful to the anesthesiologist who hovered above me, asking me if I needed another dose of whatever blessed pharmaceutical he wielded.
I stayed in the hospital two more days. A blood transfusion was necessary as I had lost so much during my stint in the OR. A hospital administrator came to visit me as the blood of a stranger slowly dripped down a web of plastic tubing, disappearing inside my body.
“What kind of delivery are you planning to have, vaginal or C-section?” she asked.
My response clearly left her mortified and she quickly left the room.
The next morning, I got out of bed for the first time in a week, showered, and was discharged after lunch. We went back home, a family of three.
A month later, when I had fully regained my strength, everything felt as if it had been one very bad dream — a bad dream that was accompanied by real-life antibiotic prescriptions and steady stream of medical bills.
I wish many things. I wish that the pregnancy had been full-term. I wish I hadn’t known the child’s gender. I wish I would have caught the first flicker of illness. And then I stop wishing, as I know it won’t do any good. Instead, I hold my son tighter. I gaze upon the soft curves of his cheeks longer. When he hugs me, I hold on for as long as I can. With everything that has happened, his birth seems so much more like a miracle. I take great comfort in this silver lining. When my thoughts wander and nightmarish details such as the phantom foot come to haunt, I draw the silver lining close like a blanket and will myself back to the present. I am young. I am healthy.