Excerpt from Chapter One (“Our First Angel”) of Making Angels: A Story of Blessings on Our Journey to Have Children after the Heartache of Infertility, Miscarriage, and Late-term Pregnancy Loss
ONE: OUR FIRST ANGEL
On February 21, 2001, I went to my rescheduled ob-gyn appointment. I missed the original appointment only days earlier because I was terribly ill. In fact, I had spent the past ten days in that condition. Surrendering to my failing health, I sequestered my wilting body to the living room couch for most of the episode. It was one of those rare occasions in my otherwise healthy and extremely active life that I can remember being so sick. The virus meandering its way through me had not been kind. Hacking and coughing until I nearly threw up, I had been running a high fever for days. My muscles were aching all over . . . this bug was more of a nuisance than just your typical winter virus.
My husband, Kevin, and I had recently moved from New York City to Alpharetta, Georgia. Seventeen weeks along in my first pregnancy, I had been to my new ob-gyn once for a brief visit to confirm my pregnancy, and another time for an interim checkup to confirm a heartbeat and look for regular embryonic development. Only a day shy of my thirtieth birthday, I was thrilled to be pregnant with our first child, as was Kevin. I had a list of both boy and girl names already constructed. The nausea that dominated my life for the past three months had finally faded away, and I was proudly displaying my rounded belly with a wardrobe of recently purchased maternity wear. For Dr. Michael Cohen’s busy ob-gyn office, I was just another patient breezing through without much notice.
I was in the final interviewing process for a job with a local health-care marketing communications company. Having worked in the field of oncology for a decade, I felt my skills were well suited for the business. My background included preclinical research, pharmaceutical sales, and a stint in the popular dot-com industry, where I held a business development position for a start-up focused on oncology. If I secured this new position, I would be in charge of sales and business development. My medical knowledge combined with a sales background was a good fit.
At that point in our lives, Kevin and I were fully absorbed in our careers. We were constantly on the road for business and, sadly, we used our pagers as a means of sending messages about what city we were in or when we would be back home. My life was simpler at the moment, since I was between jobs, but Kevin, who was a medical device sales representative at the time, spent most of his days on the road covering all of Georgia, Alabama, and eastern Tennessee.
About a week earlier, I had called to tell my doctor’s office that I was remarkably sick and asked to reschedule, since they probably didn’t want my germs contaminating their waiting room. I asked some basic but concerned questions regarding the baby’s health, wondering whether he/she could tolerate the virus coursing through me, given the horrible state I was in. The office staff reassured me that I was past the first trimester, and that babies can withstand mommies getting sick. They advised me to stay hydrated and get lots of rest. I felt fine with the advice at the time. Quite honestly, I think there are very few options for a pregnant woman fighting a virus. There likely wasn’t anything else they could have said to me.
Days later, when I was still not recovering, my concern was mounting, so I called the ob-gyn office over the weekend and spoke to the doctor on call. I was even sicker and felt like I was going to die. I gave him a brief history. Again I was given the same advice.
I finally rebounded two days later, and the moment I felt good enough to get out, I called my doctor’s office to ask to come in for my missed checkup. I was far enough along that I was hoping they would go ahead and do an ultrasound on this visit. They would check the health of the baby and just maybe, if I was lucky, I would get a sneak peek and find out the sex of the baby. I was apprehensive about how the baby was doing, since I had been so unwell; despite my concerns, I felt excited heading to the appointment. Our growing embryo should now look more like a baby than a tadpole. From my research, I knew the baby’s cartilage was turning to bone, and his/her size was similar to a medium-size onion. I was disappointed Kevin couldn’t join me, but as usual, he was on the road for work.
When I was finally called into the patient room, Dr. Cohen’s nurse, Stephanie, greeted me warmly and began asking me questions and checking my vitals. I told her about how ill I had been as she listened for the baby’s heartbeat as a matter of routine. She moved the fetal Doppler across my belly over and over again. I waited for the thundering sound to fill the room. The last time I had heard it I was reminded of galloping horses—thud-thud, clip-clop, thud-thud, clip-clop. After quite some time when she couldn’t seem to find it, she casually asked me to go into the ultrasound room so she could see the baby’s anatomy while she found the heartbeat.
“That baby is hiding in there! Let’s go take a look,” was her passing comment.
“Sounds good to me.” I hopped off the exam table with enthusiasm and we relocated to the ultrasound room. Moments later I was stretched out on the table, getting the ultrasound I had hoped for. I saw one flash of our baby on the monitor; then Stephanie turned the screen away from me and told me she’d be right back while she went to get Dr. Cohen.
I always felt cold at the ob-gyn office. As the goose bumps emerged, I grew impatient just thinking about how long it might take to resume our ultrasound. I focused on seeing our developing baby and hearing his/her heartbeat. I couldn’t wait to get a new photo and share it with Kevin the moment he came home. To my surprise, Stephanie returned with my doctor in less than a minute.
Dr. Cohen was a gracious and gentle man. He was pleasant, with a happy demeanor that was almost contagious. As his patient, I could tell instantly that he loved what he did for a living. This day he was unusually quiet as he walked into the room, keeping our normal chitchat to an absolute minimum.
He quickly continued the ultrasound, staring intensely at the screen. As he moved the handheld device across my belly, he asked me a few questions, including whether I had felt the baby move at all. I told him I thought I had felt fluttering. I didn’t know what type of movement was normal. I reminded him it was only my first pregnancy. Why was he asking me all these questions? Something about his attitude made me wonder whether everything was okay. Did the baby have a heart problem? Was he worried the baby had Down syndrome? My mouth turned so dry it was hard to swallow.
Dr. Cohen grabbed my hand and looked intently into my eyes. His face was dead serious as he leaned in to speak to me while I remained lying on the examination table.
“Your baby doesn’t have a heartbeat. I’m so sorry.” And finally, after some hesitation he uttered the words I feared hearing most: “You’ve lost the baby.”
His words hung in the air, stuck there for me to absorb. It took a few seconds for me to process what I had just been told. Then a different kind of chill resonated through me. Breathless, I lifted my head off the pillow and propped up onto my elbows. I stared at him for a moment, as if magically his words could be reversed. I quickly shook my head back and forth, clearing the cobwebs that seemed to be cluttering my brain. Then the full impact hit me.
My heart pounded out of my chest, throbbing, beating wildly, which made my baby’s soundless heart even more silent.
Weeping softly, I told him how sick I had been. I informed him of all the phone calls I made to his office over the past week and a half. I desperately tried talking myself out of the nightmare. I mumbled nonsense about the series of events that had occurred in the past ten days, as if retelling it would turn back time and the doctors could do something, anything, to make our baby better. Surely I had heard him wrong. Surely this wasn’t happening to me. This was the sort of thing that happened to other people. But nothing I said changed the outcome. I was still carrying our dead baby. My unblemished world began to collapse around me, tarnished with the loss of a child whose life I could no longer protect. I wiped the moisture from my face. My exterior shell appeared calm, but on the inside I was frantic to find a solution. I had always been able to fix things. My heart swelled with an aching I couldn’t describe, bruised and beaten to a pulp. I was left numb.
I glanced over at the monitor, a viewing window into my child’s world. The picture was no longer there. My mind returned to the last image I knew of our child. I visualized our baby on the ultrasound screen and remembered with such precision the way it was lying flat rather than curled up in the classic fetal position. I could see its perfectly formed body just resting there completely still. And I was the casket. Already guilt consumed me. As the lifeline for our baby, I had failed to perform the most fundamental task a mother can do.
I spent the next few minutes desperately trying to reach Kevin on his cell phone. I knew he was in a surgical case, which meant he was unavailable while in the operating room. The medical device he sold was the first of its kind in the United States, and the FDA training guidelines for this particular device required that a company representative be present until the physician had completed the certification process. As such, Kevin was an important part of the team that helped surgeons perform lifesaving procedures. This made him unavailable for hours at a time. I sent a message to his pager along the lines of “BABY 911,” followed by instructions to call me immediately on my cell or at Dr. Cohen’s office. Because I couldn’t reach Kevin, I called my parents. If I shared the loss with someone else, maybe it would dilute my pain.
I reached my father first and began crying harder. Between gasps, I finally got the words out.
“I can’t believe it, but I lost the baby. We don’t know why yet, but they did an ultrasound and there was no heartbeat.”
“I’ll stop what I’m doing here. Let me get Mom and we’ll come in right away.”
I am very close to my parents, and luckily they lived only an hour and forty-five minutes away, so they both dropped everything and headed toward my home. Eventually Kevin contacted me on a landline at the doctor’s office. My body trembled as I shared the devastating news. Although he was distraught, his reaction was tempered, as it was his nature to be composed. In this crisis, Kevin’s calmness provided a healthy dose of sanity for me.
It’s strange, but I can’t remember how I got home. I probably waited for Kevin to pick me up so I wouldn’t have to drive. This I know—it felt like an eternity between the time I learned of our baby’s demise and the time our baby was removed from my womb. I remained in shock as I waited.
Before I left the doctor’s office, Dr. Cohen inserted a special tubular piece of dried seaweed into my cervix. Evidently the seaweed absorbs water from the surrounding tissues and dilates the cervical canal. This process would help prepare my body for the scheduled D&E (dilation and evacuation) the following day.
That evening I felt unbearable heartache as constant waves of crying and disbelief washed over me. Although my family tried to comfort me, I preferred to be alone in my misery. Sharing the news with everyone hadn’t made it better. Ironically, the more they tried to comfort me, the more self-blaming I became. Retreating to my bedroom, I buried myself deep under the covers, wishing at times my cocoon were my crypt. The responsibility of caring for this baby fell on me in full force. The safest shelter for our child should have been in my womb. Dr. Cohen’s words gnawed at me like a mosquito that wouldn’t stop its annoying high-pitched ringing in my ear. . . . “You’ve lost the baby. You’ve lost the baby.”
I wrestled my way through the night, stroking my belly, telling our baby how sorry I was for not doing a better job or being a better mother. I don’t know whether the overwhelming nausea I experienced was a side effect of my agony or my leftover pregnancy hormones.
I asked God a million times over, Why? I want this baby so badly. Why choose me to lose a baby? I had endless questions. Did the baby suffer or feel any pain? Did he or she die slowly? Was there anything I could have done differently? How long had the baby been dead? Did I travel too much at work? Was I under too much stress? Did I lift something too heavy? How could a benevolent God leave me feeling so much pain? Was God even a loving God? As a child I was raised in a church environment where I had been taught to respect God out of fear rather than as a result of his unending love for me. Was this my punishment for things I had done wrong in my life? Did I deserve this?
The next morning was February 22, my thirtieth birthday.
My mood shifted from crushing grief to anger. The lack of answers infuriated me. I snapped at my family as they tried to console me once again. Nothing they could say or do was going to bring the baby back. We sat in the kitchen that morning, still trying to process what had happened. Multiple times my husband or parents tried to wrap their arms around me, but I pushed them away.