Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Upside-Down Woman

When I was in the part of the maternity ward where no expecting mother ever wants to be, (the extremely high-risk part), there was one woman there who was worse off than me, and that was the upside-down woman.

When I was 23 weeks pregnant, my body started to go into labor. (A full-term pregnancy goes 41 weeks, give or take.)  I was rushed to Beth Israel Hospital in Boston and given something to stop it. I was sent home the following day. But, 24 hours later, my contractions were ten minutes apart.

"We can give you something to stop the labor," said the doctor, "but it's going to make you feel lousy."

"Fine. Give it to me."

I desperately wanted to save my pregnancy.  It was going to be a boy, and I had already named him Joshua.  (Later, my father would say, "Jesus, I wish you hadn't named him.")

The magnesium sulfate drip they gave me felt like a horrific hangover. Looking left or right brought intolerable pain, I could only look straight ahead. The magnesium also made my muscles weak--that's what stops the contractions--the muscles of the uterus become too weak to contract. I shuffled very slowly to the bathroom like an extremely frail old lady. ("My God, this must be what it feels like to be 99-years old.")

Every day on the magnesium got worse. I had headaches. I couldn't sleep. I was nauseous, I couldn't eat. I had diarrhea. I could barely walk.

I only fell asleep shortly before sunrise. Soon after, a doctor whom I never set eyes on would come in to check on me. She would take my vitals (and Josh's vitals) while I semi-slept, semi-lucid, and too weak to roll over.

"Have you had any contractions?" she would ask.


"That's wonderful. You're doing really well." (She was like an angel.)

A young nurse told me that no matter what I did to foul up the room, it wouldn't bother her in the least. I shouldn't worry for a second, not one second. (I was profoundly grateful.)

The head of the NICU paid me a visit. She gave me the impression that she was required by law or hospital policy to read off the entire list of everything that could possibly go wrong with a 24-week old preterm baby, a 25-week-old preterm baby... 26 weeks... 27 weeks....

It was a long and relentless list, and when at last she finished, I threw up.

I was semi-conscious, semi-sleeping, but able to respond yes or no, when a woman with a clipboard came into my room. She told me about a study that required dead preterm babies.She had come to me because there was a good chance that I would have a dead preterm baby. Would I give them permission to use its body in the study? Or part of it?

I don't remember how I responded to that question. I might have  agreed. I was on my second or third day, unable to deliberate on such a choice. But I'll never forget the request.

After one week, I was discharged from the hospital, still pregnant. I went home, and spent the next ten or eleven weeks in bed, with bathroom privileges. (I didn't have to use a bedpan, thank God. Some women on bed-rest have to use a bedpan.)

Really, I was fine in the hospital until about the third night. Until then, I was glad to be pregnant, everyone working to help keep me pregnant. But after the third night, I was so sick in body and spirit that I would have turned back time to become not pregnant.

At no point, however, did I consider having an abortion, though I did receive the message from the head of NICU and the woman with the clipboard that abortion would have been a sensible solution to my problem.

For me, an abortion would have only added heartbreak and God-knows-what physical trauma to my situation.

I am not anti-abortion. In fact, when I was in my twenties, I was proud to work at a women's health clinic where safe abortions were performed. It was the clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts, where John Salvo shot and killed two women who worked in admitting (as I had, two years earlier).

I just really wanted to keep my baby, whom I had been dreaming about vividly for months, whose name was Joshua, and whom I already loved  deeply, just as I assumed the upside-down woman next door from my hospital room must have loved and wanted her baby.

The upside-down woman had been worse off than me. This was before HIPAA, and though I never knew her name, I knew that she was about 23 weeks pregnant when her uterus sprung some sort of leak.  In order to keep her pregnancy, she had to spend the next several months strapped to a hospital bed (in the hospital) at a 45 degree angle, head down.  She didn't have bathroom privileges, and she was on some unpleasant medications.

Clearly, given the weirdly subtle encouragement I had received to have an abortion, the upside-down woman did have a choice. I understood why she was doing it, and I thought she was awesome.  She was in love with her baby. She probably knew if it was supposed to be a boy or a girl. She had probably named it. It was probably her first child, like mine.  She had let her imagination run away with her. She had dared to have powerful dreams, and to fall in love too soon.

This is what the upside-down lady would do for love. She was my hero. She was everyone's hero on that ward, and we all felt sorry for her.

At 38 weeks, I had a scheduled c-section.  After that, like all parents, I had endless other frights and worries, but I was very grateful and happy to have Joshua still with me.

Be that as it may, when one well-meaning friend dismissed my entire ordeal by declaring that "it was all worth it in the end," (not having asked for any details of the experience), I felt woefully under-supported.

Someone else told me that she had known all along that everything was going to turn out okay...And maybe she did have that psychic revelation. But to me, this sounded dismissive.

We are told to expect a normal pregnancy.

At 36 weeks, my husband and I attended a required orientation for new parents at Beth Israel. (At 36 weeks, I was allowed to get out of bed and even walk the dogs; I wasn't having any contractions, and the baby was perfectly viable.) The guide showed us the attractively appointed maternity ward for expecting mothers.

"What's over there?" someone asked, pointing down the hallway in the opposite direction.

"Those are the rooms for high-risk pregnancies. We won't be going down there. None of you will have to worry about having a high-risk pregnancy." (Of course not, I thought, rolling my eyes.)

Most of my close friends have not had "normal" pregnancies. We have had these incredibly surprising,  horrific ordeals.

When we first started talking about our experiences, it seemed incredible that one story was as traumatic as the next. I had thought mine was the worst pregnancy story ever, second only to the upside-down woman. But three of my close friends' pregnancies had been as difficult as mine or worse.

One friend's pregnancy had had a lethally septic effect on her body--and she had twins. She needed to remain pregnant (and on strict bed-rest) until the twins (which take longer to be viable, because they're smaller) could survive, but not so long that the pregnancy would kill her.

Another friend had a complication with amniocentesis in which her unborn baby's fingers and toes perforated the intrauterine membrane. She was told that her baby would be born with severely damaged or missing fingers and toes. (He wasn't.)

I knew one young mother whose pregnancy caused a rare form of cancer to grow rampant through her body, ultimately killing her.

I could tell you more stories of real women's real pregnancies, but I'd have to go about gathering more specific details, and that would postpone completion of this post. I don't think I need to do that to make my point.

My point is this: Why are women so broadly assured of having an uneventful pregnancy, when we so frequently don't?

Why are our real stories dismissed by just about everyone except the initiated?

And why is it alright to dismiss, ignore, gloss over, and generally white-wash the whole experience?

And what if the upside-down lady had not been in love with her child?  Can we bear to imagine a world in which it was not her choice to spend those months upside-down, drugged into misery, and strapped to a bed?

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