In our new Realtalk series, we're sharing personal stories about fertility and family planning. We hope they offer support and inspire honest conversation about an incredibly tough topic.
For some time after we married at age 22, my husband and I were ambivalent about the idea of having children. Nevertheless, by the time I turned 35, after 13 years of focusing on ourselves, our careers, athletics, and music, we became enchanted with the desire to have a child.
I was adopted when I was a baby and didn't locate my birth family until age 26. Hence, I yearned for a biological connection to my child that I didn't experience during my own childhood. Healthy and fit, I thought that pregnancy wouldn’t be difficult for me, even at my age. Indeed, I became pregnant within three months of trying.
It turned out that the problems I was to experience had nothing to do with my "advanced maternal age."
The elation I felt upon discovering I was pregnant was first shattered at week 13, when I experienced a bleeding episode. Shaken, I was sent home from the hospital and advised to rest. Things returned to normal for a little while.
However, at 22 weeks gestation, I suddenly went into premature labor and was rushed to the hospital. In utter shock, I watched with my medical team and family as my baby boy's heartbeat slowed to a stop on the ultrasound. I was induced and a short time later, held my tiny, dead baby Jacob, in a complete daze. I had lost my first child.
Things like this were not supposed to happen. For months afterward, my husband and I navigated our profound sense of loss and emptiness with the support of loving family and friends. I found reading materials on the subject and we attended a holiday ceremony given by Compassionate Friends, an organization that provides support for parents who have lost children.
We clung to each other, as I repeatedly asked why. Was it the 8K race I had run the day before? The cheese I had eaten? An unknown infection?
After much investigation, we discovered that I had a rare congenital anomaly called a septate uterus, essentially a wall down the center of the uterus that leads to a greatly increased risk of pregnancy loss. This appears in about 1 in 800 women, but it isn't detectable on an ultrasound. The diagnosis was only made after I had a hysterosalpingogram (an X-ray after special dye is shot into the uterus) and an MRI.
Early in my pregnancy, I had noticed that the right side of my abdomen was significantly larger than the left. My doctor had dismissed this, but now it made sense. It was believed that my baby had outgrown the available space with an inelastic septum, and the odd configuration also contributed to my premature loss.
An outpatient procedure was performed by a specialist to remove the septum. Fortunately, the following month, I became pregnant with my second child. I was now 36.
Early in this pregnancy, however, it was discovered that I had a complete placenta previa: My placenta, which in a healthy pregnancy resides at the top of the uterus, was located in the lower segment of my uterus. As the pregnancy progressed, the placenta covered the entire cervix, necessitating close monitoring, a decrease in my activity level, and a certain C-section.
At week 28, I began bleeding and was hospitalized on strict bed rest. I was given powerful drugs to control bleeding and contractions. There existed the real possibility of a hemorrhage — threatening both my life and the baby’s.
In a state of disbelief and terror, I was scared for my life. Normally quite introverted and free-spirited, I insisted upon having someone in the hospital room with me at all times, with the lights and TV on. I couldn't even focus enough to read. I felt that my body, normally obedient and in excellent health, was betraying me — and all I wanted at that point was for my own life to be spared.
At week 33, labor and bleeding broke through and I was rushed into a quick C-section. Though this entire experience was terrifying, the cries I heard at my son's birth were a most beautiful and welcome sound. Just as his ultrasounds and non-stress tests had reflected, Michael was very alive and resilient, seemingly oblivious to the turmoil we had all experienced. After four weeks in the NICU, Michael joined us at home.
Michael is now a perfectly healthy 9-year-old and a uniquely wonderful child. My husband and I are very grateful. Not a day goes by that we don't tell him what a gift he is in our lives. Between my family, my husband's family, and my biological family, Michael has three families who love him deeply.
I wish more people understood that the process of having a child is not always what it’s made out to be. Magazines, books, and stories too often reflect only ideal circumstances. The truth is that life is messy.
This was a profoundly traumatic experience for me on a number of levels, albeit with a happy ending. At the time, I quickly moved past the experience, wanting to get away from the trauma and move on with life. In hindsight, I wish that I had taken more time to reflect upon and recover from what had happened. I do believe that unaddressed aspects of this situation followed me for years.
I’m not trying to create fear for people who wish to have children. Rest assured that many, many pregnancies are completely uneventful and healthy. But do realize that if something unexpected does happen, you are in good company.
After we went through this, friends and loved ones who had also experienced losses and fertility problems seemed to suddenly materialize out of nowhere. It is as though problems related to pregnancy and childbirth were supposed to be unacknowledged. I wish that weren't the case.
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