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.
That’s what the sonographer really meant during my ultrasound appointment when she said “embryonic demise.”
At first, I didn’t understand. My mind felt like mush. Just two weeks earlier an ultrasound had shown a living baby inside me.
But even then, at that first ultrasound, it didn’t seem right. The sonographer had said the measurements showed that the baby was 6 weeks old. But I knew I was really 8 weeks along. At 36, I’d been pregnant three times before — and even had a gorgeous 1-year-old daughter to show for it — so at this point I knew my dates.
Unfortunately, I also knew about miscarriage, which is why I was having that early ultrasound.
An early ultrasound that shows a healthy heartbeat means there’s a significantly reduced chance of miscarriage. That was why I’d gone along. But at the first ultrasound, the sonographer said the heartbeat was slow, and the baby wasn’t as far advanced as I’d thought. She told me to come back in two weeks.
Then, instead of showing a healthy 10-week-old, the second ultrasound showed a baby that measured about 8 weeks old. With no heartbeat.
I was in a daze, but I made an appointment to see my general practitioner right after the sonogram, to try to make sense of what was happening. I learned that the slow heartbeat and small measurements of the first ultrasound had been warning signs that the baby wasn’t thriving.
And now he or she was gone.
What It's Really Like to Have an "Incomplete Miscarriage"
My doctor said she’d prefer to "let nature take its course" when it came to the miscarriage. In other words, to let my body deal with things naturally. There was a risk of infection, so she told me the signs to look out for and sent me home with a prescription for antibiotics. Just in case.
I was confused. My two previous miscarriages had been straightforward: My nausea and other pregnancy symptoms had disappeared and I’d started bleeding and cramping. The process was uncomfortable and distressing, but it was over in a few days.
But this time, I had to go home and wait for something to happen. And yet nothing happened. My body didn’t realize what was going on. I was walking around with a dead body inside me, pretending everything was normal even though it wasn’t.
After about three weeks, I finally started to bleed.
When I’d first gotten pregnant I’d booked a 12-week checkup, but I wouldn’t need it now. I realized that I had better cancel the appointment with my obstetrician.
That was a difficult call to make, but the receptionist was kind. She canceled my appointment and wished me well.
And then the receptionist called back. She said my OB/GYN wanted me to keep the appointment. The doctor was concerned and wanted to make sure I was okay.
Turns out I wasn’t okay. Turns out there can be worse things than embryonic demise — like an “incomplete miscarriage.”
An incomplete miscarriage happens when your body can’t expel everything, so it keeps trying. This puts women at serious risk of infection. They can lose their fertility, and there’s even a risk of death.
It’s more common to have an incomplete miscarriage when you’re a little further along, since apparently a pregnancy "sticks" better after eight weeks. My previous miscarriages had been earlier, at five and six weeks, so they hadn't been physically complicated.
Now, this time around, I found myself lying down with my legs in stirrups, holding a nurse’s hand, while my OB/GYN "helped" my body complete the procedure. It was a nightmare. Afterward I had to sit in the waiting room for nearly an hour, in case I went into shock.
Fortunately, I never went into physical shock. But walking back to my car that day, I broke down. I just couldn’t keep it all inside. I sobbed, and howled, and let it all out.
I knew I was lucky. Lucky to have one beautiful little girl at home, and lucky that I’d have the opportunity to try for another child. I just didn’t feel very lucky at that moment.
How I Healed After the Miscarriage
Over the following weeks, I did my best to be kind to myself. My husband was supportive but couldn’t really understand. But I spoke to my close friends and discovered that many of the mothers my age had also experienced multiple miscarriages.
Mainly, I gave myself permission and time. Permission to grieve and time to recover. On the tough days, I just put one foot in front of the other and hoped the next day would be better. On days that were easier, I looked for things to enjoy. Things like the sun on my back, my daughter’s smile, or the changing seasons.
My poor body had been through a lot, and it took a while to recover. Three months later, I went back to my OB/GYN for a checkup. I still hadn’t started my monthly cycle.
She said it might take up to two years for my body to come back online. But I was already 36. I didn’t have two years. So once again my OB/GYN had to "help" my body. It took a lot of blood tests, an injection in the belly, more blood tests, and some medication. I waited and hoped and tried not to worry.
I eventually did become pregnant, but it wasn’t smooth sailing. At six weeks I started bleeding. My OB/GYN prescribed medication and regular blood tests, and I didn’t miscarry.
But I worried. There were many days when I didn’t feel much movement, and I wondered if this pregnancy would end early as well. I was so desperate for the child to be born, so I could relax a little.
And finally, after many months, I had another baby girl in my arms at age 37. Someone for her big sister to teach, boss around, and collaborate with. Someone who’d been waiting quietly for her opportunity to join our family. Someone who brings us as much joy, frustration, pride, and wonder as her big sister. My two girls are now 8 and 10 years old. They’re the best of friends, and the fiercest of enemies, as only siblings can be.
It’s true that you never know your limits until they’re tested. Mother Nature can be a hard mistress, but with luck (and a little help), dreams really can come true.