Struck down but not destroyed

Today as I sat with fellow homeschool moms, listening to a lecture on our vision for education, my mind couldn’t help but wander to something far away from school…. This day is a tough one for me, and has been for eleven years. In a late afternoon appointment on June 6, 2000, Todd and I learned that our unborn baby’s life had ended before he was born. In some ways, it feels so far away, but in others, I can remember the day as if it were yesterday.

We were pregnant with our third baby and I was a few weeks into our second trimester. I was through the morning sickness phase and had even started to feel that new little one kick a few times. The weekend before, I rearranged our closet and took out some maternity clothes, thinking the time was quickly approaching when my growing belly would require roomier coverings. Despite being excited overall, I also remember times of doubt and anxiety. How could I handle another baby? With the new little arrival, we would have had three babies in three years, and the responsibility of it all seemed overwhelming to me at certain times. Still, my fears were usually overridden by the anticipation of a baby and the peace of knowing that God, the one who allowed this new life, would certainly take care of our every need.

For some reason, in an earlier prenatal visit I consented to the AFP test without really knowing why. If the test had come back with the news that our baby had suspected birth defects, we had no plans of taking action against our child in any way. I hadn’t consented to the test with our first two, and I haven’t with our pregnancies since. Still, for some reason…

I received a phone call from our midwife Beth about a week later, and without giving me any details at all, she asked that we come in for an ultrasound at our earliest convenience. That was Monday, June 6, at 3:45pm, as I approached completing my 17th week of pregnancy. As we drove to the appointment, I tried to quell my nerves, reassuring myself that this test has a lot of false positives and that most times, it’s not even an issue. That was probably why we were going, I told myself. Beth wanted to show us that the baby was just fine and the blood test was off.

After arriving at the office and signing in, we then proceeded to wait over an hour to be called back. I can’t believe we waited that long before saying something to the receptionist, but we did. She apologized and said that Beth had been called downstairs to a birth and they were trying to wait for her to return. As we all know that babies can’t read clocks and don’t always know that we like them to arrive as quickly as possible (they have their own timetables!), I guess they changed the plan and we were called back to the ultrasound room.

The ultrasound tech did all the prep stuff as I laid back on the table, anxious to see the baby. As Todd and I reflected upon what happened next, we knew later that God had mercifully ‘pulled the wool over our eyes,’ as it were, since we had no idea what was happening and the tech was unable to share the news with us. When she began the ultrasound, we all saw the baby right away, and we could see all of the baby, since he was still small enough to fit in the screen. Todd almost immediately asked the same question he has with every pregnancy: “Is there only one?” The tech murmured an answer, but was mostly quiet. Neither of us took note that the usual heartbeat swish-swish-swish sound was absent, and although I observed that the baby was in a rather strange position in utero–on his belly with his neck slightly arched–I dismissed it quickly.

And then it was just quiet. The ultrasound tech said nothing. Todd fell quiet. I stared at the ceiling tiles and started to grow fearful that our baby had something seriously wrong with him that we were about to learn. Was it his heart? Did she see a genetic disorder? Why was she not talking at all?

Finally she broke the silence and simply said, “Dr. Butler is going to want to examine you,” and walked out. The next few minutes spent waiting for the doctor we’d never met to come in seemed interminable. We talked a bit between ourselves and wondered what was wrong with the baby, but neither of us knew what was happening. So we waited. When the doctor came in and sat down, he took the ultrasound wand into his hand and began another scan. He too was quiet for a while before telling us that “the baby has serious system problems.” I think Todd mumbled a nonsensical question before asking, “Are you telling us that this baby is not alive?” and Dr. Butler quietly answered, “Yes. The baby is not alive. I’m so sorry.”

Suddenly time stopped. In those short minutes while we waited for the doctor to come in, I think we both had thoughts of a sick baby running through our heads, and the possible implications that may hold for the future of our family, but neither of us ever dreamed that our baby had passed away. Looking back later, it was obvious right away that the baby wasn’t alive: no heartbeat, oddly positioned, no movement at all. I don’t remember feeling much of anything right then….just numbness. The doctor shared some imformation with us that I remember now, but didn’t feel like I had really heard at the time. We didn’t have to do anything today…Go home and process the news…come back tomorrow and talk to Beth about the next step.

As we left the room and slowly walked down the hall together, Todd broke down for a moment. When he did that, I guess I did too. In that room, with that news, all of our future plans–at least for the next five months–changed dramatically. We went into the office expecting a new baby in late November and left with a completely different timeline. When we arrived back home, I saw the maternity clothes hanging in my closet. More planning, changed in an instant.

Telling our parents and families was hard. Sharing that kind of news is difficult for both parties–what can you possibly say in response? There is none.

The next night, we checked in to the University of Kentucky hospital for our induction. Beth had explained that I was far enough along that I may have to go through a usual labor, so we talked about options. Although most of you know I’m a proponent of natural childbirth, in this case, since we didn’t have to worry about the well-being of the baby and the surrounding circumstances were so different than a joyful birth experience, we planned to have an epidural. The placement of the epidural gave me such anxiety, however, that Beth offered to sedate me before they put it in. Although we had only met her a few months before, I so appreciated her tenderness and care for us through the entire walk. Something as simple as sedation may not seem like a big deal, but to me, it was huge.

Since we didn’t wear a sign that told everyone our situation, the woman at the hospital registration asked us all sorts of terribly awkward questions and even made comments about how “induction parents always bring so many bags.” It seemed equally inappropriate to correct her, so we kept quiet.

The overnight hours brought different docs and nurses to our room as our induction began to unfold. Progress was slow, only drawing the emotionally painful process out when we both would have preferred to have it finished. Nothing really happned overnight at all, and it wasn’t until late the next morning that an intern came in and suggested a new plan. He told us about this “great new drug used to induce labor” that would certainly do the trick called Cytotec. It was originally a drug used for stomach ulcers, but they found that it also causes effective contractions. We had never heard about cytotec before (and would later learn some of the down sides of using the medication in labor inductions), and weren’t really thinking of the options by this point, so we consented. Anything that got us to the end point, right?

Soon after the medication was placed, I began feeling fairly strong contractions, and asked for the epidural before it got too intense. If I had to walk through this experience again, I probably would not opt for the medication, but this isn’t a what-if story and these are the choices we made at the time. When the anesthesiologist came in, he began asking questions that revealed he was completely oblivious to the situation. There was a slight language barrier, so that contributed somewhat.

“How far along are you?” he inquired, not looking up from his chart.
“Almost 17 weeks,” I answered.
He looked up, stared at me as if confused, and asked again. “No, how pregnant are you?”
I repeated my answer, and he appeared to be getting irritated. I cut him off before he could ask again and had to say, “The baby is not alive.” From that moment on he said very little. I felt badly for him because he had to have felt badly for his mistake, but I had already learned that the hospital has a special code picture that they put on the doors to rooms where there has been a loss. He should have seen the picture and known before entering.

In any case, he started prepping for the epidural and it was clear to me that there was no sedation in the plan, which caused me to feel anxious. I hadn’t prepared mentally for the needle, so I had to speak up. He had no idea what I was talking about, so again, despite the language barrier, I had to state my case to him and assure him that it was something we’d agreed on earlier. Unfortunately it made a difficult situation even more so. Nevertheless, soon after the epidural was successfully placed–it was just after 2:00 in the afternoon, our baby was born. Beth was not able to be there at the moment of his birth, but the doctor who attended was respectful and kind. It was an empty sort of moment: no baby, no crying pink newborn to hold and adore from birth…no sound really. So very empty.

Beth arrived quickly after that and was a great comfort to us. Whether it was because of the use of cytotec or the loss itself, I had some unexpected complications and quickly had to go into the OR for a minor procedure. When I woke up, I was alone, but not for long. The amazing nurse Jerry was close by to help out. Never before and not since have I had the distinct pleasure of having a male labor and delivery nurse. 🙂

Todd’s family arrived a bit afterwards, and as the nurses and Beth advised, we held our baby, tiny though he was. Honestly, he barely looked like a baby. Though I was 17 weeks when he was stillborn, they told us he had stopped growing a bit before that, so he measured around 6 inches long. He was so tiny and fragile. A hospital ministry group had donated handmade clothes and a miniature hat for him that he was dressed in when they brought him to us. It was a strange afternoon. I don’t know what I felt: disappointment? Loss? Honestly, for the rest of that day, I was medicated and didn’t feel a lot. It wasn’t until after we were home that the finality of the events hit me.

My parents came to stay with us for a few days and helped out by watching the kids. Todd’s parents did the same before and after my parents left. It was a huge help, both for us and for the kids, who were too young to understand what had happened. While I didn’t want to put on a fake happy face, I also didn’t want them to see Mommy miserable all the time. At 2.5 and just over 1, they had no concept of the situation.

Beth had arranged for us to run genetic tests on the baby to see if it had been some sort of disorder that plagued him. She also told me later that his appearance was consistent with fetal alcohol syndrome babies, although that wasn’t the case. His thumbs and ears had not migrated or formed correctly, which was a sign, but I hadn’t had a single drink throughout the pregnancy. We found out later that he was genetically perfect, which left the reason for his passing as unknown. The official cause was hydrops fetalis, but there was no reason why. She said it was probably exposure to something–and we’d never knwo what that something had been. I went over and over in my head and tried to remember everything I had done in the early part of my pregnancy. Was it my fault? Did I take something I can’t remember? Did I breathe something in? It’s ridiculous and it won’t change the outcome, but I still tried.

In the days and weeks following his birth and death, there were some really difficult days. It was hard to pack up the maternity clothes that I had never had the chance to wear (that time). There were guilty feelings that came up because earlier in my pregnancy I had questioned whether we should even have tried for a third baby so soon–and then guilt on top of that. I cried for a long while, but I was never angry. I never felt angry at God for ‘taking’ our baby; I always had a sense that His plan was better than mine, and even though I didn’t understand it, I didn’t question it. I was profoundly sad and disappointed, however. Just sad. A mama separated from her baby can’t be expected to feel anything less. I felt the loss of my child, even though I had never met him. But I also felt comforted and cared for by a God who hadn’t forgotten about us, even when it may have appeared so. I can’t explain it, but I felt closer to Him and His love during that time than many other times in my life. It was such a blessing to feel taken care of, and it made the walk easier.

It’s hard to believe that it will be 11 years on Wednesday that our son Rowan Thomas was born. Oddly enough, he was born on the same day that my mom’s Dad and my dad’s Dad died, many years before. I dreaded calling my mom after we knew when he would be born because I knew it was the day my mom dreaded more than any other. She was young when she lost her father, and to say that she didn’t like the day would be a supreme understatement. We were honored to be able to name our son after my parents’ fathers. And though Hannah and Patrick were too young at the time, we now all celebrate Rowan on his birthday. We know he’s not lost. The kids often talk about their brother Rowan and about meeting him some day, wondering if he’ll look like they all do. It does my heart good to hear that. I don’t think a day has gone by in those eleven years that I haven’t thought about him in some way. Some day, I believe I’ll be able to hold my baby again, and that makes it easier too. I remember at the memorial service we had, Pastor Steve painted the picture of a child “playing at the feet of Jesus.” With that thought, knowing he’s not lost, but at the feet of the Savior, how can we not be comforted?


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Kim DeMersseman
    Jun 06, 2011 @ 23:05:15

    Thank you for sharing this, Deb! I never knew you all had lost a child. Beth was such a special woman. So glad God kept her on this Earth as long as He did….she blessed so many families.


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