“Do you know what day this is?” Dr. Hasan asked me as I held my newborn son. He stood by my hospital bed looking at both of us with an odd expression. My doctor and I had been through a lot together, but I’d never seen that expression before. I wasn’t sure what he was asking.
“My son’s birthday,” I answered cheerfully, then turned back to gaze in fierce adoration at the baby in my arms.
He looked again at the chart in his hand and said, “Exactly one year ago to the day I performed the surgery on you. Exactly.” Then my face, I’m sure, reflected back a similarly odd expression, the sort of look that can’t fully convey how odd synchronicity can be.
A year and a few weeks before my son’s birth something painful began to happen to my body, something I didn’t understand nor did the doctors I consulted until it was almost too late. That night I nursed my toddler to sleep, tucked my other two little ones in bed, and settled down to relax with a big bowl of popcorn and a new library book. I stayed up much later than usual and when I climbed into bed next to my husband I began to think I shouldn’t have eaten so much popcorn. The discomfort got worse. I told myself that I was dealing with indigestion, maybe even a gall bladder attack, although I’d never felt such shooting pain. I spent much of the night on the floor next to the bed in various yoga positions trying to find a way to rest. But each time my husband woke up to ask if I was okay I told him I’d just eaten too much popcorn and I’d be fine. He threatened, at some point near dawn, to call an ambulance. By then the stabbing pain had ebbed to a tolerable dullness and my toddler was up, so I started another busy day.
I made it though that day and the next before I realized the pain, although it came and went, wasn’t improving. I was barely able to get through preparations for a Memorial Day picnic. So I got visiting family members to babysit and drove myself to the ER. I almost didn’t stay. Hospitals bulge with extra patients on holiday weekends and no one took a young person with abdominal pain very seriously. I kept thinking of my children and how soon I could get back to them. When I was finally seen by a doctor, he couldn’t find any signs of appendicitis or infection. I was sent for an x-ray. In the hallway waiting for the test I had to sign a form attesting that I wasn’t pregnant. I figured there was always a chance. So they jabbed me for a quick pregnancy test. That caused another delay and again I wondered if I should just get up and go home. I found out in that crowded hallway that I was indeed pregnant.
Suddenly they took the pain more seriously and admitted me for overnight observation. I was preoccupied with worried about the separation from my nursing toddler and my two older children. A friend of ours, an internist, came by and told me I was a “pregnant blooming rose.” I didn’t feel like one. The doctors were taking every precaution to protect the new pregnancy. I was examined by several doctors. Each one wanted to know exactly how much pain I was in. I tried to explain that most of the time it was tolerable, like walking around with a headache, except in my belly.
The resident, a man with beautiful brown eyes and long dreads, told me that women with small children are the most difficult to diagnose. He said they diminish their symptoms, without even realizing it, in order to be present for their children. He asked me to close my eyes and try thinking only of my body as I described what I was feeling. I tried to be fully aware of my abdomen and when I did, I saw a horrible darkness. I was suddenly afraid that the baby was there to warn me that I was dying of some terrible disease. I opened my eyes, looked at this kind man, and couldn’t think of a way to explain that fearful darkness to him.
I was sent home with instructions to come back every three days for a blood test to determine pregnancy hormone levels, which would insure that the pregnancy was proceeding. For well over a week the levels were within normal limits. (I have since learned an ectopic pregnancy can show normal pregnancy hormones for some time even while endangering the mother’s life.)
Although I feigned good spirits for the sake of my kids, I was barely hanging on. Normally I research everything but I couldn’t muster the energy to explore the possible reason for my symptoms. In fact, I could no longer eat. Whatever I’d eaten days before felt stuck in my body like a boulder. The pains came and went with sharp intensity. Pain bent me double while I was pushing a grocery cart. I pretended I was picking something off the floor so my children didn’t worry. One afternoon, as a friend and I sat in her backyard watching our kids play together, I curled up on a lawn chair in the blazing summer sun shivering and asked for a blanket. My mind kept drifting to the darkness I’d seen. The next blood test found my levels were dropping. I was told the pregnancy was no longer viable. I would need exploratory surgery.
I had no idea what Dr. Hasan was concerned about until I went to pre-admission testing the day before my surgery. I was examined by the first female doctor I’d seen throughout this crisis. She was outraged on my behalf. She told me it was possible I had an ectopic pregnancy which could burst and threaten my life with internal bleeding. I hadn’t considered that nearly two weeks of pain could be related to something so acute. I still remembered when a friend’s mother went through an ectopic pregnancy years before. She’d felt unbearable pain, nearly died in the ambulance, and her blood loss was so severe that one of the paramedics lay on a gurney next to her at the hospital to provide a direct transfusion. She survived but was never able to have children again. This doctor told me the shoulder pain I was also experiencing was an ominous sign, signaling that I may already be hemorrhaging. She didn’t want to let me stand and walk out of her office, literally to move at all. She made a few phone calls and then angrily told me that it had been decided I would be fine until I came back for surgery the following morning. It was the only time a doctor ever walked me to the elevator and watched me until the doors closed.
Dr. Hasan came out to talk to my husband during the surgery the next day. He said I was so packed with old blood that he had to “unload” the contents of my abdominal cavity and pick apart clots that were strangling my intestines and compressing my organs. He explained that he’d sent several masses to the lab for tests and prepared my husband for a possible diagnosis of cancer. The surgery dragged on most of the day. By the time I was wheeled to recovery the doctor had determined that I’d suffered an ovarian pregnancy that had burst some time ago. The blood had limited the function of my pancreas and several other organs and I already had a serious infection. He wasn’t going to rule out cancer until all possible lab tests were in by the next day. My husband wisely kept these details and his fears from my parents, only giving them the good news when the lab tests came back clear.
I wasn’t aware of any of this. My health insurance company wanted me discharged after three days even though I couldn’t sit up or remain conscious for long. My doctor battled for an extension and lost, so they discharged me in paperwork only and readmitted me. I knew none of this. Going home after six days was still extremely difficult. Despite all I’d been through, I recovered quickly in the next few weeks. When I walked in Dr. Hasan’s office for a one month post-surgical check up he couldn’t believe how fit and energetic I looked. He cautioned me when I asked about trying for another baby. He said my chances were very slim. I had only one ovary left and he wasn’t sure how much function it had due to damage from internal bleeding.
Amazingly I was pregnant only three months after my surgery. Science tells us the cells of babies we’ve carried even for a short time, will be with their mothers into old age, and I thought of the child I lost. That baby taught me so much about healing and hope and giving voice to my pain.
My labor with this fourth child was unlike my first three. For hours my hands radiated so much heat that I was given ice packs to hold. They melted quickly, so nurses kept giving me new ice packs. One nurse in the birthing room said she could see waves of heat around my hands. It felt too strange for words. I wondered what energy I’d contained that was now manifesting.
Finally our son Samuel arrived. His birth came exactly a year after my husband sat all day in the waiting room afraid I might die, the day the darkness was taken out of me so life could flourish again.