Ten years ago today I received a very tiny, fragile gift. On November 5, 1999 my daughter was born.
I didn't know until well into my second trimester that I was pregnant. Before this experience happened to me, I would have thought it impossible to be pregnant and not know it, but it isn't. My monthly cycle continued through all those weeks, so I had no reason to even suspect anything. It wasn't until I laid on my stomach one day and felt like I was laying on a lump that I became concerned. I was terrified I had a tumor.
I got the soonest appointment available with my doctor. It was his feeling that we shouldn't jump to conclusions about anything and that I might be panicked over nothing. After a quick exam, though, he said "There's definitely something going on". Then he asked the nurse to get a fetal heart monitor. Had I heard that right? Why did he need a fetal heart monitor? After some initial static, it came through loud and clear. I heard the whoosh-whoosh that was my daughter's heart beat.
I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. I was elated that we would be having another baby, but concerned because my monthly cycle hadn't stopped. When I asked my doctor if I should be worried, he said we were going to take things one step at a time. "We're going to monitor you very closely and send you for some tests. That's a good strong heart beat, I don't think we should assume anything", he said. Then he went on to explain several conditions that could cause bleeding without being harmful to the baby. He wanted to finish our discussion in his office instead of the exam room, so I asked him if he would please have someone send Mr. Willoughby in. I knew he was agonizing in the waiting room.
I was already sitting in a chair in his office when my doctor escorted Mr. Willoughby in. "I thought I would let you tell him", he said. Mr. Willoughby's eyes were as big as saucers. He didn't know if he was going to get good news or bad news. When I told him we were expecting a baby, he nearly collapsed.
I was sent for blood work and an ultrasound and non-stress test were scheduled. I was advised to stay off my feet as much as possible and avoid any lifting or strenuous activity. My due date was determined to be early March, 2000.
I followed doctor's orders, but still I wasn't feeling well. The morning of my ultrasound, just as we were getting ready to leave, I had some bleeding. It wasn't severe, but it scared me. All the way to the hospital I kept trying to prepare myself for the possibility that there would be no movement and no heartbeat. Mr. Willoughby was more optimistic. He suggested the "wait and see" approach since there was nothing we could do in the mean time.
My fears were put to rest during the ultrasound. The baby was a little small for the estimated gestational age, but everything else looked good. There wasn't any cause for alarm. We spent the drive home picking out names.
On Halloween night, I had started to feel sick. My stomach was churning and I was tired. I felt like I was coming down with the flu. Over the next few days, it got worse. It was a chore just to eat a small meal. On the night of November 4th, I couldn't even touch my dinner. A few hours later, I started vomiting. I felt so awful that I told Mr. Willoughby I wanted to spend the night on the couch. I just wanted to be left alone in my misery.
About 4:00 am, I woke up feeling the need to throw up again. There was nothing left in my stomach so I had painful dry heaves. But something else was wrong, too. I felt the sort of downward abdominal pressure you feel when you're in labor. To my horror, I discovered that the umbilical cord had prolapsed (slipped out).
I woke Mr. Willoughby and told him he needed to take me to the hospital. Looking back, I'm not sure why I didn't think to call an ambulance, but I think my mind was set on seeing my own doctor. I guess I thought he could make everything okay. We called my dad to come and get our son and then headed to the hospital.
When we got there, the first thing they wanted to do was get me on a fetal monitor. The heartbeat looked strong and regular, so they thought I might have been wrong about the prolapsed cord. I knew I hadn't been wrong, but I was so hoping it was possible. I just wanted to hear that my baby was healthy and head back home.
The obstetrician on call came in to examine me. He talked to me for a few minutes first. He said if the cord was prolapsed, they would admit me and I would spend the next several months flat on my back. It was an unlikely scenario, he said, as it's not common to have such a strong heart beat in those circumstances. After a quick exam, however, he confirmed what I already knew. The cord was prolapsed. Moments later, the heartbeat dipped dangerously low and all hell broke loose. I was rushed to the operating room.
As naive as it sounds now, I had no idea what they were going to do. I remember ceiling tiles rushing by overhead as the team ran down the hallway with me, but no one had told me that the only option was to deliver the baby right away. I had heard of women having stitches in their cervix to halt an early delivery. I didn't know if that was an option. Orders were being shouted and I was surrounded by doctors and nurses, but no one was talking to me. The last memory I have before surgery is seeing the anesthesiologist opening the package the held the instrument they use to intubate you.
I woke up in a recovery room with no idea what had happened. I have a foggy memory of my doctor, who happened to have been in the hospital, talking to me. A nurse later told me that I had been drifting in and out and repeating "Baby?" over and over. The next thing I remember is my husband standing next to my bed and asking me which of several names I wanted to give the baby. "It's a girl", he said. She was alive and breathing on a ventilator. Born at just 23 weeks gestation and weighing 14 ounces. She was 11 inches long.
The hospital had a special care nursery, but not an NICU. They could keep her stable for a short time, but they had already arranged to take her by ambulance to their sister hospital 30 miles away. I was allowed to see her briefly before the crew was ready to move her. She was tiny, but perfect. She was in an infant warming bed and I reached in to touch her gently. I noticed immediately that my hand was larger than her head.
A neighbor of my parents had offered to take our son for the afternoon so they could be at the hospital with us. My dad stayed with me while my mom went to the other hospital with Mr. Willoughby. Family members called on the phone to offer kind words and hope, but I was exhausted and overwhelmed by all that had happened.
The next morning, while I was waiting to be released, a nurse came in to talk to me. She wanted to know if I was being realistic or selfish to consent to treat my daughter. Was there any reason to put myself, my family or the baby through all that, she inquired? I told her that I was going to rely on the neonatalogists expertise in the matter, and not that of an obstetrical nurse. To this day, it makes my blood boil.
A few hours later, the doctor released me and Mr. Willoughby and I headed to the NICU of the other hospital. Although I had seen her the day before, I was unprepared. She was so small and fragile looking. One of the doctors took us aside to tell us that they were giving her the maximum amount of oxygen that they could give. Beyond that, he said, they could do no more. He gave her a 10% chance of survival. We excused ourselves to the family area where I sobbed.
She's nine days old, here. The night nurse took this picture for us.
The next day, when we returned to the hospital, a different doctor was on shift. She came over and introduced herself and we discussed our daughter's condition. When I asked about odds of survival, she was surprised to hear what we had been told. She said that babies born in that hospital at 23 weeks gestation had an 80% survival rate. She told us that it was okay to hope, no matter what the odds, but that they were in our favor.
For the next six months my routine consisted of taking my son to school in the morning, making the 60 minute drive to the hospital and sitting with my daughter. I would leave at 1:30 every afternoon and drive another 60 minutes to go home and spend time with my son. My husband would stop at the hospital on his way home from work and stay with our daughter for the evening. We were also trying desperately to maintain a sense of normality for our son, who was six at the time. Still, I was plagued by constant guilt. I never felt I was spending enough time with my daughter or my son.
There were bad days. An inattentive nurse had neglected to check her feeding tube one day. Instead of the liquid going into her stomach, it ended up in her lungs. She developed pneumonia because of it. It was a setback we didn't need. But there were good days, too.
We had a number of incredible doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists to help us through the lowest points and celebrate the highest points. The hospital staff, along with some of the other parents, became our social circle and a major part of our support system. I missed them when we were finally able to take our daughter home.
Fast forward to today, and I'm happy to say that my daughter is a normal, healthy ten year old. Thankfully, she has no memory of the six months she spent in the hospital.
A special note to the nurse who wondered if I was making a selfish choice to chose to save my daughter's life. Take a look at that face and tell me what you think?!