This is the story of how we lost our baby. It's a story we which we experienced together, but in different ways. So that's how we're going to tell it - together, and separate, taking turns and giving perspectives. Here goes.
I think most people would agree that 2016 was a pretty terrible year. We lost Prince, Bowie, Ali, there was more war and suffering in the middle east. Terrorist attack. Natural disasters. Brexit. Donald Trump was elected president.
We had a bit of a crap year too. It started well enough - in January we found out that my wife was pregnant with our second child (we have one awesome 3 year old son). For us, this was cause for celebration but also reason to be nervous - with our first pregnancy, my wife had suffered from hyperemesis gravidarum, which is basically a form of extreme morning sickness. I'm talking vomiting at least 7 times a day, unable to hold down any real food and constant nausea through the whole 9 months. I wasn't allowed to cook bacon in the house. NO BACON, PEOPLE. So when my wife started to feel ill, we were anxious but we felt that we pretty much knew what we were in for. Wrong on that one, kiddo.
Getting violently ill from week 6 of my second pregnancy wasn’t new to me. My first pregnancy was the hardest thing I’d done before 2016, and back then I vomited multiple times a day from week 7 through to about week 19 and suffered severe nausea for the remainder of that pregnancy. But what I experienced over the next 10 or so weeks of my second pregnancy was a rapid decline in my health – a permeating nausea that made me bed-ridden, constant vomiting that ripped my esophagus to threads (and still wreaks havoc to my digestive system months later), heart palpitations, breathlessness, dizziness, weight loss. At my worst I couldn’t keep any food down, going to the toilet 10 feet from my bed was like climbing Everest, having a shower made me too light-headed, the smell of my husband & son made me violently ill and I had to be closeted in my room, windows closed to dull my new unwanted super power – the hyper sense of smell. I had developed Hyperemesis Gravidarum, and while I had it with my first pregnancy, this was much more severe. I had also developed Hyperthyroidism in pregnancy. I was severely dehydrated and malnourished and my muscles were wasting away. I was in & out of hospital 8 times over 10 weeks, and to three different hospitals depending on the circumstance.
This pregnancy robbed me of my health and it makes me furious when I think of it. It robbed me of time with my son – I lost at least 4 months of his life that I will never get back. I had the worst birthday I’ve ever had (I missed out on my birthday outing to the Pop Up Globe and I’m still pissed off about it). I missed birthday parties, Kindy events, Easter celebrations and quality time with my family. I have never ever been as sick as I was over those 4 months and I hope to never ever be again. I still don’t know how I survived each day. There were tears with each spew, but largely there was apathy. My illness made me depressed, yet I blocked it out as best as I could because I believed that a positive state of mind was the best thing for my baby so I just survived from moment to moment. I believed that suffering like this was worth it to complete our family. And you know, that’s what pisses me off the most. I struggled every minute of every day for months and I have nothing to show for it. I have nothing. I’m still getting my physical health back. My mental health is patchy. And there is no baby. There is no baby, so why the hell did I even bother?
At week 12 of the pregnancy, we were referred to a specialist doctor. I can't remember her name but she was a thin woman with short hair and a crooked neck, probably in her fifties, who seemed more interested in my wife's diet (had we tried crackers?) than how obviously sick she was. She examined my wife and performed a scan. I remember thinking "wow, the placenta looks really big", but she said nothing so I kept quiet. Afterwards we were taken to a small private room (always beware doctors taking you to small private rooms) and told that we were being referred to the Maternal Fetal Medicine team at Auckland Hospital (biggest in the country) because there was a "very small" chance that we had an "incredibly rare" condition, but that probably everything would be fine. Dr I Forget Her Name was very cagey about what exactly this condition was ("I don't want you Googling it and getting yourself worked up") but we pushed, and she gave in.
We were told there was a small chance that my wife was experiencing a "partial molar" pregnancy. If this was the case, it would mean that we would need to terminate (they all use that word, "terminate") the pregnancy for the sake of my wife's health. Our nameless doctor friend asked us not to worry, told us this was a very rare condition and there are plenty of women with larger than normal placentas who give birth to perfectly healthy children without any issues at all.
In the car on the way home, my wife and I talked. We were rational, calm. We knew the chances were very small and there was no reason to get worked up. In fact, getting upset and playing out all of the scenarios was likely to make things worse. We were in control. Until we weren't. As we pulled into our driveway, I admitted I was a feeling a bit worried. My wife said she was too. We both broke down into tears. We hugged each other for a long time and cried some more. Then we went inside and watched The Office to cheer ourselves up (US version, the UK one is a bit grim).
It was 9 days until our appointment. We spent that time trying to keep calm, and freaking ourselves out by researching. My wife and I are both analytical people, and we thrive on knowledge. Whatever this thing was, we wanted to know about it so we could understand and process it. We discovered that a partial molar pregnancy fitted with many of the symptoms my wife was experiencing. We learned about what exactly the condition was (in a very condensed sense, the placenta becomes a cancer and "takes over" the womb. More on this another day). We learned that it is extremely rare and essentially random - there was nothing we could have done to prevent it. We discovered babies in the case of a partial molar have chromosomal issues which mean they cannot survive. We also found case studies of women that had carried a molar pregnancy to term, risking their health in the process. Some had healthy babies. We had hope. Until we didn't.
The Maternal Fetal Medicine team at Auckland Hospital must be used to dealing with the worst sides of pregnancy. Telling expectant mothers bad news comes with the territory, but really what an awful job. Margie, the doctor who performed my scan looked so young. I remember thinking “How old is this chick?”. Seriously, she looked younger than me. But I also know that it’s impossible to tell people’s ages and her manner suggested she was capable and competent, I never doubted her ability. So when she told us that she was sorry, she couldn’t find a heartbeat, that our baby had died, I just nodded and calmly said “Ok”. I even thanked her. I didn’t ask any questions I just wiped up the goo off my belly and stood up trying to find my jandals on the ground. I couldn’t put them on my feet properly. I didn’t wipe the gel off properly either. For the rest of the day my top was sticky and wet. But as soon as I hopped off the table, I just wanted to be done. She was looking at me, and I could feel Anna the midwife in the corner of the room hovering and I just wanted to leave, so taking the time to wipe the gel off just didn’t seem important.
We went into a tiny room next door, just a round table, a couple of chairs & a box of hospital-standard tissues. I was calm, I knew what a molar pregnancy was. I had read all about it. Deep down I even knew that this was going to happen us, my symptoms ticked all the boxes so how could it not? This rare awful condition that we were told not to worry about, I just knew we had it. So I just wanted to calmly move onto the next step. Then I looked at Nick and he started bawling, literally bawling. I think that’s probably a bad description, not very manly, but his face crumpled, he just started sobbing. And I thought “Well shit, if you cry, I have to too”. But at that point I wasn’t sad for me. I was devastated for him. To see my lovely, strong, confident husband, who had kept everything in our lives afloat for so long while I’d checked out into pregnancy hell, lose it like that broke me. I wasn’t sad about the baby, I was sad for him.
I think we knew before she said anything. I could see her there, our baby - although I didn't know she was a she at the time. She was face down, curled up and she wasn't moving. We did not cry. We said "OK". I think we said "thank you", which is absurd. They put us back into the private room. We cried. We held each other. We cried some more. We used the tissues
After a few minutes, Anna and Margie came in. Anna said she was sorry. My wife said it was OK. Anna said "no, it's really not OK". We cried. They explained what had happened. We already knew most of it from our reading. They explained we would need to make a time for the "matter to be extracted". By this they meant removing the placenta, so the cancer wouldn't spread. And removing our baby. This would be booked in as soon as possible, hopefully in the next 2 days. We asked if we could have our baby back. They told us she would not look like a baby after the procedure, but yes. They gave us some forms. Anna gave us her business card (is it called a "business card" when the business is your dead baby?). They asked if we had any questions. We didn't.
When I think back on that morning, the defining memory for me is the scan. Margie scanned the baby and she was curled up into a fetal position. She looked lifeless. She was lifeless. The past three scans (10 weeks, 12 weeks, 15 weeks) had showed an active baby rolling around in the vast darkness of my womb. The 12 week scan even showed an active little waver – every time the sonographer panned out, her little arm would wave about as if to say “Hello!”. The sonographer even did a close up of the wave. I remember at the time thinking it was all a bit excessive, such a long scan and even a disk to take home for just a 12 week scan, but I am grateful that we have it. My point is, that the scans showed a seemingly normal healthy baby, so to see a curled up ball was one of the most awful things I can remember. It’s a memory that flashes back to me and sends a shooting pain into my belly each time I think of it. But at the time, I was so calm. I looked at it from a rational outside perspective: “You know, that baby looks dead to me”. And when Margie ran the heartbeat scan, she didn’t tell us what she was doing, didn’t say anything. She ran it twice and both times there was no sound, no heartbeat. She still didn’t say anything for another few minutes. I’d like to say I was hopeful in those minutes before she told us the bad news, but I really wasn’t. I was calmly prepared.
It’s only when I look back on that day, when I look back on the whole pregnancy, when I think about the loss of the family that we wanted – the sibling that my son longed for, that I get upset. That I reflect on how awful the whole thing was. And while that fleeting half hour or so one Friday morning on Level 9 of Auckland Hospital changed me forever, it wasn’t the worst part of my journey. The worst part was still to come.
We are a family of 3. This blog is the story of how we almost became 4, why we didn’t, and what we are doing to recover from that experience.