I Should Not Be Here, But I Am: A Survivor's Birth Story
February 27, 2017
It was dark when I woke from a deep, dreamless fog. I used all of my strength to look to my left, because I aptly sensed someone beside me, and I knew who it was before I saw him. My husband sat on the edge of that chair they give guests, which is meant to be something you can sleep on, but is the most uncomfortable comfort-device in the modern world. His eyes were so intensely focused on me, that he didn’t fully register I was awake at first. He had been praying, though at the time, I didn’t know what for. I guess it must be something to see your prayer answered almost immediately, because he gripped my hand harder than he meant to and cursed between apologies. I gave him a weak smile and, before I could ask what happened, I slid under again.Two weeks before then, we began the long process of induction to welcome our daughter into the world. It took almost three boring days to really get labor going. Until that point, we watched countless families go in, have babies, and leave, like they had some VIP access to childbirth that we weren’t cool enough to get. I was on and off the monitor to make sure contractions were still happening, and the baby was healthy. But other than that, I had free reign of the maternity ward. “Oh, you’re still here?” people would constantly ask, as I walked my usual laps with my husband, still visibly pregnant. “If someone asks me that one more time, it’s their head on a plate,” I promised my husband on more than one occasion. I knew labor was some intense shit, but so far it was starting to advertise itself as a dull event. Finally, after a membrane sweep, my water broke, launching me into two intense hours of active labor. I ended up having an intervention-free delivery, because there just wasn’t time for an epidural. My pain was overruled by determination right before pushing, and she came in one long push with no tearing. It was actually a very beautiful experience, and something I hold onto today. It wasn’t until a few minutes later when everything went south.While my husband and the doctors conducted routine vitals and cleaning of the babe, the nurse stood me up to pee. As soon as I was on my feet, two clots – one as big as a child-size soccer ball – fell out of me with a rush of blood. I shouted at my husband not to look, and the nurse laid me back on the bed. My midwife performed a crude, emergency D&C (dilation and curettage, done to remove excess tissue or placenta) without any anesthesia. She apologized profusely as I bit down on my lip so hard it also bled. I cried out in pain. I have never experienced something so excruciating in my life, including the med-free labor I had just endured. After my blood count climbed back up, they decided against a transfusion. The excitement ended two days later, and we went home. Life was as it should be with a new baby: exhausting, blissful, beautiful, and exhausting again. But after about a week and-a-half of heavy bleeding and abdominal and pelvic pain, I returned to the hospital for another D&C when an ultrasound found retained products. At 9 p.m., after reassuring my husband in the same way doctors had reassured me, I went in for what was supposed to be a 10-minute routine procedure. My friend had been with me while I waited to go into surgery, because my husband needed to be at home with the kids. He was miserable and desperate to be with me, but I promised him it would be fast, and that I would be home a couple hours later. We were wrong.From 9 p.m. until the next morning, everything is grey smoke clouding my vision. I get snapshots of images or conversations, but when I try to hold onto them, it goes grey again. My friend said I rambled to her after my procedure – the 10-minute one that took me three hours to wake from only briefly. They called my husband and told him he needed to be there with me. So around 5 a.m., his parents took the kids. That’s when I woke briefly to see him on my left, praying and watching and cursing his strong grip. When I came to again, he was lightly sleeping on the edge of my bed, looking weary and aged. I saw tracks on his cheeks from tears I didn’t understand and shadows under his eyes that you could swim in. I had a hard time using my voice from the surgery’s intubation, but managed, “That was some party, I guess.” He woke almost immediately and wrapped me so tight in his arms, I started coughing before more cursed apologies. I didn’t know I needed it, but being held by him felt like a long drink after days in the desert. He stroked my hair gently and asked if I was okay. “I have to pee,” I managed. A nurse came in, removed my catheter (when was that put in?), and after five very slow minutes to the washroom four feet away, I was held over the toilet so I could go to the bathroom because motherhood is glamorous. I barely made it back into the bed when the nurse said, “You’re ghost-white,” and I slid under again.I was finally fully coherent by 11 a.m. I felt tired, but it seemed like passing out was finally done with. My husband was awake and more calm, and his face broke out into the brightest smile as he moved to the bed to ask how I was feeling. “I’m okay. Are you okay? Is Luna okay?” He promised me everything was fine. “I’m okay because you are.”“What happened?” I sat up slowly. My head throbbed.“I don’t know. No one will tell me much, other than something about the D&C going wrong and your heart.” He looked worried again, but paged the nurse and asked her to find the doctor. About three nurses came in and out over the course of two hours, promising we would see the specialist soon. During that time, I was given an EKG (apparently my second one) and bland hospital food. “You need to eat,” I told him. It made him laugh then, because “Even when you’re like this, you’re still worried about us. I don’t get you.” After I nagged him, he finally said he would find hot food for the two of us, and left after handing me my phone. It was full of so many notifications, I just turned it off and tossed it on the counter. When he returned, the runaround by the nurses continued. My frustration peaked to the point where I threatened to discharge myself and leave if I didn’t get any answers. Twenty minutes later, the specialist magically appeared.“I’m the cardiologist on call. You have some questions for me?” His scrubs looked too nice for me to accept his ER-was-busy excuse.“What happened to me?”That’s when I finally learned everything. At some point during my 10-minute, in-and-out D&C, I hemorrhaged again. They couldn’t get it to stop at first, my heart rate spiked before crashing, and I hung out with my heart working at half capacity – 30 beats per minute, sometimes less. “We were ready for you to go into cardiac arrest. I still don’t know how your heart made it.” The cardiologist reassured me that my heart rate, as of 9 a.m., was finally stable and climbing. I sat in bed, stunned, feeling shock slowly wash over me as my husband held my hand and tried processing how close we came. “It’s a miracle you’re here,” the cardiologist said before leaving. “You gave all of us quite the fright.” My husband and I prayed, and he called his parents after we spent an hour alone in the quiet together, soaking in what we learned. His parents needed help with the kids, so he very regretfully had to leave, but at that point I was fine and just wanted to sleep. When I was stable for long enough much later on, they sent me home, but only after I pushed them into it. I needed to be at home with my baby, I insisted. Friends picked me up because they lived down the road, and I found myself downplaying what happened because I wasn’t ready to process it all. It remains this miracle – almost dying after giving life.Three months of strict bed rest and constant visits by a cardiologist, a hematologist, an OB, and my own primary doctor passed. I was impatient and hormonal, weakened by everything and extremely low in iron. My husband and I went through a period where all we did was argue, then pray, because all of these issues were on top of the usual postpartum hell. I struggled with depressive cycles, especially – as the hematologist explained – because extremely low hemoglobin levels can cause anxiety and lows. I tried to find the energy to be a mom to my toddler and newborn. I’m an athlete who runs, works out, and likes to keep moving.
A whole pregnancy of problems, 20 weeks of bed rest, postpartum complications, and three more months of rest all felt so insurmountable at times that I doubted whether they would end. It wreaked havoc on me physically and mentally. So I kept talking. I saw a postpartum therapist, who coached me through it, and my husband and I focused hard on God and our love throughout the storm. And I’ve somehow come out the other side. I write this seven months later. It’s incredible how much has changed. I should not be here. I should not be here. But I am.My iron is still too low. They say it’ll take months for me to fully bounce back from everything that happened. During recovery, I had to be careful not to tax my heart, because it’s so fragile and weak. Even lifting laundry posed a risk. But now, I go jogging and take the kids on long walks. I’m on month three of my workout program, and have started hiking again. I spend moments just appreciating and soaking in the love I have for my two girls. My husband and I are closer than we’ve ever been. I can lift heavy objects again, but exhaust more quickly because of my low iron. I’m still working on finding that delicate balance of caution and strength. So far, so good. My doctors have cleared us to safely conceive again in the future, but that’s a question we will leave unanswered for now.Sometimes when I sleep, I can see the bed rails from the operating room as they wheeled me out after my procedure. Most of what I see is darkness, with a blurry spot of light where my hand reaches out to someone. I can’t make out who it is, but their grip feels soft and strong, warm and comforting around mine. The image is so visceral that I’m sometimes convinced that it’s the thing that kept me alive – that it was me, having given life, reaching out and striving to hang onto my own.