The Story of My 21-Weeker

January 31, 2011

This is my story.  I have wanted to share it for quite some time but I think I am finally ready.  I apologize for this being so long, but I’ve always wanted to get the entire experience written down as I remember it.  Writing my story has probably helped me more than it will help any of you, but hopefully sharing it will heighten the awareness of pregnant women and broaden the understanding of medical professionals.  Thank you for letting me share a life-changing experience with you.

Pregnant and Naive

A few short months after my husband and I were married we felt strongly that it was time to start our family.  I was young and healthy and I had always wanted to have a big family, maybe 7-8 kids, although my husband thought 3-4 would be enough.  We weren’t worried about our differing opinions, though, because we had plenty of time to make that decision and experience would surely help us solidify our plans down the road.  What we didn’t realize at that time was that God had a plan for our family that was very different from our own.

I got pregnant right away and assumed that my ability to reproduce was exceptional because my grandmother had 13 healthy children, my parents had 10 healthy children, and my brothers and sisters had already given me 18 robust nieces and nephews.  However, I was pretty terrified of labor, so I never opened a pregnancy book or did any reading to prepare myself for it.  I had plenty of time.

Preterm Labor

The day after my doctor’s appointment at 21 weeks I was sitting down at work when I had a major charlie-horse cramp in my abdomen that took my breath away.  “What was THAT?” I thought.  Oh well, it went away so it must be a typical pregnancy growing pain.  That evening the pain happened again, and then continued to happen once every 30 minutes.  I called my doctor (who was actually 2 hours away because we were only going to be living in our current situation for another 4 weeks, after which we were moving to his city), and the nurses refused to let me speak to him but assured me that I was feeling pains from a bladder infection and not to worry unless it got a lot worse.  It got more painful and was regular, so I called again and was again refused when I asked to speak to the doctor.  I was told it was probably bladder pains but if I was that worried about it I could go to the ER in the morning.  The nurses obviously thought I was overreacting to some very normal pregnancy pains, and because I wanted to believe that nothing bad was happening I didn’t go in.  I suffered through very strong pains every 30 minutes down to every 15 minutes for the entire night and when I got up in the morning I felt weak and exhausted.  I said goodbye to my husband as he left for work early (he worked about 1 hr 15 mins away – down country roads and through a river canyon) and assured him that I would be okay and would call in sick to work if I felt the need to.  Within minutes of him leaving home I got in the shower and lost my mucus plug (I had no idea what it was at the time).  From that moment on my pains increased dramatically, I grew very lightheaded and weak, and I was nauseous because I hadn’t eaten anything yet and was still suffering from morning sickness.  I tried to make myself some breakfast but before long I was on the floor gasping in pain, lightheaded and weak, and with no strength to lift myself from the floor.  I was sure I was going to pass out and probably die on the floor.  I was so weak I could not speak, and even though I thought I should call someone for help (my in-laws lived just minutes away), I couldn’t reach the phone and literally couldn’t move my lips, so I prayed that someone would come in and find me.

Minutes later the phone rang and it took every ounce of strength and determination I could muster to reach the phone – thinking this was my lifeline.  I tried to answer and I think I managed to moan into the receiver.  My mother-in-law started talking about something and I have no idea what, but when I wasn’t responding she asked if I was okay.  I tried so hard to say “no”, and I’m not sure how it came out, but eventually she discovered that I wasn’t okay and said she’d be right over.  I tried very hard to make it to the couch so I wouldn’t look so silly when she came in.  When she arrived I was grunting in pain, and by this time I was having regular pains every 2 minutes, lasting for a minute each, and I still had no idea I was in preterm labor.  Watching me suffer my mother-in-law said that I looked like I was in labor and she called her close friend who was a nurse to get her opinion.  The nurse said I should go immediately to the emergency room!  My mother-in-law ran across the street to get her parents and nephew.  They came over and said a prayer for me, that the pain would stop and the baby would live if it was God’s will.  We were blessed with a miracle and the pains did stop.  I even had the strength to stand up.

I really had to go to the bathroom, so I insisted that I go before leaving for the hospital.  When I sat down on the toilet I felt something very strange and looked down to find a bulging clear sac between my legs, about the size of a softball.  What the heck was THAT?  I had no idea what was happening, but was terrified the baby was going to fall out into the toilet.  I called to my mother-in-law and she cautiously alerted me that I might be losing my baby.  We wrapped a towel under my legs and put on some big pajama pants to hold me together, and then she and my husband’s grandmother helped me into the car to head to the ER 20 minutes away.  Just before we left my mother-in-law called my husband and told him they were taking me to the hospital.  She didn’t explain what was going on so my husband took off quickly to get to me as soon as he could (I’m pretty sure he broke the speed limit a few times).

I was brought into the ER, laid out on a cold white bed, and reclined so that my feet were up toward the ceiling and my head was down by the floor.  I laid like that for the next 4 hours while doctors and nurses came to see the bulging membranes and then left, and while our small-town hospital searched for a life-flight that could take me away to a bigger hospital.  I was so relieved when my husband arrived to be with me, and my own mother was able to meet us at the hospital, as well as my father-in-law.

The doctor eventually had to put in a catheter so I could empty my bladder because I couldn’t hold it in any longer (I never actually got to go!).  Then, it just so happened that of the four nearest life-flights to us all of them were being repaired that day except for the one from University Hospital in Salt Lake City, four hours away.  While we were waiting for the life-flight to arrive I was told that the chances of my baby surviving were very slim.  I pretty much ignored their negative predictions because “slim” meant that there was still some chance, and I wasn’t about to NOT give my baby every chance possible to live.  I didn’t care about anything but my baby.

I started having pains again, although they were much more mild than they had been all day and were few and far between.  The doctor gave me a shot every hour to stop my contractions (probably terbutaline?).

Life Flight

The life-flight arrived and the medics came in and told me again that the chances of my baby’s survival were very slim.  Did I really want to face the financial burden that the life-flight would bring when it would likely not change the outcome of my delivery?  I didn’t question it.  Yes! I wanted to go!

Unfortunately my husband couldn’t ride in the life-flight helicopter with me, so he and my mother left to make the 4-hour drive to meet us in SLC.  My mother-in-law came in her own car about an hour later.  I have to admit that even though I was having more regular contractions, was still reclined with my head down to the floor and my feet in the air, and kept getting shots to slow my contractions, going on my first helicopter ride was thrilling!  It was very tiny inside and I barely fit with the two nurses who were in the back with me.  I only wished I could see out the window, but as we were flying over the mountains one of the nurses lifted me up just enough that I could glimpse the scenery for about 10 seconds.

The helicopter ride took about 45 minutes, if I remember correctly, but it felt like two hours since my contractions were coming on stronger.  When we arrived I felt like I was in a movie scene.  We landed on the top of University Hospital and a bunch of people ran to greet us like in M*A*S*H and lifted me out as quickly as they could (I was so afraid they were going to tip me out of the bed!) and put me in the back of a mobile cart thing. They drove me into the hospital where they lifted me onto another stretcher and wheeled me (people were staring at me as we ran down the hallways) into a dark narrow room with lots of exam beds.  They took me to the very back corner of the room and lifted me onto the bed to do some quick tests.  They did ultrasounds to check the baby, the fluid levels surrounding the baby, etc.  They asked if a team of students could be brought in to analyze the situation and learn from it.  I decided that so many people had seen me “down there” today that it really didn’t matter anymore.  Besides, if this experience did not save the life of my baby then I would like for it to at least help the doctors learn and help similar patients in the future.

The team discussed whether or not they could stick a needle into me and withdraw the little amount of fluid that was surrounding the baby in order to push the bulging sac back in and then replace the fluids, but that idea was rejected because there was not a visible section of fluid large enough to make a withdrawal.  Because of the state I was in and my lack of knowledge about pregnancy and gynecology I didn’t get much more out of their discussions than that.  The only option that they ended up agreeing might save my baby was to keep me in the hospital with my feet in the air to keep the baby from falling out, for as long as I could last.  Of course, since I was having labor pains again they first had to find a way to stop my contractions.

So, I was sent to a delivery room, placed in a much more comfortable bed than the stretcher had been, and my bed was reclined so my head was toward the floor and my feet in the air.  This was not comfortable.

More tocolytics were administered to try and stop my contractions, but nothing seemed to work.  My contractions became more frequent and more intense by the minute.  Up to this point I had not had anything to mask the pain of the contractions.  I could not be given an epidural because with my head down to the floor they thought the medication would run to my head.  And, they were afraid that if they sat me upright and gave me an epidural my muscles relaxing would make the baby slip right out and I would surely lose the baby.  So, I held on as the contractions got worse and worse with very little recovery time in between.

A blessing that was realized in being life-flighted to SLC was that I had a number of family members living in the area.  Upon my arrival I was greeted by my father and step-mother, my closest sister and her new husband who flew into SLC that very day on their way home from their honeymoon, and two of my older sisters.  They stayed with me through it all, but I’m pretty sure the men took off for awhile.

I had never imagined that I would be a screamer, but as my contractions got more intense with little recovery time in between the pain was so horrible that I found myself screaming in pain with every contraction as I clung to my dear sister’s hand.  I think she still has scars from my nails.

Epidural & Delivery

My husband and mother finally arrived around 8:00pm that night.  As soon as my husband arrived everyone left the room to give us some privacy because we had a decision to make.  I was exhausted in every way and the labor pains were so much that I didn’t know if I could handle it much longer.  Obviously labor was not stopping.  However, the doctors were sure that if I got an epidural I would have the baby.  So, did I continue to suffer in hopes that labor would miraculously come to a halt and I could stay pregnant for a few weeks more?  (There was really no reason to believe this was possible) Or did I get an epidural with it almost guaranteed that I would deliver and lose the baby?  At this point the baby’s heartbeat was still going strong.  I have no idea how dilated I was, the doctors never said anything if they checked and I can’t remember if they did, but I imagine I was mostly dilated and the tocolytics and the fact that I was upside down were what was keeping the baby in.  We sat in silence for a moment not fully understanding what the risks were for myself or the baby (we did not understand that the hospital would not attempt to save a baby less than 24 weeks gestation – we just kept hearing that the baby would probably die.  I didn’t understand any of the factors of the decision).  We decided that because the chances were so minimal for the baby and I was too exhausted to handle labor much longer, I would get the epidural.

My husband told the nurse and people flooded in.  Naively, I thought someone would jump in to give me the epidural immediately, but it took almost 30 minutes before the anesthesiologist finally showed up.  I was ready to kill him!  I was frightened of the epidural for about a second, and I can’t remember feeling any pain though I’m sure that I did.  The epidural started to deaden the pain of contractions almost immediately, but unfortunately I didn’t enjoy the beginnings of it very much because it made me terribly nauseous and I threw up in the garbage can next to my bed.  I was totally embarrassed to throw up in front of everyone.

Epidurals are God-sent.  A flood of warmth went through my body and the pain completely washed away.  I couldn’t feel a thing below my waist and suddenly I was so tired.  I felt like I was wrapped up in a heated blanket and I was sure I was the most comfortable I had ever been in my life.  I think all of my senses were a little deadened because I felt so peaceful and so calm.  At that moment my mother-in-law arrived from her 4-hour journey across state lines.  She came in and spoke quietly with my husband while everyone else took a break and gave me the opportunity to rest.  A few short minutes passed in a fuzzy haze of sleepiness and warmth.  Then, a nurse came in to check me and after a moment of surprise quietly told us that I had delivered my baby.  That woke me up.

Life & Loss

The nurse ran to get help and a small team came in.  My baby was born in the sac.  The nurse took him out and let my husband cut the umbilical cord.  “What is it?”  I asked.  My husband replied that we’d had a baby boy.  A boy!  My firstborn son.  The one who should carry on the family name.  His heart was beating strong, so he was alive.  The nurses washed him up for a second and whisked him away for footprints and tests – he was born at 21w2d gestation, he weighed 12 ounces, and he was 10 1/4 inches long.  They brought him back a few minutes later and, all swaddled up, simply put him in our arms and told us we could hold him for as long as we wanted.  My husband felt that we should name him Dan, so we did.  His eyes were fused shut, but he was perfect in every way:  fingernails and toenails, eyelashes, and soft lips.  He looked so peaceful and calm.

Our family came in and stood around my bed while we talked softly and everyone took turns holding Dan.  A few pictures were taken, a few tears shed.  Our boy’s spirit was very strong and the room was peaceful.  Every time I got to hold him I gently put my finger on his chest to feel his heart beat.  One time I felt nothing – he had lived for 54 minutes.

We held our baby for awhile longer and then our families left as we were transferred to a recovery room where we were told we could continue to hold our son for as long as we wanted.  My husband and I took turns holding him and being together with or firstborn son, as a family of three, until the wee hours of the morning.

At some point my husband finally convinced me that we had to get some sleep and more time with our baby would only make it more difficult to part.  We did what no parent should ever have to do, and we called the nurse in and forced ourselves to hand over our baby, looking at him for as long as we could before the door closed behind him.  We never looked at our baby again.

The next day it took most of the day to convince the doctor to discharge me from the hospital – it was extremely annoying to be held back waiting for a doctor’s signature.  There was nothing left there for us.  It was devastating and we wanted to get away.  In the middle of our efforts to leave the hospital a girl I knew in high school had found out I was in that hospital, I think her baby was in the NICU or something, and she came in search of us.  I was NOT in the mood for visitors.  The last thing I wanted was an acquaintance to step into my life at that moment and make me explain what had happened, and then listen to her chatter on about how hard it was to have her own baby in the NICU.  He was alive; my baby was dead.

We finally escaped the hospital in the mid-afternoon and started our 4-hour drive back home to Wyoming.  All of our family had headed to Wyoming first thing that morning because my little sister was having her wedding reception that night in our hometown.  My husband and I made it to our home, changed, and then went straight to my sister’s reception 15 miles away, arriving a little late.  I had hoped that we could be there to celebrate with my sister and not deal with any questions, that nobody would know yet what had happened and we could avoid it for a day.  However, I shouldn’t have been surprised, but everyone that we met at her reception already knew about my baby.  We got way more attention than we wanted that night, and we were immediately thrust into the awkward situation of telling others our tragic story.  What surprised me most was the variety of ways in which people dealt with our news:  some cried and hugged and apologized, some acted like nothing had happened and ignored the subject entirely, others could not look us in the eye, and others tried to convince us that they understood what we were going through (even though their stories were nothing like ours).  I learned very fast that I could not take offense if someone’s reaction to us was not what I hoped it would be.

Infant Burial

Three days later my father drove my baby’s body to Wyoming where we had a family gathering at my in-laws home and then we had a simple graveside ceremony at the burial of my son. had a beautiful musical number and a family prayer, took some pictures, and then left our tiny son’s body to be lowered into the ground and sealed away.  The only comfort I had was that he was not alone there.  He was buried between my husband’s brother and my husband’s cousin – both infants.  The cemetery was full of ancestors and relatives of my sweet baby.  I still find comfort that his body is surrounded by family who love him and are with him on the other side.

My story ends here, though this was just the beginning of the emotional trauma and devastation I experienced for months to come.  My milk came in the day of my son’s burial and it was excruciatingly painful – physically and emotionally.  My morning sickness disappeared, I had to get a D&C a month later to remove most of the placenta that was somehow still inside of me, my body lost most of its pregnancy weight, and life resumed as if my son did not exist.  I was a mother, but I wasn’t.  I had experienced the most life-changing and heart-wrenching experience of my life but had nothing to show for it.  I was surrounded by newlyweds and new mothers when I went back to school and yet I did not fit in with any of them.

However, my experience with my son is one of the sweetest memories I have.  We were given a gift, a gift of a perfect son whom we will be able to live with again after this life.  I find much joy in this knowledge and much peace in my heart for this blessing.