A year and some change ago, I was in the middle of a conference call when I felt a strange pang in my side. It was sharp and persistent. As a teenager, I religiously watched every episode of ER, so naturally my first thought was that I had appendicitis. However, I was in the midst of a busy proposal season with my consulting firm, so I leaned my head on my desk and continued facilitating the call. Once the meeting concluded, I grabbed my purse and left my cubical for the restroom.
There, I was bewildered when I discovered that my period, which had ended the morning prior, began again. My periods had never been light, routine, or consistent, even while on the pill. Fishing through my purse for a tampon, I came across my cell phone. Evan was on a business trip to DC and would be there for another two days. I debated texting him, but decided against it. My mind was preoccupied with work, so the bleeding and cramps didn’t seem odd for me at the time.
As the day wore on, however, the pain increased. It almost seemed to go in waves. I popped a few Motrin and continued working. It was projected to be another late night in the office, so I buckled down and focused on what was important.
Around 7:00 p.m., I was on the phone with a co-worker. We were conducting a compliance check on our proposal. The pain was, at times, so intense that I had inflicted a headache from grinding my teeth.
As he was talking, I suddenly blurted out, “I’m sorry, I’ve got to go home.”
We exchanged awkward goodbyes and I vowed to get into the office early the following morning. I shut down my laptop, gathered my things, and locked the front door. My 2000 Mustang had been giving me trouble for several months, and I prayed that it would start. It coughed, it sputtered, but the engine eventually roared. I sat there for a few minutes, wringing my hands on the steering wheel. The hospital was close to work and nearly on my way home. I had been hospitalized with Kawasaki Disease when I was six years old, and ever since, felt a strong deterrence when it came to doctors. I thought of Evan, and knew that he would’ve driven me to the emergency room hours ago.
So, I swallowed my pride and drove to the hospital for his sake.
The waiting room was remarkably quiet. There was a family of four there; one son had lacerated his cheek and was stealing Legos from his brother. Two anxious college students sat in opposite corners.
“What are you in for?” the receptionist asked.
“Abdominal… cramps,” I told her uncertainly. She handed me a chart to fill out and I took a seat. Jeopardy! played on a television set hanging from the ceiling.
An hour crawled by. For the first time that day, the pain began to dissipate. I felt silly being there – a hypochondriac just having her period. I stood up hastily and stopped by the receptionist’s desk.
“You know, I’m starting to feel better and I ought to go home. My husband is on travel and our dogs haven’t been taken out all day…”
The receptionist cut me off, “Don’t you worry, it’ll only be a few more minutes.”
I resigned to my seat. I knew the Corgis were starving in their crates. Evan sent a text to say that he was going out to dinner with his mom and will return to his hotel room late. I was so embarrassed by my predicament that I didn’t even mention to him that I was in an emergency room.
“Kristen?” a short-haired, brunette nurse asked as she opened a door on the opposite side of the room. I managed a polite smile and hid my reddened face as I followed her into a hallway. She measured my weight and I blushed further from having gained several pounds. I silently chastised myself for a year’s avoidance of the gym.
The nurse brought me to a gurney with a curtain surrounding it – took my blood pressure, checked my heart and lungs, and asked me how I was doing.
“Taking any prescription medication?”
“Yes. Birth control, the generic brand – I can never remember the name of it.”
“When was the date of your last period?”
“Last week, and it ended yesterday. I thought, anyway.”
She made a note of a few things on my chart and sighed wearily. I was most certainly a crazy person at this point.
“I’m going to take you to a room so you’ll have more privacy. The doctor will be right with you.”
Once behind a closed door, I changed into the papery hospital gown and sat on the hospital table. The table lining crinkled as I breathed.
The doctor came in a few minutes later. She was a pretty, young blonde. This hospital is known as a teaching hospital, so I wondered if she was really a doctor or just a MED student. The same nurse from before pushed in a cart with a large, boxy electronic device on it.
“Kristen, I understand that you’re experiencing menstrual-like symptoms accompanied with pain,” the doctor began, snapping on some latex gloves. The powder from inside the gloves puffed tiny clouds in the air. “I want to make sure that nothing serious is going on, so I’m going to conduct an ultrasound on you, okay?”
Panic began to creep in when the nurse asked, “Is there any chance you may be pregnant?”
“Yes, I guess, but I’m on the pill,” I reiterated, wrinkling my forehead as I leaned back on the table. My mind raced as the doctor spread jelly on my bare stomach. Pregnancy, ectopic pregnancy… how?
I stared intently at the ultrasound screen as the doctor moved the paddle across my belly. The ultrasound swooshed as if someone was brushing up against a microphone.
Suddenly, there it was. A little white object surrounded by a black circular mass. More than just a peanut. There was a face, tiny arms, and legs. The child was blessed with my giant forehead.
My heart gushed with a new, overwhelming sense that I had never felt before. I immediately started crying. Not out of fear, or pain, or sadness, but of joy.
Then I realized that neither the doctor nor the nurse was smiling.
“What’s wrong, what’s going on?” I demanded, bringing my hand to my chest.
The doctor continued pressing and realigning the paddle in several places. After some time, she told me, “There doesn’t appear to be a heartbeat.”
A wave of confusion and disbelief crashed into me. In a matter of three minutes, I had gone from feeling embarrassed about myself, to falling in love with something that I didn’t even know I had, to realizing that this child that I was looking at would no longer exist. The doctor continued speaking to me, but I couldn’t hear, couldn’t think, couldn’t say anything in response. I cried harder than I ever had. Even more than in April 2007.
“… Looks like you might have been between 10-12 weeks,” the doctor murmured, placing a gloved hand on my trembling arm. Her use of past tense caused me to bawl. The nurse left the room for a moment to bring back some tissues. She might’ve personally dabbed the tears from my eyes – I don’t remember ever holding them.
“Don’t worry, honey, this happens all the time,” she reassured. That made me cry even harder.
Finally, after some time and additional examination, the doctor said, “It looks like the pain you’ve been having today has actually been labor. You’re currently in the process of a natural miscarriage. You haven’t been able to expel everything at this point, so it is up to you if you will like to continue it naturally or have a D&C.”
A D&C, as I later learned, is a procedure in which the medical staff removes the rest of the placenta and the fetus itself. I had never heard of such a thing, nor was prepared for it; therefore, I will spare you the details. It was my best route, especially since the doctor, nurse, and I agreed that I was not in the right frame of mind to deliver the remains of my pregnancy at home by myself. I spent the night in the hospital and took sick leave the following day to recover, both physically and emotionally.
When I returned to work, I was faced with the question, “Oh, how are you feeling? Was it just the bug or something?”
Yes, it was just a bug.
This is the first time I’ve ever written about this experience. It took me several weeks before I finally broke the news to my own husband, Evan. And, only in recent months have I gathered enough courage to tell a few family members and closest friends.
I began by blaming myself. Being angry for not being in more tuned with my own body, for being oblivious to the fact that even the most trusted of birth control methods might not work, for not taking better care of myself and any potential child’s wellbeing. For weeks on end, I struggled to remember if I had played hockey in the days or weeks prior to the miscarriage, if I had drank too many glasses of wine or bottles of Mountain Dew, and if I painted too many rooms of my house and inhaled toxic fumes. I knew it wasn’t my fault, but at the same time, it is often easier to pin the blame on something rather than constantly fearing the unknown.
How else do you react to losing something you never knew you had?
At family or friend gatherings, I’m often asked, “So when are you and Evan going to start having kids?” At least now we have a third pup in our lives, so that’s always an easy excuse: “Oh you know, once we stop having dogs.”
I am at an age where most of my friends are married, having their first child, or working on their second and third. It’s a constant presence, a daily reminder. Fortunately, I’ve gotten to a point now where instead of bitterness, regret, or even shame, I can now be thrilled for these folks who are beginning, continuing, or completing their families. Life is such a beautiful, remarkable, and unimaginable thing – and if I could have one wish, I’d hope that everyone makes the most of their lives, and enjoys the time that they are blessed to have.
I have close friends and family who choose to not have children, who have been or are unable to conceive, those who have chosen to adopt, those who will never be able to have children, and those who have lost some of their own. I always empathized with them, but never to the extent that I do now. And even then, my pain is nothing in comparison to theirs. Topics of miscarriage, infertility, and loss of grown children are tabooed in this society, so much so that for any one of us, it feels alien or even wrong to mention it to others. To share your pain with others. To look for help, guidance, even support.
If you ever experience any of those tragedies, do know that you are not alone. There is help out there, and there will always be hope. We can remember those we lost, even if we never had a chance to meet them. I do not know if our child would’ve been a baseball-playing, tree-climbing boy or a beautiful, doll-hugging, painted-toe girl. Or maybe even a tomboy like me. But I am comforted by the idea that these things do happen for a reason.
His or her first birthday would’ve been around this time. And for that, I’ll give an extra hug to Evan tonight, maybe have a little ice cream, and cuddle with my three puppies. And, I promise to always celebrate, remember, and live for the child who never was.