It was sixteen days after Denver, Colorado, where I live, enacted Shelter-in-Place orders. As I entered the doctor’s office on April 7th, 2020, I made sure my blue bandana was tied on snugly, wrapped around my head to cover my nose and mouth. This was before masks were publicly available and encouraged. I asked the receptionist if she had any extra masks for patients. She said, “No, sorry–the office barely has any for staff.” I hadn’t been outside our house except for a quick walk since COVID-19 started spreading in the US. This was considered an “essential” activity, but I was still nervous to be in a public doctor’s office.
But, I was also excited because it was time for my 20-week pregnancy doctor’s appointment – an anatomy scan to show the health and growth of our son through a detailed ultrasound. My husband wasn’t allowed to come to the office, only I, as the patient being examined was – to minimize human contact because of the new virus no one knew much about. He would join by video call to watch the appointment and say hi to our son. What a strange and unfair world we are living in. It was our child and he was missing out on our exciting family milestone. I didn’t agree with this policy, but I was already high risk and we didn’t want to bring any additional risk home, and regarding their policy, we didn’t have a choice.
As I got settled into the exam chair, I took a selfie with my bandana. My eyes were smiling. I thought, what a story we’d have for our son one day about what was happening around the time he’d be born. And, I wanted to remember this day.
Until, the Dr. told me that the images from the exam were abnormal. I told myself to remain calm, because abnormal can mean many things. Something could be abnormal, yet minor. Maybe the machine was off. That happens all the time. I’m abnormal (well, quirky). But the abnormalities she saw were not minor. They were so major, in fact, that we learned – me in the room and my husband on Facebook video (a fact which I still hate) – that our son would not survive after delivery.
My mind sped up, searching for some meaning, some detail that I may have missed, some possibility that what I thought I was hearing was in fact, not true. I’ve been a marketing consultant professionally, where in workshops, I’d ask the client questions in an effort to uncover the root of business challenges, which would eventually unlock solutions. I wanted to use my strategic mind to ask the Dr. questions that would eventually lead to a creative answer. There was none.
I was scared.
I could see on the video that my husband dropped his head. I couldn’t breathe as the tears rushed in. I ripped off the stupid bandana.
It was like the movies – a horror movie. I thought I was listening but I couldn’t hear what the Dr. was saying.
I tried to make sense of the sounds around me. All I could extract from her tone and her jumbled words was that she seemed certain. I asked her about her assured demeanor and questioned her to confirm that she had no doubts about what the exam revealed. There was no out. No option. No choice.
After we visited a second doctor that afternoon and consulted with both my OB-GYN and fertility specialist, the finite information we were given was even more finite. My husband and I spent the afternoon talking to a friend who had survived a similar situation, who has the innate ability to bring humor to every conversation, even impossibly difficult ones. (She is a gift.) We then spent the evening trying to hold each other up, and experiencing the beginning of an unending wave of sadness, fear, and pain – individually and together. (How to hold each other up when you’re both grieving may be the topic of a future story – still trying to figure that one out but I’m proud of us for trying our way through it.)
Somehow, the doctors got us through the next two days, between genetics counselor consults to try to get some answers, an emergency conversation with a therapist (emotional pain is real), and scheduling the surgery and conversations I hope no one ever has to have. Our families grieved with us too – from afar, of course, because, well, COVID-19, and we didn’t have a choice.
Opening our Eyes to the Reality of “The Right to Choose”
While we always supported the notion that humans drive decisions about their own bodies, we were thrust into this experience where we had to face the “issue” (why is it an issue?) of women’s rights – or what I call family rights – in our home. Not only was it painful that we were facing a medical interruption of our pregnancy that we didn’t expect or want – we wanted the outcome of our pregnancy to be a healthy baby added to our family just a few months later. I experienced the most physical pain I have endured in my life during the pre-op appointment the day before the surgery, by an honorable doctor who had the intuition, the dignity, and the decency to obtain specialized training for this most difficult family health crisis because she’s committed herself to protecting and caring for women and children through pregnancy and delivery, and working to reduce physical damage to women’s bodies and my body so we can live a healthy life and maintain a chance for a future healthy pregnancy.
For those who debate this unnecessarily divisive topic and feel they know best about medical pregnancy termination procedures: no woman wants to experience this physical pain, no matter the circumstances, and getting unwarranted opinions about it adds more salt to our deepest wounds.
Forty-eight excruciating hours after the ultrasound appointment, we lost our son.
Throughout that week, every professional we talked to told us how rare these situations are – late-term pregnancy termination due to fetal anamoly. And, yet, over the months that followed, we learned about similar situations from so many. Based on the number of people in our social and professional spheres alone who have been so generous and shared their stories and support with us (thank you, sincerely), it’s clear that it’s not so rare. Women need access to medical care during pregnancy for a variety of circumstances. To attempt to take that away – contrary to what some believe – is a disrespect to human life.
We also learned that there are some states where this surgery would not be legal.
I thought, “If it wasn’t 2020, and I was traveling for work and my 20-week appointment had been scheduled for a week or two later, I wouldn’t have medical care if our family needed it?”
I am still dumbfounded. What?! How could it be possible that in the year 2020, there is still political (POLITICIAL?!) debate as to whether or not a family is legally allowed to have a surgery that no – they don’t want – but they have no choice to have because this was the only course of action out of respect for their body and their child who would suffer and not survive after delivery? Out of respect for my husband, myself, and our son, instead of putting my body and our life through a sad and scary and dangerous pregnancy only to deliver a child who could not live outside my body, we simultaneously experienced a premature end during the 20th week of pregnancy and the beginning of our grieving and healing for the rest of our lives.
Why do people think they have the entitlement or power to determine what is right for the health and safety of another human, or child, or family? While I’m at it – this is not a women’s rights issue. This is a family issue. This is a human issue. It’s not up to us whether nature causes a late and detrimental and unfixable problem in the growth of a baby. And, it’s not up to us to decide whether surgery is needed for someone else. It’s not. Focus on yourself, please.
Raise your voice with us
In this upcoming 2020 election, Colorado, the state in which I reside, has a proposition on the ballot, Proposition 115, that attempts to remove medical care for families like mine who need it because they didn’t have a choice in how the pregnancy developed, and didn’t get to have a healthy baby. Its supporters don’t stand a chance. Join us in voting against this horrific attempt at disrespecting human life (on the ballot right now for Colorado and Louisiana).
Legally, based on federal and state laws, we have the “right to choose” how we handled our own pregnancy, my body, and our premature end to our pregnancy, and we still didn’t have a choice to do anything that would result in our baby being born a healthy, living child.
Let me repeat – we have the “right to choose” due to federal and state laws and we still didn’t have a positive outcome, but having this right was critical when we needed it most. Protecting this innate and basic right mattered for us when we didn’t have a choice in the future of our family and we will fight to keep it – even though we should’t have to. Let’s just drop this fight once and for all. While I respect others whose opinions differ from my own, my view – our view – is not based on opinion, it is based on fact, on hard-lived experience, and on pain.
This proposition so ignorantly states that a medical professional performing a surgery to help a family suffering an unimaginable hardship is a misdemeanor if it is done only to protect the mother, “but not solely by a psychological or emotional condition.”
Here’s what I have to say about that. First, what about protecting the child from pain and suffering? And secondly, guess what? Mental health is a real issue and it deserves to bear its own weight in comparison to physical health – it is not a health issue of lesser importance. My emotional health took a nosedive when we discovered extreme abnormalities in our son’s growth, as would anyone in my situation. Immediate, unexpected trauma of great magnitude entered our lives with one sentence uttered from a Dr. And, trauma directly impacts mental health, causing extreme stress on your body that leads to physical health issues. Even if my “sole” health concern was emotional during this time, it was a real threat to my physical health, all while my son’s physical health inside of my body was not only poor, but fatal.
Like in our case, the “right to choose” sometimes comes without a choice in the facts and the outcome. But, I am so damn grateful that I have the “right to choose” and no one else could choose how we approached and lived through the loss of our son.
I was in a lose-lose situation. My family lost. We suffered an incredible loss, even with access to medical care by a compassionate and extremely qualified professional when we needed it. Imagine the loss for those who don’t have access to quality health care or the right to choose how to approach that loss. Our surgery – if you even call it a choice – which it wasn’t – took place with the utmost respect for life – for our child, who would have suffered post delivery, and for my body and health, and for our family so that we didn’t have to suffer even more pain than we were already facing.
Choice & Respect
Six months after our loss, we are still grieving. We are still healing. And, we always will be – the pain is ever-present.
One thing that stood out throughout this experience that we somehow survived is the notion of choice and respect. Why? Because in 2020, we’ve all been dealt situations that we didn’t choose, and yet we have to face them and overcome them. But, let’s embrace the choices we do have. We didn’t choose the pandemic. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be out to dinner with friends, or on a mask-less vacation as I write this. Instead, I’m making a statement and sharing a very personal story publicly in an attempt to help shape our world into a better place as we all hunker down at home and weigh decisions about our every move. We would rather not wear a mask, but rather than see wearing a mask as a choice, it’s a respectful action and gesture that acknowledges our regard for the health and safety of those around us. Denial doesn’t make difficult situations go away. Ignoring them doesn’t either. If you have a choice to wear a mask, or to respect others with a simple face covering, I choose respect. If the decision is vote or don’t vote, out of respect for your neighbors, friends, family, colleagues, community, and world, vote to shape what our future becomes. See choice as a gift. Choose actions that help others. Don’t opt out of acts of respect that make a difference for human life. And, don’t take choice away from others because, while I wouldn’t wish our experience on one single person, they may need unexpected medical help one day, and you might too. Think about how, in a world with danger and sadness and fear and divisiveness, we have a choice in how we respond with respect, not just for ourselves, but for others too.
In the midst of October, Pregnancy & Infant Loss Awareness Month, my husband and I share this very personal story because our loss shook us to our core. And, it was an immeasurable loss in the middle of a pandemic, where many have also suffered loss. I wrote this out of respect for my community and my world that has faced so much loss this year. Like me, maybe you have grappled with choice – choice to travel, choice to gather, choice to dine out, choice to go to school, choice to visit family, choice to vote, choice to go to the grocery store, choice to cover your face around others, choice to put others at risk for your own benefit, choice to go to work. We are lucky to have choice. In this great land of freedom, use your freedom to protect choice, and use your freedom to choose respect.