It was a great weekend of rest, fellowship with other like-minded women, and studying God’s word together. I also had a nagging side ache that only intensified as I spoke throughout the day on Saturday. I chalked it up to a pulled muscle or just general third trimester achiness, traveled home that afternoon, and spent the evening resting.
The pain only intensified.
By 2:00 AM it was impossible to ignore, and nearly impossible to get out of bed. By 3:00 AM I was at labor and delivery, assuming it was appendicitis or gall bladder or some other minor ailment that makes pregnant women uncomfortable. By 9 AM (I think) contractions were 3-5 minutes apart, the pain was almost unbearable, and we were on the verge of an immediate delivery. For over 24 hours our hospital room was filled with a steady stream of doctors, nurses, and aides, all trying to assess the urgency of the situation, and all telling us that what we were experiencing was serious and unlike anything else we had seen before. And the pain just got worse.
A partial placenta abruption—when the placenta prematurely detaches from the uterine wall.
A full abruption is a race against the clock to save the mom and the baby (with the baby usually dying first). Mine was only a partial (determined only because we were still alive and Ben’s heart monitored well over time). But no one knew how long that would last.
Today is May 21.
One year ago today I checked into the hospital and didn’t go home for a month. Starting today, for the next four weeks, my Timehop will remind me of moments I’ve spent the better part of this past year trying to process and accept. It will remind me of the hopeful times and the terrifying times. It will remind me of the things God taught me and the ways I struggled. It will be good. But it will be hard.
There are things about that day I will never forget.
“Get her on her side now and give her that [steroid] shot,” my doctor said to the nurse.
We were still in triage and in that moment Ben’s heart rate dropped and stayed down for way too long. Moments earlier we had been talking about the pain. Within a matter of seconds she couldn’t take her eyes off the monitor. “If he does that again, we are going to the OR immediately,” she said.
This is not good, Daniel thought.
He went from half asleep in the triage chair to fully alert and bordering on panic. Just hours before that we thought we would be home for lunch. Now we were prepping for an imminent delivery, with no assurances Ben would be okay. Ben’s heart did scary drops many more times over the next 24 hours and with each one my medical team was weighing the cost of delivering a premature baby or letting the placenta try to do it’s work.
That was 33 weeks. I had him at 36. We stayed in that liminal space for 3 more weeks. Some days were better than others, but we were always afraid, always on edge. As time pressed on it became clear that it wasn’t just his life that was on the line. Mine was as well. A placenta abruption is deadly. It’s serious. It was our life for 3 weeks.
Abruptions are the things they fear in labor and delivery. They come upon you, often with very little warning. They can’t be detected on ultrasound. Sometimes the only symptom is pain (like in my case), which can be confused with pain from contractions. And they are almost always fatal.
I used to think hospital bed rest would be like a mini vacation. You get to watch TV, read magazines, and be waited on hand and foot. What I didn’t realize was that hospital bed rest would instead place me face to face with the reality of death, and force me to come to terms with my own mortality.
When you walk onto a labor and delivery floor, typically it’s because you are going to visit a friend. It’s a hopeful place. It’s a happy place. I used to think that too. Life happens on labor and delivery, but so does death. There are some women who are on the high-risk unit (where I was) because of preterm labor—meaning immediate premature delivery and complications for their baby. Some are there because of high blood pressure. Some are there because of other problems. Many stay for a few days. Some are long-term patients, like me. And I wasn’t even close to the longest one. But there is a soberness to the high-risk unit. Most of the women there are living with a very real awareness of the fragility of life and the great cost pregnancy sometimes brings to a woman’s body.
There are a lot of things I didn’t know about being a hospital patient. It’s hardly a hotel experience. You are hooked up to monitors. You need help going to the bathroom. You need help taking a shower. You can’t even take a walk outside without sitting in a wheelchair. And for me, when it was all over I just wanted to go back, preferring hospital life to real life because real life didn’t feel safe anymore. For a month I lived in a tiny hospital room. I ate the same food (with the exception of the special treats my friends brought me—moral: take special treats to hospital patients!). I walked the same floor (so I wouldn’t get a blood clot). I saw the same parking lot outside my window. The outside world seemed too vast, too uncertain, too much to take in at one time. People lived their lives without me for a month, while praying that Ben’s and mine would be spared. There were days that being thrust back into life with everyone else was just too overwhelming—too loud. I found myself preferring the steady tones of a fetal heart monitor and bright hospital lights to the quiet of life in the suburbs.
For a long time I would have to fight back tears whenever Ben’s birth came up. The unsettling, sobering, life altering experience that it was made talking about it too much. Nothing puts a damper on a birth story like “yeah, my placenta partially abrupted and we could have died.” How do you even begin to tell people that when they ask why your baby was born early?
Some could say that I’m being overly dramatic. We lived, let’s move on. I walked out with a healthy baby, shouldn’t we just go back to normal? But we didn’t live without scars—both physically and emotionally. I still have a scar from my mid-line IV (an IV for patients in the hospital long term)—another reminder that delivery and even death was on the table at any time. And let’s not even get into the C-section scars! Our entire family took months to recover from the upheaval of both parents being gone for so long.
The farther removed I get from those days the more afraid I am that I will forget what is was like to have your life hang in the balance—and worse, to have your son’s life hang there with you. The farther removed I get the more afraid I am, not necessarily of dying (though I still struggle with intense anxiety over death), but of forgetting what it was like to kiss my older sons goodbye wondering if that would be the last time. Life can numb us to the reality of death, and just sometimes we get a glimpse that life is coming to a crashing halt for all of us.
In the days following I cared less about what didn’t matter and more about what did. As the darkness is more in the rearview, and less in the front view, the unimportant is squeezing it’s way back in.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot since Ben’s birth and was convicted even further after reading an article about figure skater, Scott Hamilton. He was demoted during the 2018 Olympics, which would usually cause an accomplished person (like himself) to protest or be upset. But he wasn’t. As the article explains, all of his struggles with cancer (and even his perseverance in the sport of figure skating) have taught him that there are more important things in life. The article says:
"Besides, after he had spent so many years just trying to stay healthy — and alive — how could being replaced by the next big thing really matter? In his heart, Hamilton knew it did not. He would bounce back, almost out of habit."
I want to live like that. I want to live like there are more important things than whether or not someone replaces me at the top. Death’s reality reminds us that there are more important things to worry about. In our final days we won’t be wondering if we could have done more to make our name more famous. And for those who have had the privilege of knowing death’s presence, but got a second chance, we see life for what matters. We get to live.
Nearly losing my life made me want to live. Dying at 34 isn’t what anyone wants, really. We weren’t made for our lives to be cut short in youth. We especially weren’t made to bury our babies.
In many ways I feel like I got a second chance. Placenta abruptions don’t usually stop, at least for as long as mine did. God let me get close, but no farther. God let me live under the shadow of death, but not death itself.
So today, one year after our life completely got turned upside down, I will remember what it was like to think death was coming for my baby and me.
I will hug my kids. I will go to counseling. I will kiss my husband. I will enjoy my family. And I will celebrate that even though I walked through those hospital doors last May 21, I walked out alive, with a baby in my arms. That’s worth celebrating. It’s worth celebrating for a lifetime.
May 21, 2018 wasn’t the end for Ben and me. It was only the beginning.