My daughter, Dorothy, was stillborn on February 22, 2016 due to complications from preeclampsia. I have written a lot about her death and the life I’ve lived after, but I have written little about the events and moments leading up to her death. This series is dedicated to remembering my last week with her before she died.
Day 1 / / February 15, 2016 / / Monday
From the moment I woke up on that Monday morning, I had a mission. I would finish the week at work and then I would spend my upcoming school vacation resting. I had been dealing with high blood pressure, so my midwives wanted me to take it easy. They had given me some things to look out for–swelling in my hands and face, pain in my upper abdomen, headaches, blurry vision–and I was directed to call them at the first sign of any of these problems.
When your job is teaching Kindergarten, it’s hard to take it easy, but that’s what I did. Even so, I could feel myself swelling up as the day went on. I was wearing lace up boots and I had to keep loosening them to accommodate my swelling ankles and feet. My hands felt stiff and my face felt like the skin was stretched too tight. The other teacher who worked with me went to services with a student. She returned 30 minutes later and gasped upon entering the room. Due to the swelling, my face had nearly doubled in size.
It was time to call the midwife.
I spoke with the midwife on call and although she wanted me to come in when I got done with work, she didn’t seem overly concerned. I figured if it was anything serious they would want me to come in right away. I called Mike and told him that I needed to go to the hospital after school. He went about cancelling his parent/teacher conferences and said he would be there as soon as he could.
Mike texted while I was in my staff meeting to me know he had arrived. I remember an odd sensation coming over me.
I felt like I needed to say goodbye.
I wanted people to know that I was leaving because I wasn’t sure when I was returning. I ultimately decided against it because no one likes to make a scene when they have to leave early.
When we got to the hospital, we were brought to a room where I was asked to change into a hospital gown. I wasn’t feeling too nervous yet because we had been in this exact same room just two days before. On that day they had monitored the baby and watched my blood pressure before clearing me to go home. I figured today would be more of the same.
Every time they took my blood pressure, the numbers kept climbing. As my blood pressure escalated, they called in one of the doctors. He shared with me that based on my blood pressure and the urine sample they had collected, they were diagnosing me with preeclampsia. He informed me that my situation was urgent and I needed to be transported to a larger hospital that had a NICU.
I just stared at him, the words not registering. Why would I need a NICU?
Mike asked the question for me and the doctor responded that there was a very good chance I would be delivering my baby in the next 24 hours. It still did not register. How could I deliver my baby at 28 weeks? I didn’t know much about preemies, but I knew enough to recognize that having a baby born at 28 weeks was incredibly serious. I don’t remember doing anything except staring straight ahead and trying very hard not to cry. Something at the door caught my eye and I turned to see a stretcher being rolled into the room. In a matter of minutes, I was belted on the stretcher and being rolled to the ambulance. I couldn’t hold back the tears any longer. Mike wasn’t able to ride with me and I was going to be alone. What if something happened to me on the way? What if we never made it to the next hospital? I wiped my eyes and forced a smile to let Mike know that I would be okay. His eyes met mine and I realized that he looked just as scared as I felt, but he returned my forced smile with one of his own.
The ambulance ride felt long, but the EMT who rode with me was friendly. She asked me lots of questions about my baby and my pregnancy which felt reassuring. I felt like she wouldn’t bother asking about my baby if they weren’t going to be okay. Eventually we arrived at the new hospital and they brought me up to labor and delivery. I panicked a bit when I realized where we were going. I didn’t want to have a baby yet. But the nurse who met me in my room assured me that I was simply there for monitoring and treatment. She helped me into bed and got right to work.
The first thing they did was hook me up to the fetal monitor. They also strapped on a blood pressure cuff so they could get continuous readings throughout the night. On my legs went a pair of pneumatic compression cuffs and on my finger went an O2 sensor. I felt completely overwhelmed at all of the equipment and while the nurse explained everything as she went, I had so many questions. I made a remark about being grateful that I didn’t require an IV and the nurse told me the doctor would be in soon to talk to me about that. Her eyes were sympathetic and knowing as she patted my hand and left the room to get me more pillows.
As soon as she closed the door, the tears came back. Mike was not there yet and I was feeling so alone. I rubbed my stomach and let my baby know it was all going to be okay. I was safe and so was she. “Daddy will be here soon,” I murmured as I moved my hand around in circles. I tried not to think about the fact that if something happened to her before he got there then I would really be all alone.
Mike arrived at the same time that the cavalry of doctors did.
He sat next to me as we met with an anesthesiologist who explained about epidurals, a doctor from the NICU who explained survival rates and interventions for 28 weeks babies, and a specialist from Maternal Fetal Medicine who began to explain preeclampsia and my treatment plan.
The MFM doctor shared that I would be starting a magnesium sulfate drip. The purpose of the magnesium sulfate was to prevent me from having a seizure and to help prolong my pregnancy so they could administer steroids to the baby. Because my baby was still so young, they steroids would help with their lung development. He went on to explain that the next 24 hours would be crucial. The steroid shots must be given in two doses 24 hours apart to be most effective. The hope was that I would stay well enough to wait that long before delivering.
We were too much in shock to ask any real questions, so the doctor left. I turned to the nurse who had been helping me so far and asked her if there were any side effects from the medication. Again she looked at me with those sympathetic, knowing eyes. “You’re going to feel really crappy,” she said. “How crappy?” I asked.
She went on to explain that I would feel nauseous, I would have a terrible headache and I would feel hot all over. While she talked, she started setting up a cot for Mike. I looked at the clock. It was 9:30. I started to panic. I was supposed to go to work the next day. Nobody but Mike really knew where I was. The tears started up again and Mike just leaned in to hold me. “It’s going to be okay. We’ll figure it all out. You just need to get some rest.”
It felt laughable to think about sleeping in the midst of all that turmoil.
I was exhausted but a combination of anxiety and medical equipment seemed to threaten any notion of restful sleep. I laid back and closed my eyes. It was then I realized that the whole time we had been here, my baby’s heartbeat could be heard over the monitor. I focused in on those steady lub-dubs and tried to will myself to sleep. I know I closed my eyes, but sleep never really came.
All night long there were nurses streaming in and out of my room–checking monitors, taking blood pressure readings, and at one point hooking me up to oxygen. They propped me up with pillows so that I would sleep on my side and walked me to the bathroom so they could collect my urine. When the nurses left, I would just lie there watching Mike and feeling grateful that he could at least get some sleep. Just before he drifted off he had told me to wake me up if I needed him, but I didn’t dare. Who knew what tomorrow would bring and one of us needed to sleep.
The only time I attempted to wake him was when the doctor came in to wheel me to ultrasound. They wanted to check on the baby and I knew Mike would want to see her. I whispered his name and there was no response. I tried again a little louder and when he still didn’t answer, I told them not to wake him. I made the nurse promise to tell him where I went so he didn’t worry. She said she’d bring him right to me if he woke up.
The hallways had an eerie feeling as we made our way to the ultrasound room.
Everything had a dim glow that seemed too dark to really see anything and too bright for 2:30 in the morning. As I lay on the table I began to worry that there could be something terribly wrong with my baby. I lay motionless as the wand glided over my abdomen. I watched the doctor’s face carefully, her skin cast in the bluish glow of the screen ahead of her. Holding my breath, I waited for her to speak. She looked down at me and smiled. I tried smiling back but I was just too tired. I asked if everything was okay. She replied that everything looked okay for now and we would do another ultrasound the next day to see how things were progressing. I trained my gaze at the screen and saw my daughter swimming about. Her heart still beating strong. I mustered up enough strength to smile back at her and whisper thank you before the tears came again.
Upon my return to the room, Mike stirred in his cot. “Everything okay?” he mumbled sleepily. “Yes, everything’s okay.” I said before he drifted back to sleep.
Maybe it was seeing my baby alive or hearing a doctor say that everything was okay, but I finally felt like I could sleep. The last thing I heard before I closed my eyes was the steady lub-dub of that beautiful heartbeat.