I had been in the hospital for a week after being diagnosed with severe preeclampsia and after an initial scare, it had been a rather uneventful stay.
They were ready to send me home and have me visit the hospital daily for monitoring. I was on board with the plan. I felt fine and Dorothy was doing well, It seemed it would be best for us if we could be at home where I was most comfortable. I figured that Dorothy and I would go home together and come back when she was ready to enter the world.
Dorothy and I never made it home together.
It was 1:34 AM when the nurse came in to check my vitals. I woke up groggy and irritable. I had a headache and I just wanted to sleep it off. Before she took my vitals, I asked to go to the bathroom because my stomach was hurting. When I returned to my bed, she took my blood pressure and it was elevated. The nurse attributed that to getting up to go to the bathroom, she said she’d check again in a few minutes. I remember just wanting her to stop talking.
She rolled over the Doppler to check Dorothy’s heart rate. I closed my eyes hoping to relieve the pressure in my head. As she pushed and prodded at my belly, I noticed she had actually stopped talking.
“Where does she usually hide?” she asked after a minute or two.
I pointed at the lower left corner of my uterus; her usual spot. She rolled the wand over the area and I waited to hear that familiar lub dub that had been so strong just hours before. Nothing.
“I’m going to get the NST machine.” she said hurriedly as she left the room.
Mike rolled over in the hospital bed next to me, where he had been sleeping for the past week.
“Everything okay?” he murmured sleepily.
“Yeah,” I said “The nurse isn’t very good with the doppler.”
I tried to keep my voice light, but my chest was heavy with worry.
The nurse strapped me to the fetal monitor and no matter how she positioned it, there was nothing to monitor.
“I’m getting the doctor. Try to relax hon.” She patted my hand and rushed out of the room.
Mike quickly dressed and came to sit on the edge of my bed.
“It’ll be okay.” he told me, but the tone of his voice matched the fear in his eyes.
I couldn’t speak because I didn’t know the truth. I didn’t know if it was going to be okay and I didn’t want to be a liar.
Minutes later the nurse returned with one of the residents who had been supervising me that week. As the doctor rolled in the portable ultrasound machine, I noticed that her mouth was not in its usual smile. Her lips were thin and pressed tightly together.
There was silence in the room as the wand glided over my stomach. With every silent second, I tightened my grip on Mike’s hand. My eyes were glued to my doctor’s face. Before she said the words, I knew what had happened. Her eyes were filling with tears and her breath was heavy.
“I’m so sorry” she whispered. “There is no heartbeat.”
I don’t know how long I was screaming before I heard myself. It was a sound of pure agony. I sounded primal, like a wounded animal. I did not know I was capable of a noise like that.
Then again, I didn’t know it was possible to feel agony like this and still be alive.
I jumped off the bed and pushed past the doctor. Frantically, I paced the room and begged her to be wrong. I felt crazed, like I would keep screaming until someone told me that it was all a nightmare.
Maybe, it was a nightmare. I pulled at my hair, willing myself to wake up. This was not real life, it couldn’t be. I felt myself slipping further and further from sanity.
It was Mike that brought me back. He grabbed me and pulled me close. I stopped screaming and began whispering apologies to him over and over. Our baby died inside of me. I thought he must hate me. I started to pull away, but he only held me tighter. Every one of my apologies was matched with his own.
There, in a hospital room, we held each other and wept.
At some point, we broke apart and turned to the doctor. “What now?” Mike asked. She told us that the attending doctor would have to confirm and then we would talk about our options. I remember wondering what options were left but my mind was refusing to consider what they may be.
So, with my head still pounding, I just stared at the door waiting for the attending to return with the worst news of my life all over again.
The attending doctor said very little. I think he understood that words were unnecessary. He simply said he was sorry and left us with the resident doctor to discuss the next steps. The truth was–I didn’t care what the plan was.
What could possibly come next when you had just found out the ending?
I was beginning to feel numb. No longer was I aware of the experience of my own body. I knew Dorothy was gone, that she had died, but I was not yet aware of how sick I was.
There was pain, but I thought it was the pain you felt when your child died. It was an all consuming pain, my whole body hurt, but I didn’t know what was normal anymore.
My baby was gone and I didn’t know what was real anymore.
I was sick to my stomach, but I figured it was a physical reaction to the loss of control I was feeling. I felt the same about my headache and exhaustion. Surely, these were all physical manifestations of the grief my heart was experiencing. I had no idea.
When I arrived at Labor & Delivery, they immediately took my blood pressure. I don’t remember the number, but it was high. The nurse started asking me if I was in any pain. I described everywhere that it hurt.
I told her the room was spinning and swirly. I started to cry. I looked at Mike and told him how much I hurt.
“I know. The nurses are going to get you something for the pain. Is that okay?” he asked.
I nodded. I felt guilty. I wish somebody could give Mike something for the pain that was so clearly showing on his face. He was hurting so much, I could see it.
At one point, I felt a gush of warmth between my legs. I told the nurse what had happened and she assured me it was probably my water breaking. She pulled back the covers and I knew it wasn’t my water.
Mike told me later how deeply red the blood was.
There had been trauma in my uterus and I was bleeding out.
My body started violently shaking. I felt like I had the chills. The nurse informed me that it was a reaction to the pitocin they had given me to induce labor. The shaking continued. Someone covered me with a warm blanket and I sank under the weight of its heaviness. Then came the morphine and further down I sank only rising to the surface for brief moments of chaos.
I floated in and out of consciousness over the next hour or so.
I remember fleeting moments in time; both meaningful and inconsequential. Some of these moments feel like they’re seared in my memory. I can still see them when I close my eyes.
I know Mike was there the whole time, doting on me and advocating for me. I remember him giving me sips of water and ginger ale because I was so thirsty. I can still feel the sensation of him brushing back my hair and squeezing my hand. I tried to tell him that he could take a break, but it was hard to speak. It didn’t matter, he wasn’t going anywhere.
During this whole time, my preeclampsia was making me sicker and sicker.
My blood pressure was rising so rapidly they had to insert an arterial line so they could continuously monitor me. I don’t remember this being put in, but Mike does and he says it was terrifying. There was a nurse there from the ICU to assist the L&D nurse. Arterial lines are very complicated and if they are not properly monitored and maintained, the patient can die.
Confusion swirled around us. Shift changes occurred. My arms swelled so badly, they had to cut my bracelets off and they kept getting lost. Doctors and nurses streamed in and out of the room. An epidural was administered. Faces seemed to be floating around me. Voices buzzed without meaning. I felt like I was in a dream that I couldn’t wake from.
Everyone was spinning around me in urgency. Time had become so very precious.
My condition depended on the delivery of my baby and we could no longer be patient. I was aware of my blood pressure rising, but it wasn’t until later on when I would find out that my blood pressure reached 180/110.
A doctor whom I had never met before appeared to tell me that they were going to break my water.
As soon as they broke my water, my blood pressure plummeted.
My readings went from triple digits to double digits in a matter of seconds. I was crashing.
The buzz in the room became a roar. The stream of doctors and nurses became a frenetic swarm. All around me was a blur of colors and noise.
Out of the blur, another new face came into focus. It was another unfamiliar doctor who leaned in close to explain that they needed to bring me to the ICU to stabilize me.
My body felt so weak but a strong urge was pulling at my insides. I needed him to know something. He had to hear me.
So, right before they wheeled me out, I mustered up the strength to say “Please don’t let me die.”
When I transferred to the Intensive Care Unit, everything came with me–large plastic bags stuffed with clothing, haphazardly stacked books and magazines, a jumble of flower arrangements. All of this traveled on a large, noisy cart as I was rushed from labor & delivery down to the ICU.
A nurse from labor & delivery also came with me. She was there to be an advocate for myself and my baby and to keep me connected to the doctors who had been caring for me upstairs.
Having my belongings and my family provided me comfort, but it was my doctors and nurses from labor & delivery who provided the security and knowledge that would ultimately save my life.
The chaos from upstairs traveled with me down to the ICU. A lot happened in that ICU before Dorothy was born. This part of my story is where I rely heavily on Mike to fill in the blanks. Through his careful recollection I know that I was on oxygen, that I had several blood transfusions, and that it was in the ICU when they realized that my kidneys had shut down. I was no longer producing urine and I was experiencing renal failure.
In addition to my kidneys shutting down, my liver was starting to decrease in function.
This happens with when a patient with preeclampsia also develops HELLP syndrome. Having HELLP syndrome means that your platelet counts are very low and your liver enzymes are elevated. Preeclampsia and HELLP can join forces and cause a host of complications for mother and baby. The most serious complication being mortality for mother and baby.
The preeclampsia and HELLP syndrome had killed my daughter and now they were killing me. The only thing that would begin to save me was delivering the baby and the placenta.
This was obvious to my doctors and nurses from L&D, but the doctors and nurses from the ICU were not as familiar with my condition and they were trying other avenues to stabilize me. There was a lot of back and forth between these specialized teams; each trying to do what they thought was best for their patient.
I was oblivious to this back and forth. In fact, I was oblivious to most everything that was going on around me. All I wanted was to sleep and even though my eyelids felt so heavy, I couldn’t close them.
Underneath the weakness and the fatigue was a nagging feeling. I felt that if I closed my eyes, they might not ever open again.
I was so scared. Even more terrifying, was the fact that I didn’t have the strength to explain what was happening to anyone. I just lay there trying to figure out how to rise out of the weakness. If only I had something to focus on; something to channel energy from. It was then that I felt a contraction. It felt like a jolt of hope. There was still a chance to see my daughter.
Quickly, I scanned the room for my nurse from L&D. She could help me. I told her what was happening and she ran to the phone to call for my doctors. One of my doctors came to check my cervix. I was 10 centimeters dilated and fully effaced.
It was time to have a baby.
Upon hearing that it was time, I froze. I was wrong. I couldn’t do this. If I gave birth to Dorothy then this would all be real. I knew she was gone but as long as she stayed inside of me, I could feed on the delusional hope that she was somehow alive. Giving birth to her meant putting an end to the hope.
I wanted there to be another option. What I was facing was impossible. How could I go through the pain of childbirth knowing that I was giving birth to death?
I turned to Mike for permission to give up but once I looked at him I didn’t inquire further. In his eyes, I found the strength I needed to keep going.
There was so much about my birth with Dorothy that was imperfect. I was frustrated by the wires and tubes that got in the way while I labored. The oxygen mask kept getting pushed up into my eyes and obstructing my vision. The room was full of machines that beeped and squealed their unpleasant reminders of where I was being forced to deliver. It was so far from the ideal birth scenario.
And still, I gave birth.
I labored and pushed. I panted and screamed. I was slick with sweat and blood and tears. Somehow, while clinging to life in the middle of intensive care, I delivered a baby.
At 10:14 in the morning, on February 22, 2016, Dorothy Grace Helena Whalen came into the world. She never made a sound and her eyes never opened, but she was perfection.
As the nurse placed her in my arms, I felt the weight of her tiny body. Even though she was so small, I immediately sensed her impact. Her lightness bore a heaviness that settled on my heart.
I knew right then and there that my life would never be the same.
In that silent moment, I could only imagine the pain that was to come for our family. I didn’t yet realize the heartache and agony that would fill our days without her. I could not know what was ahead for us in our journey through grief and loss.
The only thing I could focus on was her. Her tiny lips and delicate face. The way it felt to carefully pass her to Mike and watch him rock her. The rush of joy it brought me to sing to her and whisper her name–Dorothy.
Before the heartbreak of her death truly set in, all I could feel was the love of a mother and her child.
It was a love that was pouring from my heart and spilling onto my cheeks. A love that was escaping me in breathy sobs and tiny kisses. It was a love that I had never felt before and it was all because of her. I vowed that if I survived this ordeal, I would love her this way forever.
I may have delivered my daughter into this world, but she delivered to us an everlasting gift of love. Because even when she had to leave, the love we have for her is what stayed. And that love is what has helped me live even after I survived.