In March of 2015, I started getting abdominal pains. They were a cry above those monthly menstrual cramps, but I wasn’t too alarmed because I had an idea of what was going on (or so I thought). Five years before, I had experienced a scare with cervical cancer, and now that similar sensation was back in my cervix. The abdominal pain was new though, and the intensity made it clear that I would need to see a doctor—soon. My husband was just about to leave town to work though, so I resolved to tough it out for a week to save him from worrying. My period was coming any day now, so surely the pains would lighten up after the first day or two.
Those first two days were horrendous. I had to take ibuprofen around the clock and stay in bed to ease my cramps and bleeding. By day three I was far from 100% because of my sluggishness and fatigue, but the pains were gone. Because of that I could practically jump for joy. The next two days went fine too, but that all changed Friday night around 9pm. That was when the pain came back with such a vengeance that nothing could dull it. My stomach was bloated, and every inhale sent stabbing pains shooting through my upper chest and shoulders. And now I had a tingly dizziness that had me on the brink of blacking out. It took sitting on the toilet with my head between my legs, breathing deeply and deliberately to pull myself through it. It was the most frightening moment of my life.
After things finally calmed down, I crawled my way to the couch. I immediately called my friend to come take care of me and help with the kids. A minute later, I was on Skype with my husband. I admitted to everything I’d kept from him and promised I’d see a doctor as soon as the urgent care center opened.
Morning came and I was driven to the center. I peed in a cup and then I was brought into a room where I explained everything I’d been experiencing (including the curious change in menstrual blood the last day or two). When I finished my story, the female doctor simply said I was pregnant and probably experiencing a miscarriage, maybe even an ectopic pregnancy. They couldn’t do anything else because of the bleeding involved, so I was told to go to the ER where they were equipped to address it. I walked out completely shocked. I was expecting cancer, not pregnancy. I’d even just had my period. These last two cycles had been late, though. And this pain…this was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. Pregnancy it was.
The doctor told me to go to the ER, but I didn’t want to spend hours waiting in a lobby to meet with someone I didn’t know or trust. I didn’t want to know what that kind of visit would cost without insurance either, so I opted for calling my dear Certified Nurse Midwife from my last birth. It was a Saturday and the clinic was closed, but she immediately answered my call to her cell. She put in an order for a blood test at the lab to determine hCG levels, and two hours later, she called me back with the results. My blood levels of hCG were possibly indicative of ectopic pregnancy. Just to be safe, her and the clinic doctor were going to meet me at the clinic for an ultrasound.
By the time I went in, I was feeling very tired and slow, but the pain had gone down by half. I didn’t feel so bad compared to last night and early morning. Now my friend and father were with the kids, and my husband was nearly finished with the drive home. This painful burden was no longer mine alone to bear, and that gave me so much hope and relief. So when the doctor couldn’t pull up an image of my right fallopian tube, I wasn’t too concerned. But then he revealed that this camouflage was due to an enormous amount of blood. My ectopic pregnancy had come and gone, and my tube had long ruptured. I was bleeding internally and I needed a laparoscopy. Now.
Going into surgery was heartbreaking. I had come to the hospital alone, so no one was there with me. I was haunted by the thought that the hugs and words I shared with my children an hour before might have been my last. And my husband had been gone since Monday and was still a hundred miles away. He told me he just needed half an hour to get there, and he begged the midwife to wait so we could have just a minute together before I was put under. But I had lost over a liter and a half of blood (almost half my total supply), and the doctor wasn’t willing to put off surgery a moment longer.
I was overcome with fear and resistance and tears welled up in my eyes, but I bit everything down. As much as I wanted to fall into a sobbing heap on the floor, I knew that keeping my head on straight was the only way to make things easier. After all, this surgery was going to fix my problem and end this weeklong episode of pain. That was a good thing! And my midwife knew all about my needs and concerns from our time together. I released the heavy burden of worry over to her and put my focus on what was happening here and now. Whether I was ready or not, this was happening and it needed to happen. And so I released myself to the experience. I joked around with my attendees, reveled in the calmness of some wonderful pre-op drug, and then faded away as I counted backwards from 10.
Coming to was like walking through a midnight brain fog. I was nauseous and groggy, but after being injected with another medication, I woke up enough to ask for my husband. I fell asleep again for a few minutes and woke to him walking through the door. Seeing him brought tears to my eyes. I was alive. We still had our future ahead of us, and my children were still at home waiting to see me. Waking to this brought me a relief that I’d never before experienced. It was an incredible day. The impact of this time is still with me eight months later thanks so the valuable lessons I learned. Lessons I now share in hopes of reaching out to women everywhere…
Strong Doesn’t Equal Smart
I had gone through three natural births without any sort of pain medication. I admired my ability to pull through hard times (emotional and physical), and I pushed to be strong and persevere. I turned to this philosophy with this situation as well, but that was a mistake. Pain may be a normal part of childbirth, but it’s not at all a normal part of life. Pain is the body’s way of saying something is wrong, and my choice to ignore it and “tough it out” nearly cost me my life.
The intensity and consistency made it clear that something was very wrong, but I refused to “wimp out” and acknowledge this. I didn’t want to worry my husband or get a big bill from the ER, and I wanted to figure things out for myself. I thought it was cancer, but regardless, my body was clearly going through some serious trauma that needed medical attention. I should have listened to my body and sought medical help. Being “strong” isn’t half as important as being alive.
I’ve read a lot of stories of women struggling through miscarriage and ectopic pregnancies. I read of many carrying a heavy burden of grief, with some women even blaming themselves for losing their baby. I feel for these women and I can understand completely where they’re coming from. My feelings were very different, though.
I know that I risk sounding callous, but I didn’t grieve over losing this pregnancy. To me, it was a fertilized ovum that never made it to the critical resources within my uterus. It never went beyond my fallopian tube so, in my mind, it could never be more than a rapidly-dividing mass of cells. As much potential as this egg had, it was never going to become a baby. As cold and scientific as this view may seem, it was how I chose to view it.
While my husband and I absolutely wanted more children, I saw this whole experience as more of a gain than a loss. I believed there was a reason this happened, so my focus was on what it could teach me. Perhaps something had gone awry with this little union of genetics, and it wasn’t supposed to move on in development. Or maybe this whole experience happened not to make a baby, but to offer me a lesson. Whether it was a higher power, a greater purpose, or my own little delusion, it had happened. Now it was up to me as to what I made of it.
Instead of thinking about how I had lost a child or nearly lost my life, I looked at what I had gained. I had lived another day. I was still a wife to my husband, still a mother to my children. How lucky was I?! This situation was so sudden and scary and unexpected, but it allowed me to see just how precious each and every day is. Yes, I had lost a pregnancy, but that loss gave me a love and appreciation for life that I would ever forget. I now treasure my role as a mother and partner more than ever. I know very well that tomorrow is uncertain, so I do my best to embrace today and make the most of it.
Importance Of Family
I was raised in a broken home, and the turmoil of those days didn’t make a good case for the significance and importance of family. My relationships with my parents crossed a line that forever changed what we had. I was lucky enough to have some great siblings, but we were all too busy struggling through our own lives to ever really connect with each other. We’re closer than ever these days, but the distant interactions of our childhood days have carried on into adulthood. Because of these dynamics, I never understood the concept that “blood is thicker than water.” But that all changed the day my husband and his family arrived at the hospital.
After my midnight confession to my husband, he told his boss that work was going to have to go on without him because he was going home. He left first thing in the morning to make the snowy eight-hour drive back to me. When I woke up from surgery he was immediately brought to me. Shortly after, his mother and father came in. And out in the lobby waited a family friend who had immediately biked down to the hospital to sit and wait for any news. They had all dropped everything they were doing to come support me.
My mother-in-law helped me waddle to the bathroom while my husband ran off to the closest store to get my favorite fruits and beloved coconut water. When we left for home two hours later, my in-laws ran off to make an elaborate dinner for us. I had never asked for anything, but they were all focused on making me comfortable and providing me my favorite things. It was as though seeing to my comfort was the obvious next step in the surgical process. As someone who had come to see hard times as the loneliest of times, I was wondering if I had indeed died and gone to heaven. I was treated so well. It was beautiful.
While my background lies in broken, disconnected relationships, my husband and his family hail from Africa. Tradition and family values run deep and they’re a part of everyday life. Family is at the core of everything, and events serve as a reason to gather and enjoy life (even funerals serve as celebrations). I was very familiar with all of this, but I had never quite grasped it. The day I left the hospital for home, I realized what the sticky glue called family was really about.
Family is about enjoying the most of your time together so you can make the most of your life, and having strong bonds that give you help and support for both the good times and the bad times. It means having people who are always thinking of you, wishing you the best, and proving it with their actions. Family is about love, laughter, and everyday life. It’s about finding pleasure in the mundane and seeing good all around, and sticking through everything together and making the most of it. This American girl had plenty of doubts and misconceptions about family, but now she had a whole new definition. And it was all thanks to her beautiful, wonderful African family.
Do What Works
There’s no one “right” way in dealing with things. What works for one person may not work for another. I saw how other women dealt with this kind of experience, but many of these ways didn’t work for me. I couldn’t understand their feelings and their methods, but I didn’t have those same needs. I needed to find another approach that worked for me, so my focus wasn’t on feeling “normal” and following other women. Instead, my focus was on moving forward and having this event add to my quality of life. That wasn’t the answer for every woman, but it was the answer for me.
I know my own perspective isn’t the answer for every woman. It’s important to remember that I was no more than two months when my tube ruptured, and my pregnancy was over before I ever knew it had even started. There were no ultrasound pictures, baby gifts, kicks from little feet, nor weeks of anticipation. Because of this, my stance worked for me.
Women everywhere face various situations that come with different paths, and that means that there’s no one right way. We all come from different backgrounds, with different experiences and varying challenges. Because of that, there’s no right answer in getting over something like ectopic pregnancy or miscarriage. The only commonality I see is in the end result: healing and finding happiness. Situations like these take us to new limits. Hopefully women everywhere may heal so they can again find happiness. To all of you, I wish the best.
All images courtesy of Ashley Stevens.