I have been pregnant twice, and both ended without a living child.
In early 2013, when my partner and I had just moved to LA, we found out we were pregnant for the first time (totally unplanned!). I was working on a small stipend in which over 75% of my income was going towards the rent of a furnished 400 square foot studio apartment; while my partner was living in a city an hour away in his first year at graduate school, also living on a stipend that was mostly going towards rent. The first thing I did the next day after finding out we were pregnant, was to get prenatal vitamins. I took my first one on an empty stomach and quickly proceeded to throw it right back up. Lesson one, unlocked!
On top of our geographical and financial strains, I had a few complications which involved heavy bleeding throughout the pregnancy. I initially had placenta previa, diagnosed around 12 weeks, which caused bleeding symptoms. Keep in mind I was still working full-time, living by myself in a new city, and commuting 90 minutes each day.
Then, I was diagnosed around 18 weeks with a subchoronic hematoma, which was caused or exacerbated by the placenta previa symptoms. The hematoma was basically a clot between the uterine wall and the amniotic sac, which involved even more heavy bleeding. I was quickly put on bed rest per our specialist and OBGYN’s advice. Bed rest began with me driving on a Friday night to the place my partner was living, after stopping by a Wendy’s to get a chocolate Frosty and fries to stuff my swollen wet face as I wept the whole way home.
The news I needed to go on bed rest hit me hard, right between my professional-women-can-do-it-all eyes. The first person I told after hanging up the phone call with my doctor, was my boss. I completely lost it at that moment, but we figured out a way for me to work from home, so I could keep my job (and stay sane).
During all of this, I went to the ER twice due to heavy bleeding. Once on my own on a weekday (before I went on bed rest), and once with my partner. Both times I was convinced it was all over. Alas, the news from the ultrasounds were still favorable.
My membranes ruptured at the end of 21 weeks, without my knowing, but my doctor realized at our weekly checkup. I went home without any amniotic fluid in my womb as there was no immediate need to head to the hospital until contractions started; the baby was fine, but not moving around a lot. Meanwhile, my mom was making a mad dash to the airport to get to us as soon as humanly possible.
Later that evening, around 3am, my husband drove me the 60+ miles to our hospital, as I was starting to go into labor naturally with contractions every 8-10 minutes. After being admitted, with an IV for fluids and blood tests, I was diagnosed with numerous infections, including sepsis.
I was given a drug to relax the cervix. I had an epidural, as well, which I thought I’d never have. But once the news was certain, so I wanted to be as numb as possible. The nurses and doctors were so kind, and they knew I disliked the thought of an epidural, so they made sure the head of the anesthesiology of the floor administered my epidural. It’s the small gestures that are the most noticeable sometimes.
The labor went very peacefully and quietly. Our first child was stillborn, which is expected at 22 weeks gestation. We were given the opportunity to hold him, and have pictures taken. We did both, and those moments I will cherish forever. Time stopped in that room for us. The only thing that somewhat captures the mood and experience of that moment is poetry, for me.
I was then flooded with antibiotics over the next 24 hours and was discharged soon after. One of the most vivid and devastating memories I have is sitting in a wheelchair in the hospital pick up area, waiting next to tired new mothers holding their newborns. We were given a death certificate which stated officially our child’s name, time of death, weight. It took a few weeks for us to find the funeral home and pick up the ashes, which were in a tiny white plastic box. It cost approximately $400 to cremate the remains of a stillborn weighing less than one pound.
I didn’t realize how serious of a life-threatening state I was in when I was admitted to the hospital, until afterwards. The multiple infections I had, due to my womb being unprotected by the amniotic sack, were in my bloodstream; and I could have died from any one of them had the antibiotics not been effective.
Immediately after being released from the hospital, we went home, and then turned around to go on a camping trip near Big Sur, on one of the most beautiful coasts in America. I needed to get out of that house, with a few baby things we ordered in advance sprinkled throughout. And, since I had been on bedrest, there was a desperate pull to go anywhere but home. We had a few days among trees and rocky beaches, which was bittersweet as I was so sorrowful and numb with drugs for pain. My partner drove us, set up the campsite, cooked and pretty much did everything. I also had a wrap to compress my breasts, as the nurses thoughtfully instructed me that my milk would likely come in. They were right, and although I’m sure the compression alleviated most of the engorgement, it was still a painful process — emotionally and physically.
The most shocking thing was my loss of optimism and innocent hopefulness at the outcome of a pregnancy, which remains a constant in our continued family planning journey. I couldn’t handle returning gear we bought in anticipation of a little one, so my partner made it all disappear. He also handled all of the mail for months afterwards, as we were getting flyers, magazines, samples, and other advertisements for baby supplies — not to mention the medical bills, which came in pieces over several months. It took years for me to be able to even talk about my experience without crying. I don’t think I’ll ever regain the vibrant, bubbly, innocent personality I once had.
In 2017, I had a normal and happy (but high risk, due to my history) pregnancy, all the way up until 16 weeks. We had expertly planned this pregnancy, scheduled just after I ran a marathon at peak physical health — sober and on prenatal vitamins for months prior, excellent blood pressure and vitals, vitamin and mineral levels were optimal. Everything was in alignment. My career was even in a good place, as I had moved to a larger firm to obtain better life balance with a more reasonable work demand and schedule to lower my stress level. Everything was going so well.
Being cautiously optimistic in our second pregnancy, all signs were green — I could do light exercise, work and travel as I pleased. So, for the 4th of July, I decided to visit family, which requires a three-hour plane ride to the Midwest. While there, I started getting symptoms which were unusual to me, so I called our doctor. There was nothing urgent to worry about, but we made an appointment to double-check everything upon my return home. Unfortunately, my water broke just after my trip, upon landing at the airport.
I likely had bacterial vaginosis, which weakens the amniotic sack and caused my water to break (also called PPROM, preterm premature rupture of membranes). As it was a holiday, I left a message for my doctor, asking if I should go to the hospital or visit her office the next day. After settling down (with a chocolate milkshake and fries in hand), I started feeling better and didn’t feel a need to go to the ER. I even went to work the next day, as I thought I was overreacting due to my previous experience! My doctor called me that morning at work, who fit me later that day, which is when I learned we were having a girl.
It’s strange how our brain processes information that we don’t want to hear, as I didn’t recognize the lack of amniotic fluid in the ultrasound image: I asked about the gender of the baby to the nurse administering the ultrasound, and she sadly answered, while I was joyous at the news. Shortly thereafter, I sat in a room for over an hour waiting for the doctor to give me the prognosis. She confirmed my water broke, but I was to be admitted to the hospital that evening to double-check the possibility of my pregnancy continuing. My doctor didn’t have the super fancy ultrasound machines, and we wanted a second opinion about the state of my womb.
After conflicting reports from the ER doctor (“I hear no heartbeat”) to the lovely OBGYN doctors (“the baby is doing well, considering”), the consensus was that I was getting sicker by the hour, as the infection was causing my belly to be painful to touch. We decided to terminate the pregnancy due to my condition after ruminating the options with multiple doctors and nurses. The medical urgency of the situation was lost on me, but I wanted to get out of the hospital as soon as possible. We went with the recommended option: a “D&E” (dilation and extraction, a procedure performed to terminate a pregnancy, often called an abortion) as it was the fastest and safest option for me. It was devastating. I had held it together throughout the hospital stay, only to break down crying on the operating table as they were administering anesthesia. Needless to say, I woke up in the same state.
After the fact, I met with my specialist, who told me that if we had waited to induce labor (the only other option, which I’d also experienced in our previous pregnancy, takes longer with more effort from the mother as you have to push), I might have needed an emergency hysterectomy due to the damage caused by infection on my uterus. The specialist stated, point blank with a look of concern in his eyes, that my potential for carrying to term in the future was preserved due to the D&E — the call we made with the caring medical team’s recommendations. I’m grateful to the hospital for helping us make an informed decision (Cedars Sinai, a non-profit hospital).
Reading various forums on PPROM experiences, I’ve come to learn that our experience isn’t unique, but could be approached a variety of ways by medical and midwifery teams.
I’m from the rural Midwest and believe that if I had experienced the same reproductive crises there, I may not be alive or capable of becoming pregnant at this time, due to the state policies and general public opinion around the politically charged “abortion” term. Even the potential bias nurses could have to influence their answers to our questions regarding our options might have swayed our decision another way… to “wait and see”. If we did wait for my body to react in our most recent loss, to start contracting, to “naturally” labor, the infection would have been more pervasive and not localized to my uterus. The health of my uterus could have been compromised by the length at which the infection could have festered.
All these “should”, “could”, and “woulds” are an affliction I’m trying to tame within my self-talk and how I share my pregnancy loss experiences. Alas, these words are still unavoidable for me currently. We should have a four-year-old boy, and the due date for our girl was this past December. Instead, I’m holding onto pregnancy weight without a baby to hold up as an excuse. Instead, we travel with our dogs to go camping and hiking, with dog carriers instead of baby carriers. Instead, I’m still taking prenatal vitamins in anticipation of a potential future pregnancy, of which we’re still contemplating. Why would I want to go through this again? What could we do differently to avoid another catastrophe?
I don’t know much, but I do know this: I am forever changed and wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m still alive, still hopeful, still soft, still a mother, and always living for the children I’ve carried and will continue to carry with me. They are my winter solstice, my darkest, longest night. The moment of hardening to grow taller and stronger. After winter, there is spring, when things thaw and bloom with new light, always hope.
In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.
And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.
Because I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Thank you for listening.
- Amanda Snelson
Amanda Snelson is an award-winning architect from the Ozarks, and currently lives in Los Angeles with her philosopher husband, two dogs, and many plants. She loves working with her hands through knitting, metalsmithing, sewing, cooking, broom making, and also loves dancing. More of her musings can be found on her Instagram @art_snelson and @griefisaworkofart