Monday, December 15, 2014

Chapter 3 - Bound

When a woman’s womb is clogged with scar tissue, doctors call it “intrauterine adhesions.” Women like me who have the condition call it AS.

I learned I had this problem on a frigid December day. Fog draped the valley in a flat grey light making the trees look like charcoal drawings on white paper. The cars and buildings were colorless outlines with water vapors condensed around their edges. I drove through the fog to see a fertility specialist with impressive credentials who might be able to help me get pregnant.

When I went to the fertility center, I didn’t yet know I was infertile. I was told about Asherman’s Syndrome, rather abruptly by Dr. Kim who was well-regarded doctor in his field. When I met him, Dr. Kim was wearing a starched white lab coat strikingly similar to the dreary weather. His eyes, rimmed by thick round glasses, darted from chart to computer, never once settling on mine. We were separated by a government-issue desk mounded with stapled documents and manila files. He seemed happy sitting there, almost hiding. Only occasionally did he peer at me between the stacks. With heavily accented English, he immediately launched into a discussion about my condition.

“You have intrauterine adhesions occluding your uterus. We don’t often see these cases and never with such a complete blockage. Your case is especially severe.”

Dr. Kim had not even said hello to me or asked how the weather was outside. There was no exchange of pleasantries. His academic interest was of greater importance than helping me have a baby. To him, I was a living breathing case of Asherman’s Syndrome and he could not contain his scholarly excitement.

“Look here,” he said pointing to his computer screen with a pencil to show me the damning proof. There was no way for dye to trace the shape of my uterus because in reality, I had no uterus. The walls of my uterus were stuck together with stringy tissue much like a mashed pizza box when the cheese sticks to the top and makes a gooey mess.

I was stunned. I looked over at a female resident who sat meekly at the side of his tiny office but she said nothing. She was perched on the end of her chair almost as if she wanted to reach out to me, to offer some condolence but she remained frozen, perhaps silenced by her subservient position.

“In some cases,” the doctor continued “we can cut the adhesions. But, in your condition, there is no way to know where the planes of the uterus are. If we begin cutting, we might perforate your uterus or cut the veins within the tissue, which would lead to serious bleeding and then we would have to repair it and...” His voice trailed off while he imitated the process, hunching over as if rehearsing how the procedure would go awry and then endanger my life. Then he stopped with a flurry of his arms and looked at me.

“Usually we recommend a hysterectomy.”

I blanched.

His eyes darted to mine for a brief second and then he looked away again while backpedaling. “You could develop endometriosis with such a complete blockage. You know what that is right? Endometriosis is dangerous because the uterine lining grows in the abdomen. It’s painful, too. You don’t want that to happen.”

The resident shifted in her seat uneasily.

I could hardly focus on the images the doctor showed me. I felt cold and alone in his heartless office. He had no pictures of babies on his walls. He had no poems offering solace or hope. He didn’t have a kitschy stress ball sitting on his desk. I looked for one, hoping to grab hold of it in a desperate attempt to focus my pain.

He stopped talking and squirmed in his chair, almost like a child waiting to be sent out to play. Something prodded me to ask for a repeat exam and that he do the procedure, not a resident. I wanted to be sure the test was performed by competent hands. I wanted to be sure the person who told me the results had actually seen my uterus for himself. I left his office stunned and shaken.

A month later, the second attempt to trace my womb with dye failed. Dr. Kim dressed in scrubs, quickly popped into the exam room. He was fitting me in between surgeries and Mike and I could feel his reluctance to be there. He snapped on his gloves and a face mask and perfunctorily inserted the catheter. He inflated the balloon and with one try to inject the dye, abruptly stopped.

“So sorry,” he said to us as he hurried out of the room looking almost guilty in his vindication. “There is nothing we can do for you.” Then he was gone.

Mike and I looked at each other. The smile-lines that used to squeeze into the corners of his sky-blue eyes went slack and only pain remained. There would be no more babies for us. We stumbled out of the hospital, despairing and filled with misery on another colorless winter day believing everything had ended in that exam room.

On the sad drive home, I flashed back through the months of my blissful pregnancy with Elliott. I remembered a moment days before his birth when my life as a career woman ended and I found my purpose.

“Have you had the baby yet?”

It was the HR manager at my company calling me a few days before Elliott was born.

“I wish I could say yes. I’d really like to get this over with. I’ll be induced on Tuesday. What’s up?” I knew what was coming next.

“Jennifer, I hate to do this to you…We were hoping you would have had the baby by now but we have to eliminate your position. There is too much redundancy with the new company and…”

I laughed good-naturedly at her awkwardness. “Really, Leslie. I knew this was coming. You kept me on payroll this long and I appreciate that. Do you think I care much about anything right now beside having this baby?”

After witnessing the death of thousands at the World Trade Center just a few weeks before and feeling life bloom in my belly, I didn’t want to work. I wanted to be a mother.



Saturday, November 29, 2014

Chapter 2 - Work the Problem

When facts smacked up against faith in the fight to create and then save Beth, we turned tail and abandoned the facts. Fact one is there was no chance we could conceive a baby. Fact two is there was no chance she could be saved after the tragedy which befell us in December 2005.

In our case, the facts didn’t match up with our view of what should be so we ignored the educated odds and facts offered by our doctors. Mike and I simply believed Beth was meant to be on earth for no better reason than we couldn’t imagine she never would. In this irrational denial we found hope so we clung to it through unimaginable suffering. We needed hope. We had to believe in something larger than ourselves, something intangible and unreasonable because if we had listened to doctors from the beginning, we would have given up long, long ago. What Mike and I experienced in the journey to save Beth was a fiery first-hand walk through impossibility to faith.

There was no medical protocol for preventing the tragedy we faced nor were there any guidelines about how to fix the situation. There was only the belief that a miracle would occur. A few doctors agreed with us and believed in miracles but not all of them. Not every doctor in the hospital agreed we should try to save our daughter—both of our daughters. But we simply couldn’t give up and we are thankful to have found one who would try something extraordinary.

“Work the problem, people. Work the problem!”

This is my favorite movie line in the whole world. It is delivered by Ed Harris in Apollo 13 when he dumps a box of rocket parts on a table and tells the engineers to quit pointing fingers and get down to business. The astronauts are going to suffocate if they can’t fix the filter and everyone on the team is so pissed off at everyone else they can’t get to work.

I love how Ed Harris distills the issue into simple words. The forceful way he strides into the room, how he looks at all those characters and pulls their attention back to what matters. It is difficult sometimes to sift out the insignificant details clouding our appreciation for life. These same details prevent miracles from happening.

In Apollo 13, the engineers needed to solve the air filter problem quickly with limited resources or the astronauts would suffocate. I’m drawn to the drama of the moment, how a team of intelligent people have to set aside differences and egos to complete a task. Really, they have no choice. They have to use every tool at their disposal or the astronauts will die. They didn’t plan this scenario, it just happened. What they did with that moment no doubt affected their lives forever.

It’s an odd coincidence I like this scene because Mike is an engineer, too. He wasn’t an engineer when I met him and he doesn’t design rocket ships but he does design and fix things. Perhaps I love him because I am infatuated with the logical mind that prefers finding solutions rather than avoiding the problem. Mike and I have encountered a lot of problems and having this particular tendency has deepened the admirable respect I have for him.

Even though Mike is an engineer, he isn’t as interested in Ed Harris’ perspicuity. Mike is more interested in character. Mike’s favorite movie scene is the iconic look of Clint Eastwood from his cheesy spaghetti westerns. He likes the one where Clint is macerating a cigar, his eyes baked by the desert sun and then the camera zooms in so close his face is framed only by the brim of his hat and a glimpse of cerulean sky. Clint glares with such intensity at the bad guy we are momentarily cowed by his presence. Mike loves that scene. He is the master at nonverbal cues. He can read a person in seconds and I’ve learned that if he senses something is amiss, pay attention.

Mike and I met at college. We were both in science programs: he in environmental toxicology and me, studying reproductive physiology (as if that wasn’t prescient). I haven’t used my science degree since graduating but Mike lives with science and engineering every day. Science can pit itself against, perhaps unnecessarily, faith in God. I don’t believe this either-or situation is necessary, especially after going through our journey with Beth. Mike and I used to rely more on facts to guide our decisions but we are different now. Now we know what a miracle is.

Our extraordinary story of miracles weaves itself through three years, the last few months of fighting to save Beth were the most dramatic. It all began a year after Elliott was born. We were trying to get pregnant again but something was wrong. My doctor, at the time, blamed the delay on everything except the fact there might be a major complication. After months of tests and research we discovered I had Asherman’s Syndrome—a relatively rare condition where scar tissue forms in the uterus because of some type of trauma like a D & C, which is shorthand for dilation and curettage. I had had two D & Cs: one immediately after delivering Elliott when my placenta wouldn’t release and a second one a few months later for tissue still embedded in the lining of my womb. According to the doctor, I was officially infertile because the scar tissue was everywhere.

I couldn’t accept the diagnosis. There was too much in my gut telling me a baby was waiting to join us. I could feel this presence working on me from the inside out. She wasn’t a vision or a voice booming from the sky. She was a subtle presence who appeared in dreams and meditations and prayers. She tapped away at me with such insistence I wanted to tell her to knock it off. With all the pushing and arguing with doctors about my condition, this tapping presence in my ribs made me crazy. And, yet, I needed to hear her, to sense her presence in order to keep going.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Chapter 1: Mickey Mouse vs. SpongeBob

Beth is two yelps away from a screaming fit because I won’t let her watch SpongeBob. It’s not that I have anything against SpongeBob. I can appreciate the humor in a scuba-clad squirrel engaged in a karate fight with a sponge. I’m secretly hoping, however, she might learn how to choose the right tool from Mickey Mouse’s bag of “Toodles” on the Disney Channel rather than laughing at animated sea creatures in an undersea town called Bikini Bottom.

My son, Elliott, had been happily engaged in something relatively worthwhile on the computer until he saw the flash of SpongeBob when I accidentally pressed the wrong number on the remote control. Now he is whining along with Beth hoping that by adding to my annoyance, they will get what they want.

Then the phone rings and I jump because I’m in the middle of trying to reason with both kids—which is exercise in futility. I normally wouldn’t take a call at seven in the morning but I know this one is important because it is from a colleague who needs to talk business. So I answer the phone and immediately know I shouldn’t have: the kids are clearly not mollified by Mickey Mouse.

SpongeBob wins.

I brought this upon myself. I could have made things a little easier but at some point while recovering from everything that happened, I started working again. I thought a little work would keep my mind occupied and away from the memories I would rather forget. It is tough to balance kids and working at home but I’m better off this way. As long as my clients don’t mind a kid wailing in the background then I’m good with that. I am a little fixated on my kids, especially Beth.

Beth can throw a terrific tantrum. Whenever my husband, Mike, and I witness these impressive events we are satisfied she is here to actually throw a tantrum. We are astounded she is breathing on her own and can walk and is doing what most toddlers do. She could have ended up needing a machine to breathe or she could have had any number of disabilities. A lot of babies born as early as her don’t survive and if they do, well, it is best said life is never the same.

We were fortunate in this one regard. Beth emerged from the entire ordeal completely unscathed except for the three-inch scar under her shoulder blade that bugs the heck out of me because it reminds me about what didn’t turn out alright.

She got the scar on the third day of her life when she weighed less than a good book. A heart surgeon opened her up to tie off a tiny vein by her heart. After she survived that procedure, we sat by her side for three months watching her turn blue at the slightest provocation. This journey by itself was a miracle to witness, how the doctors, nurses and countless specialists saved her life on more than one occasion. But this was the third miracle in our trek. That Beth made it to 26 weeks of gestation where she had a fighting chance is the most amazing part and frankly, God made it happen. Our doctor says he can find only a handful of cases where a baby like Beth survived the five-month ordeal endangering both of our lives and cruelly took her sister’s.

Mike and I only wanted a normal miracle: the amazing process of cell division to create two unique sets of DNA, then the fun part of bringing the two cells together and then the amazing physiological process of how one single sperm in the millions finds the egg and is admitted into the Promised Land. One sperm is allowed entrance. If that isn’t divine then I feel sorry for those who have lost sight of the wonder surrounding us. We wanted the sort of miracle where parents get to say “Oh, babies are such miracles,” with blithe ignorance to what real complications can be.

When this miracle happens naturally, a mother can be pregnant for months and not actually know a tiny life is steadily dividing and differentiating inside of her. That is, of course, unless she is an infertile mother like I was. Couples who deal with infertility live on an entirely different plane of existence. We know every single detail of this process because we have measured, counted, cooked and prayed our way into parenthood.

Mike and I weren’t always infertile. Elliott, now seven, was a holy-cow-how-did-that-happen baby. We didn’t even have to practice much to create him—as long as you don’t count eleven years of marriage as practice. Elliott was conceived near the first day of the year when we decided to try getting pregnant. And I mean, on the first of the year when we decided to try. It was either New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day or somewhere about there. We discovered this happens a lot when Elliott got to kindergarten and half of his class had birthdays between September and October. “New Year’s babies” we parents chuckled and winked at each other as we made the rounds to all of their birthday parties.

Elliott was conceived, born and raised without a hiccup or glitch. He took his own sweet time getting here. “This will speed things along,” the nurse said when she hung the IV bag of oxytocin alongside me. Aside from that, he was about as easy as it gets. Mike and I were old parents by the time he was born. I was 37 and Mike who trails me by a few months was 36.

Pregnancy was so easy for me. I rode my bike 1400 miles during the nine months between conception and the few weeks before his birth until I thought I would fall over because my belly stuck out front like the hood of a Mack truck. At the time, the doctor said I was of advanced maternal age and she feared I would give birth to a child with genetic defects or have difficulties in labor. But none of that happened. It wasn’t until she had to go inside and do a little post-delivery cleaning out that the complications happened.

None of what occurred afterward is her fault. There really is no one to blame for what transpired in the three years between Elliott and Beth. There was a chain of events that started the train down the wrong track and then we couldn’t back it up to get going down the right track where babies are typically created and born without problem. The interesting thing is the complications before my pregnancy with Beth are also not where the big miracle happened. It was the part in between when she had been conceived and when she was born that Mike, Elliott and I witnessed a miracle that will forever alter our lives and remind us the kicking and screaming three-year-old before us was touched by the hand of God who declared she was meant to live—attitude and all.

Friday, November 21, 2014

My Book, Saving Beth, to be posted on this blog



I’ve been sitting on this book for a few years now. It’s been read and critiqued by dozens of friends and quite a few excellent writers. A segment of Saving Beth won a non-fiction writing contest hosted by Inspire Writers. I’ve always felt people should know about the miraculous events leading up to Beth’s birth. However despite this feeling and encouragement from others, I simply wasn’t comfortable with the idea of the entire story being out in public. This story is so real, so raw and intensely personal I feared how it would be received and if it served any purpose for being read by anyone else.

Despite my trepidation, this gnawing on my heart won’t go away. Beth is a miracle three times over and I feel her life is testimony to God’s very real involvement in what goes on here on earth. So, I’m turning her story loose and will post the 32 chapters and 63,000+ words here, trickling them out 1 or 2 chapters per week.

I will alert readers to the most difficult chapters as they are posted because if you know the true story, you know there are some heart-wrenching and tragic moments.

If you are asking why here and why not as a print or e-book, I guess the answer is that I’m still not ready for that full commitment. Here is safe where friends and family already know Beth’s story. If anyone else stumbles upon my blog, then I hope they will read and discover that in the most hopeless and shattering of situations, God will work a miracle. Gifts come in surprising ways and sometimes, after intense pain.

--Jennifer

p.s. I could use some encouragement to keep this up. If you feel the book is well-written and worth promoting to others because of the story it relates, please tell me. If not, I would appreciate your feedback, corrections, edits, comments, whatever…We can all learn. Just don’t tell me I’m a nincompoop!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Latest Family Portraits

 Today is World Prematurity Day. I'd like to recognize the amazing doctors and nurses who work so hard to keep our little guys alive so they can grow up and come home to us. God bless all of you and may the good you spread around in the this life come to you 10 fold in Heaven!