Nine years ago today, I kissed Death. Death let me go.
Ectopic Pregnancy Loss and Musings on Mythology
John and I were expecting our second child to be born on September 11, 2002. Since my first pregnancy had been normal, I was not scheduled to go to my first appointment until I was more than 8 weeks along. The Sunday before the appointment, something went very wrong.
On February 3rd, 2002, I lost the baby, and nearly lost my life. I started to feel lightheaded and crampy in the late morning. I took a bath, and fainted when I tried to get out of the bathtub. My husband found me doing a wet and naked army crawl toward the bedroom. After I had vomited and lost consciousness twice, my husband spoke to a triage nurse at my ob-gyn practice. Unfortunately, she did not recognize the classic symptoms or timing of an ectopic pregnancy. She thought at first that it was morning sickness, then that I was having a normal miscarriage. The ectopic pregnancy was in my right fallopian tube, which ruptured. I suffered massive internal bleeding, not unlike a burst appendix.
The pain was incredible. I could not lift my head or move from one position without losing consciousness. I thought that perhaps I had cracked all my ribs when I lost consciousness. I stayed home several hours too long, but finally we called for an ambulance.
It was extremely difficult to move me into the ambulance, and they spent almost 45 minutes sitting in the driveway for no apparent reason. However, once we got to the hospital, I got a quick ultrasound and was in the operating room within minutes. As I started to go under, I heard a bit of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” in my mind.
I am told by my surgeon (A. Lovelady!!) that I got to the hospital just in the nick of time. After emergency surgery and a massive blood transfusion, my life was saved. If I had still been a Jehovah’s Witness, I would have refused the transfusion and would have died.
I don’t know whether the baby would have been a boy or a girl. Any of you who believe that this tiny fetus might have a continued existence on another plane somewhere, please continue to wing your good thoughts toward my lost one. My feelings about the matter are conflicted. I would like to believe in the images represented by many of the pregnancy loss sites – of a heaven where my baby is an angel welcomed and cherished by Jesus and God. But I don’t really believe this very comforting image. On one side, the expectation of the outcome of pregnancy is a living child – and I feel the loss of that child that will never be. On the other side, we don’t mourn the loss of the unfertilized egg every month, and I do not believe an 8-week-old fetus is yet a person. I am pro-choice, but if I had to decide whether or not to abort, I would deeply prefer not to do it. I simply don’t believe that it is a decision that should be regulated by healthcare systems or the government.
It turns out that despite all the rhetoric of the pro-life movement and all the references to God, there is no official spiritual status for an unborn. There is no ritual, no ceremony, not even a prayer. I called on other resources, and my friend Pat bent the rules a little to comfort me. Thanks, Pat, for the recommendation, respectfully borrowed from the traditional Nez Perce.
A very tiny little snowbird represents our baby’s guardian spirit. Birds represent the spirit in several world mythologies (including Christianity). Snowbird is a common name for two species of birds, the junco (here the dark-eyed Oregon junco) and the plectrophenax. Snowbirds are strong enough to survive terrible winters. They are plentiful in number and in kind, bringing cheer to the most severe landscape.
This image comforts me, in the sense of Joseph Campbell’s’ definition of myth – a set of images and narratives that help us to feel a sense of meaning and place. We have no functional mythologies for the loss of a pregnancy.
“Myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestations.” ~ Joseph Campbell
I do know that there was no way to save this pregnancy. Whether God was involved or not, this baby was simply not destined to become a living child. There is nothing anyone could have done to allow the baby to continue to grow and thrive. We are mourning the loss of the child who would-have-been, but are also grateful that our living child (born in 2000) still has a mother. I have never completely worked through the grief of losing this child-to-be. I am deeply touched by the love and care of friends and family, and I am deeply grateful for my own life. There have been moments of deep sadness. A month after the surgery, when I went for a post-op appointment, I had to fill in a form. When I wrote “2 pregnancies, 1 child” on the form, I felt the first real deep pangs of pain.
A year later, I lost another pregnancy – perhaps because my husband and I are Rh-incompatible. It’s possible that the loss of this baby prevented us from ever bringing another to term. There was so much blood – the shot of Rhogam might not have worked.
There is one saving feature of this whole experience in that by putting our story up on my site, I might have helped to save other lives. I received several emails from women who got to the hospital in time, thanks to a search that found my site before there were many other resources on this topic.
What is an Ectopic Pregnancy?
An ectopic (lit. “out of place”) pregnancy occurs when the embryo never makes it to the uterus and starts to develop in the fallopian tube. Sometimes the embryo can even develop on the ovary or in the abdomen; in this case, it’s known as an abdominal pregnancy.
If an ectopic pregnancy goes undetected, it strains the tube, which isn’t designed to expand. Then, 6-8 weeks after conception, the embryo will cause severe abdominal pain. Common symptoms of ectopic pregnancy are sharp abdominal cramps or pains on one side. Neck pains and shoulder pains are also common.
Ectopic pregnancies are very dangerous. If the tube ruptures (which mine did), there could be severe internal bleeding, which is a critical life-threatening situation. (For those of you with a medical background, I could barely breathe by the time I got to the hospital, and they irrigated me for 25 minutes once they had me open.)
Once the ectopic pregnancy is confirmed, emergency surgery and a skilled surgeon is required. This is delicate surgery. If the fallopian tube cannot be saved, it will be removed.
Some people consider those who have had to have surgery in this situation to have “decided to have an abortion” and feel free to judge them. I can only hope that this view is based more in ignorance than in disregard for a woman’s life.
Ectopic pregnancy is the leading cause of pregnancy-related death.