My son is now 10 weeks old. He has a congenital heart defect and severe birth defects, limb differences with all four limbs affected.
I’m here now because I have a story to tell, a story with infinite ellipses and a looming question mark. It’s just the beginning of a story, really.
But does the story about my new son start the day he was born? Or the week before when we learned he had profound defects and would likely not survive? Or the start of my pregnancy when I learned he was one of three, two of whom did not remain viable?
I think to get the most understanding of who this boy is, what he means to us, I have to back up even more.
My older children are almost thirteen and nearly six. I joke about the seven year age gap being one of the “best kept secrets” of family planning, but there really wasn’t any planning involved. The big space, while wonderfully beneficial and I wouldn’t change it now for anything, wasn’t the result of careful decision making, but rather inexplicable secondary infertility. I always imagined myself as the wisecracking mom to a passel of feisty kids. I wanted the rowdy chaos of a big family. But my quirky biology didn’t comply.
I lost a pregnancy early in the second trimester, about four and a half years ago. I’ve had a number of very early miscarriages, which were disappointing, but nothing like the devastation of losing one after crossing into the proverbial “safe zone.” That loss resulted in lingering complications. It was a difficult time to live in my own body.
So when I found myself surprisingly expecting back in the early spring of this year, it was hard to believe. It was hard to tell myself that it was true, let alone to tell anyone else. It was too fantastic.
I felt like maybe I could protect the idea of it and make it stay real somehow by not breathing it aloud to others. And then I started bleeding. And I bled constantly for over a month, during which I learned I was losing two tiny embryos. How ironic that years of wonky fertility would find me knocked up spontaneously with three, each in a separate sac? But the irony turned around on itself, like a mobius strip, and it was a pregnancy loss after all.
There were weeks of not knowing if it would be a total loss or not.
When the bleeding stopped, there was one scrappy baby, holding on in there.
And suddenly, I was the caretaker of this tremendous and wonderful news. It was too unreal and too thrilling to me to want to share the news.
How could I tell anyone that I was pregnant and have them possibly understand what that could mean to me? Of course, such knowledge comes up organically, in conversations and double-takes (is she or isn’t she?), and it didn’t stay my sweet secret for long. But, even once the word started getting out, I didn’t make a deal of it.
I didn’t tell Facebook (also, fuck Facebook. while we’re at it.) and I didn’t make any grand announcements.
You’d think if I was so happy about it, I’d want to sing a song from the roof and do a mass postcard mailing, but it was just too precious to expect anyone else to appreciate, and I felt very protective.
Once the high drama of the first trimester passed, it was a long dull slog through ill-fitting pants and raspberry leaf tea and heartburn.
I had delightfully warm and chatty visits with my homebirth midwife; we organized the house and checked off an industrious home improvement To Do list; there was only completely glad anticipation.
I had what I hoped would be my last prenatal appointment on November 2nd, which was also my “due date”. My midwife didn’t feel certain about the baby’s position and had me zip down to an imaging clinic for a quick ultrasound. I had a lot of anxiety on the drive. I was down to the wire, for sure, and didn’t have any time to flip a breech baby.
The ultrasound tech saw right away that baby was head up. I sighed and tried to remain cool.
I’ve got this, I thought. Maybe the baby won’t have the exact birth we’d been planning, but it’ll be okay.
And then the tech asked me to wait in the room. I was confused by this, and called my husband. “Baby’s breech” I told him when he answered, “but it’s a baby in there, not, like a cat or something. I saw the head and I think the hands.” And then he asked me, “the right number of fingers?” And then I had to hang up quickly, the tech was coming back with someone else.
I was introduced, in that small dark ultrasound room, to an older man, the radiologist. He shook my hand and then blurted out, “Your baby has multiple abnormalities.”
He said the baby had deformed limbs, missing fingers, probably missing other parts. I could barely hear him from this whooshing sound suddenly throbbing in my head. I stood up and grabbed my bag. “I don’t know the words to say,” I remember saying. And that’s all I said. I walked out of the room, walked past the waiting area and said to my big girl, contentedly reading a book by a window, “We’re leaving now,” as I walked out the door.
I know by the time I got into the car I was crying. I know that I tried explaining to my daughter why I was crying, except I didn’t know. I know that I called my husband and somehow told him.
I know that my midwife called me and told me not to drive myself home. I know that I told her I’d be fine. I’m fine. It’s fine. Fine.
I know that I kept telling myself I can’t crash the car because I have to take care of my daughter.
I know that by the time I got home, about forty-five minutes away, my husband was also there.
I know that we left almost immediately to the city, where somehow I’d been fast-tracked into an appointment at a maternal fetal medicine clinic for a level II ultrasound and an amniocentesis to see what congenital birth defects that he had.
I know that I cried all the way there.
What happened next is we learned this baby we’d been expecting all along had “significant” and “profound” birth defects, in and out. We learned he was a boy.
We learned that he had syndromes that were considered “incompatible with life.”
Two days after that appointment, we had a consultation with a neonatologist and a meeting with the hospital ethics committee. Maybe you already knew that hospitals have ethics committees, but I did not. By this time, our baby’s file had been shared with a multitude of specialists who carefully analyzed his congenital birth defects.
The neonatologist told us that she did not think it would be unreasonable for us to proceed with an out-of-hospital birth. By which she meant, there is not a lot they can do for this baby, so maybe you just want to spend his last moments peacefully at home.
We were braced for the worst. The best was still very bad. Based on his rare and complex congenital birth defects, all best guesses determined that the likelihood of him having severe neurological impairment was very, very high.
Would he be able to eat?
The ethics committee gave us their veritable stamp of approval, entrusting us wholly with all decisions. We discussed how long we would continue support for our child? What kind of support? I learned the phrase “palliative care”.
There was one week in between my world falling apart and his birth. One week of such deep despair I won’t even begin to describe it. One week of waiting for him to be born so he could die and we could say goodbye.
One week of listening to Pearl Jam’s Just Breathe over and over and over again, like some kind of prayer.
Among our ethics committee approved plan was my insistence on avoiding a C-Section. I don’t suppose that the hospital sees a lot of vaginal breech births. Probably fewer Pitocin-induced vaginal breech births. I also was firm about refusing fetal monitoring. Did I want to hear the heartbeat of a baby who would not live?
And while my other babies were born triumphantly without pain relief of any kind, I assumed I would need something to get me through this dreadful thing I had to do. In the end, though, the drug made labor so hard and fast and intense, I was out of my mind with the hurt of it all and did not have time nor wits to request pain medication.
I say that not out of pride, for there is nothing to be proud about what was the darkest moment of my life, but just to illustrate what an unusual birth it was.
Everything about this boy has been unusual.
There was no tender welcoming a new life into the world. He was zipped across the hall, neonatologist and NICU nurses and cardiologist and geneticist and who the hell else at the ready, to check out his birth defects. I turned my head away and didn’t even want to see him go.
We heard him cry. It was a confusing sound. We thought he would need intubation. It was assumed that his heart defect would prohibit his lungs from working efficiently.
But he was crying.
And they brought him back to me. And they said he was healthy.
And I held his tiny broken body and I nursed him and he latched on better than my other babies latched on as newborns.
And I cried.
I cried because he wasn’t dead and I cried because he was alive. No one mentioned the possibility of leaving the hospital with a disabled baby. How do you even prepare for such a thing? There is no preparation. There is only disbelief.
His stay in the NICU was brief, just over a day, for monitoring. This little champ maintained a near perfect blood oxygen level, despite his heart defect. He’ll need surgery sooner than later to repair his broken heart. The pediatric cardiologist explained it as a common congenital defect, a routine surgery. But in my world, there is nothing common or routine about open heart surgery for a brand new baby.
Prior to this roller coaster, the most serious medical situation my family experienced was that time my daughter had stitches by her eye eleven years ago. How’s that for contrast?
How do I tell you about this baby?
I do not want the sum of him represented by what he is not, what he is missing, the challenges that await us.
But what else is there yet?
His issues are not minor. His bilateral leg condition alone occurs approximately once in every one million live births. He will never walk without serious, invasive surgeries and devices. Amputations. Prostheses.
Do you know what a mindfuck it is to hear such words about a newborn?
Can you feel the weight of this?
My big boy, the bouncy one, the easy-going one, the boy with the casual shrug of his shoulders, mentions his baby brother’s hands like it’s the most obvious, simple thing ever. “He only has three fingers on one hand,” he says, “and two fingers on the other one.” So matter of fact. No catch in his throat. No mourning the loss of future handprint turkeys or making the motions to so many kid songs.
I’m not there yet.
I’ve been looking at and loving on those tiny malformed hands for fourteen days now and it’s still hard for me, even as they tell me “it’s just mechanics” and “he’ll figure it out” and other encouraging platitudes.
I am usually so guarded and private. It’s out of character for me to share so much here, even as I’ve intentionally omitted specific diagnoses (a grouping of several, with no umbrella catch-all for them all together as of this point). But everything is different now. Since we’ve been home from the hospital, I’ve been hiding. A few people have met this surprising baby, but we haven’t yet left the house, save for doctor appointments.
I can’t hide indefinitely. I will have to be brave and bold enough to withstand whatever questions and curiousness occurs when the world meets Ulysses.
He looks an awful lot like his big sister did as a newborn. Same deep eyes, same frowny mouth. When he’s all wrapped up in a blanket, you would never know that he has such serious things going on. And I can assure you that he does not know. Everything else about him is just what you’d expect from any newly born babe. He squirms and fusses.
He makes those mysterious sleep smiles. He flails his arms when a loud sound startles him. His brain seems normal. Everything else about him seems normal.
There is nothing normal about our life now.
We have so many appointments scheduled. He has already had more doctors examine him than maybe my other two children, myself and my husband have ever had, all together. I don’t know how to get used to living such a highly medically managed lifestyle.
It’s been just three weeks since everything changed. So much information to process in such a short amount of time. I’ve blamed myself incessantly, even as I know there was nothing I did or did not do to cause this. That is the absolute truth, and yet, I worry that people will wonder… of course they will. People with murky knowledge of genetics, people who have grown lazy in their own good fortune, people who can’t possibly know how wanted and treasured this little baby has been all along.
Everyone’s delighted that he survived the birth, that he is thriving.
And yes! What a great outcome!
But now what?
Since I wrote that, we have laid out a plan for open heart surgery (soon) and orthopedic surgery (before his first birthday). He is growing plump and smiley.
So it’s time to Band Back Together for Birth Defects. Share your stories. Tell your tales. We need to learn about the birth defects that have touched YOUR life. Let’s rock out and tell the world OUR stories.
It’s YOUR turn, The Band!
I’ve only ever lurked on Band Back Together, but I feel like I need to tell my daughter’s story.
The pregnancy itself wasn’t bad, just the normal aches, pains, and nausea. Emotionally it was tough – there were issues found on ultrasounds, and my OB felt like it was her duty to present the worst-case scenario every time we spoke. I decided that if we had to hear bad news, I wanted it to be delivered by someone who was kind and knowledgeable, so we switched doctors and started seeing a maternal-fetal specialist.
He told us that there would be kidney issues when she was born, but nothing emergent.
My water broke 2 days before my due date. I had a good, quick labor. There was meconium in the amniotic fluid, but otherwise it went well. She was born just after midnight, with good Apgar scores. She weighed nearly nine pounds! She had no interest in nursing, and she wasn’t into the formula they offered, either. A couple hours later, her blood sugar started to drop, and then she stopped breathing. They took her to the NICU for observation. I’d worked a full day before my water broke, so by the time they took her away I had been awake for almost 24 hours. I was sent to a recovery room without my baby.
That day and the next are a blur. This was my first child, and I had no idea what to expect from a normal birth or a brand new baby. I only knew that this was not what I expected. I alternated between recovering in my room and sitting with my daughter in the NICU. She would barely take any food and kept even less down. There were multiple doctors coming in and out and multiple tests being done – blood draws, x-rays, upper and lower GI, etc.
Finally they determined that she had intestinal malrotation. That means her intestines were jumbled and twisted and not anchored in any way. If untreated or undiscovered, it quickly damages the bowels and then leads to death, essentially by starvation. Surgery was set for Friday night, the same time that I was to be released. I had no choice but to hand over my 3-day old baby to be intubated and placed under general anesthesia so that a surgeon could cut open and rearrange her guts.
My husband, my mom, my mother-in-law, and a close friend were with me during the surgery. Around midnight, the surgery was finally complete. They would only allow 2 people in the room with her at a time, so I stayed there while everyone else took turns coming in to see her. I can’t even describe how it felt to see the 3-inch incision across her tiny little belly. She had wires and tubes everywhere, and we were not allowed to hold her. I could tell she was in pain – when on a ventilator, the vocal cords don’t make noise, but I could see her screaming.
My mom and dear friend knew what kind of comfort I needed – they just held me and murmured words of consolation while I tried in vain to keep it together. My mother-in-law was not so in tune with what I needed – she wanted to touch her, and exclaim over her, and it was all just too much for me. I was completely helpless and broken. I had my husband make everyone leave, and then I left, too. I left my silently screaming baby in the care of total strangers, Band. At that moment, I was certain that the nurses could do more for her than I could. Now, when I look back, I am unable to forgive myself for leaving her.
That night turned out to be the beginning of a long journey. She had 2 more surgeries and lots more testing; we found out that she has a genetic anomaly that seemed to be the cause of her birth defects. She was 9 weeks old when we were finally allowed to take her home – just a few days after my first Mother’s Day.
My daughter is now almost 3 years old. She has very low muscle tone and is still quite delayed, and she is a beautiful, happy, easygoing little girl. She wears her battle scars with no complaint, and despite my failings, she loves me completely.
She is my ray of sunshine.
Since 2003, the March of Dimes has led Prematurity Awareness Month activities in November as part of its Prematurity Campaign.
The goals of the campaign are to reduce rates of premature birth in the United States and raise awareness of this very serious problem.
Please, we encourage you to to submit your own stories of prematurity with The Band.
Four years ago I would not have paid attention to an event like Prematurity Awareness Month and I likely would not have even known about the work of the March of Dimes. Today I am proud to be a supporter of the March of Dimes and their important work.
On March 8, 2007, my niece, Lucy Clare entered this world after my brother, Jonathan and sister-in-law, Mary, made the difficult decision to have an emergency c-section at 25 weeks gestation. In the weeks leading up to Lucy’s arrival, Jonathan and Mary knew that there was a chance Lucy would have to arrive early. She wasn’t growing and the doctors said that if she didn’t reach 500 grams (1.1 pounds) there would be very little they could do.
We all held our breath as Mary went to each ultra-sound appointment, hoping that this baby (gender unknown to all but them) would grow – just a little bit more, just a few more grams. They were briefed by the ob-gyn on what outcomes to expect if she was born at 32, 30 or 28 weeks.
A few weeks prior to Lucy’s birth, they were given a tour of the NICU so that they would be prepared for what they may encounter. At their last appointment, on March 8, they were told they had to make the difficult decision – wait another week and risk that she wouldn’t survive in utero or deliver that day knowing that the hospital had never had a baby that small survive.
Wanting to just give Lucy a chance, they opted for the c-section.
Lucy was a micro-preemie in every sense of the word. She weighed only 400 grams (14 ounces) and was just 10 inches in length. At her lowest, she dropped down to 290 grams. She was given surfactant therapy – its research was funded by the March of Dimes – for her lungs.
She breathed with the help of a ventilator for five weeks before being switched to CPAP for two months and then on nasal cannula until she was discharged. Lucy’s time in the hospital was filled with ups and downs – it often seemed like one step forward and two steps back. She faced many of the challenges that preemies in the NICU face: infection, retinopathy, the struggle to breathe on her own, a heart condition and feeding challenges.
Lucy spent 182 days in the hospital – six long months – before she joined her family at home.
Today Lucy is a happy, funny, easy-going 3 ½ year old who adores her big sister Stella and is starting to enjoy her baby sister Mallory. She loves books, colouring, watching Yo Gabba Gabba and dancing. But she still faces many challenges: she takes medication for pulmonary hypertension, she relies on a feeding tube for 100% of her nutrition and she has deteriorating eyesight. She has therapy appointments with a feeding specialist, physiotherapist, and attends weekly sensory motor sessions.
The work that the March of Dimes does through education, Prematurity Awareness Month, March for Babies and so much more, is crucial to helping all babies have a healthy start. Our family considers itself lucky that Lucy is here today and we want to do everything we can do to raise awareness for prematurity-related issues. It’s our chance to give back just a little bit.
Visit www.marchofdimes.com to find out how you can help!
The desk is always manned by a sweet-faced volunteer to help you find whatever you’ve lost or find your way, except when, of course, you cannot find it at all. There are flowers there, too, beautiful flowers, always fresh flowers. Usually lilies are mixed in, fragrant lilies, reeking of death and funerals, but the flowers are so beautiful that you can almost forgive the scent that makes you want to vomit.
Over there is the place you cried until you dry-heaved as you took your infant daughter to her third MRI in her first week of life. And just past that is the chapel where you prayed for her life. The stained-glass windows during that frigid February day shone a cold bright light as your daughter slumbered through an anesthesia coma, and you tried to forget all that you knew about neurosurgery.
You prayed with all of your soul.
Above the chapel is the waiting room where you sat after you’d dropped your daughter off into the arms of her neurosurgeon, hoping that the last kiss you gave her warm, delicious head, wouldn’t be the last kiss you ever gave her. You sat in that waiting room with the three people who cared enough about you to show up and hold your hand and you choked back tears as the operating room nurse brought you back a bag of your daughter’s first hair in a bio-hazard bag.
You held that bag and wondered if that would be all you had left of her.
Below that waiting room is the gift shop where you dragged Nathan, someone who you will always treasure for being a friend when you needed one most, to buy your daughter something hopeful. A necklace. Carefully, you pick out a necklace that you will give your daughter and someday tell her, “Amelia, Princess of the Bells, Mommy bought you this when you were having your brain surgery.”
It’s a very beautiful necklace. A crystal encrusted heart on a simple silver chain in a velvet bag. It is perfect.
You hope she knows that this necklace is very, very important.
Two floors and a yawning corridor away, is the happy floor, filled with women and new babies, where your life was forever changed with seven words, “Becky, there’s something wrong with your baby.” A new world was created then, a secret place only you could go, this land of tears.
Your soul broke.
Up above that room, down another winding corridor, you screamed as they wrenched your nursing baby from you. Your breasts wept, too, as you cowered in that bed, terrified, in your secret place, your own land of tears.
In the dark basement, worlds away from the happy new parents above, you joined the ranks of the hollow-eyed ghosts in the NICU as you signed in and out to see your daughter. There, at least, you didn’t scare anyone with your eyes swollen nearly shut from crying and cheeks raw and bleeding from hospital grade tissues.
Above her bed there would be her bed post-surgery in the PICU and seeing her in a gown that bore the same logo as the hospital you’d worked at in nursing school made it almost easy to pretend this was all some vicious nightmare. That maybe you’d wake up to a normal, healthy baby.
Then your daughter would cry, her voice raw and hoarse from intubation and you knew this was your new world order.
When your other children came to see their sister, you’d rearrange your horrible face into a mask of what you hoped would pass as cheerfulness, ply them with candy, and hope that they wouldn’t look too closely at your shaking hands or tear-stained face. When they screamed, “I want MOMMY!” as they left for the day, you felt torn between the two worlds, one of which you’d just as soon leave behind, too.
All corridors eventually feed into the cafeteria, where you remember laughing for the first time in months. It was a jangled, strangled sort of sound, but there it was: a laugh, from your mouth, and it was real.
Down by the statue of the heart or perhaps children dancing in a circle is where you waited with your daughter as you took her home with you for the last time. Surrounded by all of the pink things you could find, balloons deflating slightly in the cold February air, you were exhausted, but ebullient: your warrior daughter had made it.
A mother had never been prouder. You held her car seat close to you as you whispered to her sleeping cheek, “You made it, my girl. You’re a fighter like your Momma, all right.” This time, for the first time in her life, when the tears wet her cheek, they were the good kind.
But late at night, when the rest of the house sleeps, these are the corridors that your mind roams, over and over. Your memory, photographic, can recall everything with the sort of clarity that makes you relive those days constantly.
You are forever delivering that sick baby.
Constantly having her wrenched from your arms, always back in those terrible moments roaming the halls, seeing the same desk clerk, smelling those awful lilies, dry heaving into the diaper bag.
The sadness is omnipresent and yet nowhere. It is the new world order.
Save for roaming the corridors all night every night, you haven’t been back to those halls since your daughter had those awful thick black stitches removed from the back of her head.
You must return. New problems, a new specialist, means one thing: you must face your demons and return.
A new desk clerk and a new flower arrangement await you in the official looking building in which you found absolutely no comfort and now you must face up to walking these halls once again. It’s likely that you’ll cry. It’s likely that you’ll dry heave. It’s likely that no one will understand your reaction to this big official building. It’s just a place, after all.
But this is so much more than a place. It’s where the old you shriveled up and died and the new you was dragged screaming into the world.
So you and your ghosts walk the corridors all night every night, reliving the worst parts of your life, wishing they could be laid to rest, knowing that they never will.
This post was written by Becky Sherrick Harks and originally published here, on Mommy Wants Vodka.
The old me died in a puddle of tears on that birthing table as my daughter whisked freshly from my body was clucked over and examined and I was left paralyzed from the waist down, terrified and alone. I was reborn into a new world where all of my old besties and allies were no longer at my side, where my husband was gone, and where I was, again, alone against the world.
It’s not terribly different, I guess, than how any of us are born, it’s just that I was older and not covered with that cheese-type stuff.
For eighteen months now, I’ve carefully picked up the pieces of who I was and assembled them back into a reasonable representation of who I am now. I discarded some of the old things I didn’t need: the anger that I’d held onto for so long and the inability to let people in and the long-held opinion that I didn’t need anyone but myself to be happy.
In turn, I’ve added some new things that I think I always needed but didn’t realize: I’m warmer, more loving and I’m more thankful of the people who do love me. There are bad things woven in there too, of course. You don’t go through major traumas without picking up some hell along the way. The darkness inside me is heavy sometimes. Sometimes I wonder if it’s more than I can bear.
These shards of who I am now are stitched loosely together with the belief that the universe is far less random than I’d ever thought it was and that someday, it’ll all make more sense. I have to cling to that idea or I’d probably go crazy and shave my head and tattoo a fire-breathing scorpion on it.
Monday morning, I will go back to the place that I was born. Not Highland Park Hospital, where on July 15, 1980, Rebecca Elizabeth Sherrick* was born, but Central DuPage Hospital, where Becky Sherrick Harks was born on January 28, 2009. I haven’t been back since her surgery.
My daughter, her curls like a halo, finally masking the scar that bisects the back of her whole head, she and I will march into the place where we were both born on the very same day. My ghosts will roam the halls with us, carefully holding my hand, gently guiding me find the place where I will take my daughter to help her find her words.
I hope that when I pass the ghost of myself in the hall I can send her a hug; some silent signal of strength from her future self. Because while the darkness is omnipresent, the sadness an integral part, there is always hope. I hope that she knows that the future is large and that while she will rage, trying to fit in to a world that no longer exists, in all that she has lost, there will be more that she gains.
Monday, the flowers in the vase on the desk will be fresh, and the volunteers will smile, confused by the visibly upset young woman and her beautiful daughter. They will not understand that sometimes, it just hurts.
They will not understand that sometimes, you slay the dragon.
Sometimes the dragon slays you.
Today, Amelia, Princess of the Bells**, she and I will slay my dragon.
*what? You didn’t think my parents named me Aunt Becky, did you?
**Amelia, by my amazing friend the Star Crossed Writer
An army stands ten thousand strong and tall,
But you shall rise above the bloody fray
And rain down vengeance ‘pon your enemies
And all those who would stand against your will.
When darkness threatens fainter hearts than yours
And calls ring out for champions to arise,
The cries will cease and everyone will see
Amelia, the Princess of the Bells.