Seven months ago today on December 31, 2014, Sean and I buried our son. Like approximately 159 other babies, Jude was stillborn that year. He was 32 weeks and 5 days old by the doctor’s estimation. He was 4 lb, 2oz. He looked very healthy.
I talk about “what happened” all of the time, and I’ve started writing about it several; though, I’ve always ended up not completing the story. Most stillbirth tragedies start when the mother notices her baby has stopped moving; she goes into the hospital to be informed by someone with a grim expression and sympathetic eyes that, “There’s no heartbeat.” Labor is induced, and the mother delivers her baby who she then has to bury. I can’t imagine what that must be like because that wasn’t my experience.
Jude’s pregnancy was much like Lillianne’s –healthy, easy, comfortable (for a pregnancy). In fact, I often said that I felt guilty for having such easy pregnancies given the number of women I knew who had extremely complicated, dangerous, high risk, pregnancies…of women I knew who were incapacitated by illness throughout their pregnancies. I mean, I was one of the lucky ones.
All of Jude’s check-ups were great; I was in and out of the Ob-GYN’s office in half an hour provided there wasn’t a wait with each visit. “Any problems? How do you feel? Everything okay?”
“Great, super. Never better. See you in a month.”
The months wore on, and my belly and baby boy grew. He was very active –more so than his sister had been. We feigned concern, laughing over having another little monkey –how would we handle it! Eek! In reality, I was in love with the idea of having another animated, active, playful, imaginative baby.
On December 24, we went in for an early morning check-up – this would be our last checkup before we started doing weekly monitoring in January; our scheduled delivery date was February 11. Jude was to be delivered via c-section; I was in labor with our daughter for nearly 16 hours and while I was having contractions the likes of which only Pitocin can induce, I hadn’t dilated more than an inch. My water didn’t break that I know of, and it wasn’t until I’d been in labor for hours that my daughter dropped. The decision to deliver her via surgery was made because the contractions weren’t giving her heart rate time to come back up.
Just after I had Lillianne, a woman in my mom’s shop – clearly still stricken with agony over her niece’s trauma, told us a story about how her niece had been pregnant with her third baby. Very close to the due date, she went into labor. On the way to the hospital, her uterus ripped from the pressure of the contractions. Within half an hour, the baby was out, but it was too late. Not only did she lose her baby, but she also lost her ability to naturally have any more children.
Though I know V-Bacs can be successful under the right circumstances, I decided I’d plan for a C-section. If I magically dilated and everything happened naturally, super. In the meantime, I’d plan for a C-section. Despite the fact that what happened to that woman’s niece was rare, I didn’t want to take chances; I would never forgive myself.
Christmas started as a wonderful day; Lillianne was 18 months old. She basked in the glow of all of the lights and was very enthusiastic about everything. It was so much fun to see her open her presents and squeal at the puzzles and the Elmo toys. “Just think, next year, we’ll have a 10 month-old, too.” And who knew? We might even be trying for a third baby then.
After presents, I went to the kitchen to fix a macaroni and cheese that would be taken to my Oma’s house in Biloxi for lunch. My uterus was tight from having postponed using the restroom; once relieved, the feeling subsided. We drove to Biloxi and later to Mandeville to spend Christmas with my husband’s family. I noticed that when I needed to use the restroom, my uterus would be tight and after, it’d be fine. Braxton-Hicks contractions, I was sure. I’d never really had them, and they weren’t consistent, so it wasn’t like I was in actual labor.
As the day wore on, I noticed something I hadn’t noticed all day –my son wasn’t moving as much as usual. He was normally incredibly active, so when I realized he wasn’t, I made a conscious effort to pay more attention to him. He’d been calm once earlier in the end of the second trimester. I had a lot of deadlines piled up, and the stress was getting to me. I was very close to calling it in and going to see the doctor just in case, but at 10:00 that night when I sat down to work, he started moving again, back to his usual firefly self.
So, now, on Christmas, I rationalized, perhaps he’s just reacting to my stress. Once again, I had a heap of deadlines and with the holiday, little time to address them. Christmas night at my in-laws’ in Picayune, I was unable to relax. Lillianne delighted in what felt like endless gifts, and while I enjoyed watching her, I couldn’t help the growing anxiety over my son’s diminished movements. I tried sitting and standing and eating and drinking…something hot, something cold. Nothing worked and though, he was still moving some, it wasn’t the same.
The next day, we left Mississippi and headed home to the doctor. I called to advise we were coming, and they said to come in when we got there. Just as we got off the interstate and were within miles of the hospital, he started moving a good bit. There you are! Relief trickled through me. Maybe it was a false alarm. While there was no way I wasn’t going to get checked out, I was hopeful.
The doctor on call was a new doctor to the group. She was young; she couldn’t have been five years older than I am. The stress test went well; there was a nice heartbeat. It was steady, and I reveled in laying on the table staring at the ceiling listening to his life. He has a heartbeat. He’ll be okay.
Our stress test was followed up by a half-hour ultrasound. Lillianne was getting restless and acting on a feeling, I asked Sean to call Mom and Dad to come get her. We might be a while.
During the ultrasound, they weren’t able to see our son take a breath; while this isn’t abnormal per say, we were concerned. They also had trouble visualizing one of his veins in the cord; though, his other vein and his artery in the cord looked fine.
Mom and Dad arrived as we were in the doctor’s patient room awaiting her assessment. She had a tight smile as she greeted us and explained what the ultrasound showed.
“There’s also some acute polyhydraminos,” she said, which in my case meant that I had 25 cm of amniotic fluid instead of 24. This excess fluid might explain why I wasn’t feeling him move.
“He’s also very small,” she advised quietly.
“How small?” My head was spinning.
“Out 100 babies, he’d be a 5.”
Yes, that was small. Dangerously small. Medical problems small. I clenched my teeth and nodded, grinding back tears.
“We’re going to check you in for monitoring. You’ll get a steroid shot to develop his lungs in case he needs to come early. I’ll do another ultrasound in the morning.”
I nodded again.
Heavily, tearfully, we hugged my parents and our sweet Lilllianne, and they walked away down the hallway one-way and we the other. Hand-clasped with Sean, I looked over my shoulder watching Lillianne toddle away with my parents.
We settled into our room in labor and delivery. Heart monitors were once again strapped around my belly. Occasionally, Katie, the nurse, would come in and have me flip onto one side or the other and would adjust the straps and monitors. I sent Sean home to get a pillow, a few affects, and some food –I hadn’t eaten more than a bite all day.
While Sean was gone, I Googled everything I could about polyhydraminos; I needed to know what I was facing. The information yielded concerning results. At best, he’d probably have some kind of chromosomal issues despite the fact that there was no other evidence to support such. The fact that he was small seemed to indicate he’d have medical issues. Fearful, I prayed that he’d be healthy. I just wanted him to be okay. We’d deal with whatever when we had to.
A different nurse came in and put me on fluids. “I thought since I had the polyhydraminos, the doctor said I wouldn’t be on fluids?” I asked. She shrugged by way of response.
Katie came in to administer the steroid shot. Nervously, I said, “If there’s a chance that he might come early, I want us to be transferred to USA (the hospital where my baby would go if he were to come early), so we can stay together.”
“Okay. Once you’re stable, we’ll work on that.” I took that to mean there was a chance he would come early. At least we wouldn’t be separated.
Sean came back, and I ate, after which I was allowed up to use the restroom. I laid back in bed, and Katie came to re-set the heart monitors. While Katie worked, I felt the baby move. Reassured, I took Sean’s hand, “I just felt him move!”
Katie continued fussing with the monitors. “He must have rolled over,” she said. A heart monitor was placed on my finger as the belly monitors occasionally confused the baby’s and my heartbeats. Another nurse came in. And then another. I started trembling.
“Try to calm down,” suggested the nurse who’d put me on fluids.
“Sorry,” I said, still shaking. “I sometimes shake when I get nervous.” I think I even told her about when I was in college and was dating someone new and pretend I was cold because I couldn’t stop shaking with nerves.
I was put on oxygen. Katie was on her phone. The monitors were being moved around on my stomach. I was trembling harder than ever. The doctor came in wearing a university sweatshirt over her scrubs; she clearly hadn’t been planning for much action during her call shift. In with her rolled a little machine.
Hurriedly, gel was squirted onto my stomach, and the doctor held the wand to my stomach. We could see our son on his back, his head and profile outlined against the machine’s black background. She moved the wand around. There was no sound and no movement.
“Guys,” she said quietly, “there’s no heartbeat.”
What do you mean there’s no heartbeat? He just had a heartbeat. Your machine isn’t on. You’re doing it wrong.
I didn’t react. How am I supposed to react? Am I supposed to burst into tears? No, I didn’t feel a flood of tears coming on. This was a mistake. This was a mistake. Something was wrong.
“He just moved,” I said absurdly.
“What do we do?” asked my husband, and we looked at one another. No heartbeat? It didn’t compute.
In a small, soft voice, the doctor replied, “Usually we induce labor.”
“What does that mean?” Sean asked.
It means giving up!
“No,” I interrupted, “he was just here. He have to do something. Can we do a C-section?” Yes, get him out as quickly as possible. Then they can save him. He’s only been without a heartbeat for a minute. They can bring him back. Miracles happen!
“Are you sure you felt him move?” the doctor asked, uncertainly.
“Yes,” I demanded now stricken with urgency. Get him out of me NOW. “I even said something.” I looked to Sean and Katie for support.
“Are you sure you want to do this…you know the chances…”
“Yes.” Sean and I cut in, both of us in full agreement that this was what we needed to do.
“Okay, let’s go.” Someone bustled off to call the anesthesiologist. Tubes were ripped away and within moments my bed was being pushed quickly toward the operating room.
The trembling had escalated to quaking; my body was violently vibrating on the bed. I’d just written about mantras and repeated, The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, in my head while mumbling, “Oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God.” We wheeled past a man and his young daughter, and I wondered if they thought I was going in to labor and was just scared. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
“We need to move you to this table,” Katie said gently as my “bed” stopped next to the operating table. “And we need to get your underwear off.” Racing, I divested myself of my underwear –a childish pair of red boy-short panties that I’d purchased a American Eagle around Valentine’s during undergrad. They had two mice on the back of the right cheek and a heart. I threw them and leapt unassisted to the adjacent operating table and lay down.
My knees were knocking; my thighs clapped together; I forcibly pressed my legs to the table to silence the slapping as I continued to convulse.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. The Lord is my shepherd. The Lord is my shepherd. I shall, I shall….
The anesthesiologist was almost there. A curtain was drawn; my head, shoulders, and arms were above it. I felt pinpricks along my C-section scar. “Ouch!”
I looked into the bright, silver dome that lit the operating table. It was like the interrogation spotlight from a crime drama only larger and brighter. What if this is the last thing I ever see? In the impulse to save my son, I hadn’t considered any of the risks of this surgery, like the possibility of never waking up. Oh, God, please don’t let me die. Lillianne needs me. Sean needs me. “God, please be with these doctors….”
The anesthesiologist arrived as pinpricks continued tracing along my scar. “We’re ready,” I heard someone behind the curtain say.
“Wait, I’m still awake,” I yelped into the mask and then gulped the gas as though it would save me from drowning.
Gradually, I came to. Sean was next to me. “How’s my baby?” I asked weakly.
“He didn’t make it,” Sean choked. “I named him Jude. Jude David. Is that okay?”
“Hey Jude,” I quietly sang. Sean picked up the verse. “Don’t make it bad. Take a sad song, and make it better….”
I faded back out, Hey Jude still humming in my head; someone rolled the bed toward the room, and I opened my eyes. Like an angel in his own right, Father David, our priest was there. The sheer impossibility of how and so quickly was mind-boggling. His presence was comforting; though, I don’t remember much because I was still waking up. The only thing I recall with clarity apart from him standing there when I opened my eyes was that as he was leaving, I started to say the “Our Father” prayer, and he stopped, came back to the bedside next to Sean, and finished the prayer, even as I started to lose the ability to speak toward the end.
In the hours that followed, we called our parents; mine came to see us, and Sean’s would be there in the morning. We waited a little while to tell the world. When we did, I put one small, whispered message on social media, “I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always, as long as I’m living my baby you’ll be.”
Later, Sean shared a less subtle message with a photo of our beautiful angel Jude, who we did get to hold and who was not too small but who was perfect. Our beautiful baby boy who we never got to hear laugh or cry or to see open his eyes or to watch root for his mother’s nourishment.
In the early days and now still, I soothe my pain with the thought that my baby never had to suffer. He left the warmest, happiest, safest home a baby could have and went to an eternity of joyful pleasure.
We still miss him so much, though. We always will, and I’m thankful for that as well.
Hey Jude. I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always, as long as I’m living my baby you’ll be.