When I was eagerly pregnant with my first, I devoured a library copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting with an open and trusting mind. Every twinge they described I felt keenly and every rare complication was one I considered. At some point, I found myself walking out into the living room and asking my husband, “Ari, could I have an ectopic pregnancy?”
I’m pretty sure his sigh and accompanying eye-roll were the most patronizing imaginable. He said I was too far along, and we’d “for sure” know if I had an ectopic pregnancy.
At the time, Ari was right, but this winter, his certainty was misplaced.
Three years later, as we found ourselves trying to conceive baby #2, my first cycle of trying came and went. I was not concerned–it had taken eight months to conceive our eldest–and I looked forward to going to the mikvah and my next chance.
I’m not one of those women who sees the mikvah as a beautiful, spiritual experience. I’m as committed to Orthodoxy as I could possibly be, but I still find the whole process damn annoying. To each her own. On this particular occasion, I was clued into the profound female need to pay attention to what is going on within our bodies. The thing was, I started bleeding again the day I was supposed to go to the mikvah. (For the non-mikvah literate: this is NOT GOOD.) I have read all the sappy religious stories in the sappy religious books about women who miraculously find that keeping the laws of Taharat Hamishpacha essentially save their lives, but I am pretty sure I was downright humiliated by the process when I was frantically prepping to go the mikvah and my husband was on the phone with the rabbi describing the stain on my underwear.
Perhaps some other women are more “in tune” with their bodies, but for me that experience was striking enough that when I just kept bleeding and spotting in the coming days, I was aware enough to say, “Hey, this is not normal.”
I was right on that one.
Which is how I found myself on election day going from the voting booth to the bloodwork clinic to the ultrasound clinic to the doctor’s office to the ER. I was home in time to watch Obama’s speech, but by then I was too tired.
It turns out that bleeding on and off for many weeks can be a sign of an ectopic pregnancy. It also turns out that when the ultrasound doctor says, “You need to go upstairs and talk to your doctor,” you know that there is bad news she does not want to give you herself. My doctor sent me to the ER to get an injection of methotrexate to “take care of it” (oh, the euphemisms we think up for “let’s kill this kid before it kills you”) and I was told there was a 90-95% chance that everything would be fine.
I slept in the next morning, was an hour late to work the next day, and was pretty sure the most traumatic part of all this was not being able to nurse my almost-2-year-old for two and a half days.
My boss, who knew I had been in the hospital, asked if maybe the onsite nurse should know “what was going on” with me in case anything went wrong. I’m a math teacher, so I assured her that the probabilities were in my favor. I couldn’t stand the idea that other people would know about my reproductive difficulties.
Sometimes I catch myself here and wonder what would have happened if I had just ignored the symptoms. I have a special talent for ignoring things that make me feel awkward and uncomfortable. Fortunately, the people around me have more sense.
Routine blood work followed later that week and at the 7-day mark. The next morning, I got a call from the doctor. She left me a voicemail saying my bloodwork looked great. An hour later, I was puking my guts out in the bathroom of an office building where I was doing offsite professional development. I had put just the tiniest bit of milk in my coffee, and I’ve already clarified that my willful ignorance is sometimes unparalleled. I assumed the milk made me violently ill (as dairy sometimes does) and only after about an hour or so in the bathroom could I be convinced (by my husband, via text) to call the doctor’s office. I told them I was “pretty sure” it was just food poisoning, but they sounded very serious and told me to come in that day for an ultrasound. They booked me in at 3, and I used this to convince myself that I couldn’t possibly be that sick. If it was really serious, they wouldn’t let me wait four hours, would they?
I was a good 45 minute drive outside of the city, and to this day I feel a little guilty that in order to get home in time to go to the ultrasound, my coworkers had to leave the PD session early. I told them I had food poisoning. Who talks with their coworkers about their failed attempts at reproduction?
It took me a while to realize I was feeling progressively worse. One of my coworkers walked me into the doctor’s building, carrying my bag and earning my never-ending gratitude. Nobody else reacted that strongly. I sat in the waiting room for most of an hour. All the while, I’m thinking, “This can’t be that bad–I wouldn’t still be waiting,” and alternately, “I really hate HGTV.” My husband joined me, which was good because I was in pretty bad shape by the time I finally got seen. They made me pee before the ultrasound, and I learned another fun medical fact: If you have to pee, and you can’t pee, something is very wrong. In this case, I had massive internal bleeding. The same doctor from the week before came to look at my ultrasound. Then she called in at least one other doctor and a medical student, used the word “rupture,” and sent me upstairs to my doctor.
To this day, it’s a bit of a wonder to me that she had me go upstairs mostly on my own. Perhaps they would have handled it differently if I hadn’t had my husband with me. Perhaps there are people more stoic than I who can wander around under their own power when in the midst of a medical emergency. I, however, went up the elevator to the doctor’s office and told the receptionist I had been sent by the ultrasound clinic. When the receptionist told me to sit in the waiting room, I finally sort of snapped. I looked at the receptionist and said (politely, I hope), “I really can’t. I need to lie down RIGHT NOW.”
Contrary to what I tell my toddler, sometimes “right now” is in fact the magic word. I got whisked into the back, at least two or three doctors rushed in, an ambulance was called, and I was taken to the ER. The ER is where they keep the good pain meds. They gave me enough that I could realize that my emergency was not as bad as it seemed when I was wandering around a few hours earlier. The guy having a stroke in the next cubicle was way sicker than I was. And the surgery I had that night was delayed an hour so my OB/GYN could deliver a baby. Once I had a morphine drip, I could wait. It was laparoscopic. I was home that night.
The only thing still wrong with me was my profound inability to talk about it. I had to tell the family–when you call a relative and say, “I need you to pick up my child from daycare in an hour” you can’t just tell them THAT you’re in the ER–you have to tell them WHY. I couldn’t lift more than 10 pounds. I was having coworkers carry stuff for me at work. I had missed two days and they had covered my classes. The kids were chattering about my “emergency surgery,” which made me livid, but I could not figure out who had told them. My coworkers, however, respected my privacy. I could not handle other people knowing.
It took me a long time to realize that my silence was a symptom of a larger problem. Respect is good, but collective willful ignorance is not. Most of my friends have stories of their own–struggles with fertility and reproduction that we just don’t talk about in the Orthodox world.
I only have one fallopian tube left, and I remain at increased risk for another ectopic. I can talk about it openly now that I’m 22 weeks pregnant. I walked on Passover to a clinic for extra blood work to make sure my HCG levels were increasing normally. I’ve had five ultrasounds–three of which were only necessary to check for “viability”–another euphemism I have come to loathe.
In place of the missing tube, I carry a steely determination to be part of a movement to increase awareness among people in the Jewish world about the reproductive chaos and catastrophe that can ensue. I have a daughter (I might have two, for all I know–I’m not a peeker) and I want her to grow up paying attention to the signals that her body is sending her. I want her to be forewarned and thus forearmed about how hard and dangerous it can be, even in this day and age, to attempt to welcome a healthy baby into this world. If God and circumstances favor us, we’ll have opportunities to be grateful for the lives we create.