Mom to Lily Sarah Ellen
Lost on August 31, 2011
Mountain View, CA
“There are no goodbyes for us. Wherever you are, you will always be in my heart.” ~Mahatma Gandhi
My daughter Lily went from living in my womb to residing forever in my heart on August 31, 2011. I was 14 weeks and 4 days pregnant. At the time I am writing these words, it has been nearly three months since I lost my baby girl, just about the length of time I carried her in my body. Many of these lines were lifted straight from the journal I started while I was hospitalized following her death. If it seems disjointed, it’s because it was written over a period of many days, during many different moods. It has been a difficult process, putting them to type, but one done in loving memory of the baby who will always be, to me, my first child. Not a “miscarried fetus” or a “hope of a baby that never was,” but my first child: a true, unique and beloved individual. My story is a tribute to her memory, and is written in the hope that it may bring both comfort to other mothers who have lost their precious unborn babies, and awareness to those who, having never experienced such a tragedy themselves, are struggling to understand the experience.
I found out I was pregnant with my first baby on June 18, 2011. I am a teacher, and it was my first official day of summer vacation. The night before, my husband Guillem went to a rollerblading event in San Francisco with some friends. I remember that as I sat on the couch with my cats that night, watching a movie and waiting for him to get home, I could somehow feel that I was pregnant. We had gone out for dinner earlier that evening at a vegan Chinese food restaurant, and I was only considering the spicy dishes–very unusual for me as I don’t normally care for spicy food. I just knew somehow, sitting there on the couch waiting for him to get home, that the next morning’s anticipated pregnancy test would turn out positive.
It was our very first try, our first month without birth control. We had been planning it for quite a while though, at least a year, and we were just waiting for the end of the school year so that I would (hopefully) get through the first trimester during my summer vacation. I remember counting down the days until the end of school so that we could finally try for the baby I had so longed dreamed of having.
For some reason, I was worried that it wouldn’t happen right away, and I would feel like a failure. I was so anxious to know whether I was pregnant. A week before, I had gone to Walgreens to buy a pack of First Response home pregnancy tests. The first of the pack of three that I took was negative, and I was really disappointed. I decided to wait a week to test again.
I woke up early that morning of June 18th, anxiously anticipating my result. I had to pee really badly as I’d purposefully had a big glass of water before bed and held my bladder all night to improve my chances of an accurate reading. I hurried to the bathroom. The two pink lines appeared very quickly after I peed on the stick, and even though one was kind of faint, I knew that second line meant I was definitely pregnant. I started jumping up and down right there in the bathroom in my excitement, a huge smile plastered across my face. I was so happy I almost couldn’t contain myself.
I wanted to tell Guillem right away and I went upstairs, but because he had gotten home late the night before from his rollerblading escapade, I felt bad waking him. He looked so peaceful and I just didn’t want to disturb him, so I tried to go back to sleep, but it was impossible. I was way too excited. I just stared at him, and finally when he opened one eye a crack, I blurted out “Don’t you want to say good morning to me and the baby?” He asked if I’d taken the test and I said yes and it was positive, and then I took him downstairs so he could see it for himself.
My sister is the first one I told after Guillem. I called that morning and asked her if she’d bought her plane ticket to accompany me to the East Coast as my date for a wedding later that summer, and when she said no, I said “So you’re going to make your pregnant sister fly all that way by herself?” She didn’t catch on the first time and I had to repeat it, but then she did and she was very happy for me.
Guillem’s parents called from Europe later that morning (he is French), and I was so excited to tell them that I insisted we all get on Skype and tell them “face to face.” He told them (in French) that they were going to be grandparents, and his mom started to cry almost immediately. They looked so very happy. I think my mother-in-law said she’d have to start knitting right away!
I was already planning on driving to my mother’s house that night for a visit, so when she called that morning, I felt bad when I lied and said the test had been negative. I really wanted to tell her, but I wanted moreso to wait to tell her in person. It was extremely hard to wait though because I knew she would be so happy and excited. The four-hour drive to her house that day felt like it lasted an eternity.
When I arrived I told her that I had some bad news: I wouldn’t be able to drink on our upcoming trip to Disney World. She looked back at me with the silliest expression… mouth hanging open and wide-eyed, saying nothing. When she continued just to stare without saying a word, I said “I’m pregnant.” She started to cry, and I think she said “Oh, my gosh” a lot. It was such a beautiful experience, telling my mother I was pregnant with her first grandchild. She had created a little stick figure family on Facebook to announce our upcoming trip to Florida, and she added a little baby stick figure with the caption, “Looks like someone else will be joining us on our vacation!” Then she proceeded to check Facebook every five minutes to see if anyone had caught on and responded.
That night I texted several of my friends and told them the news. I just couldn’t hold it in for the three months that some people recommended; I was too excited and wanted to share that excitement with others, to shout it to the world. A few days later, I announced the news to the rest of my family (grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins) at the weekly “family dinner.” My uncle asked if I wanted a boy or a girl, and I said “I just want a healthy baby. But a girl would be nice.”
The end of June, the first few weeks of my pregnancy, was my “honeymoon period,” and the only time I felt truly blissfully happy during the three months I was pregnant. During that time, I had not yet started spotting blood, and I had a great time on my vacation in Florida with my mom, sister and brother-in-law. I was so excited to be newly pregnant and I still just couldn’t quite believe it. It was like it was too good to be true, I was so happy. During that time, it never even crossed my mind, even once, that my baby might die, that I might lose her before birth. I had no idea. My biggest worry was birth defects, not miscarriage. I am so glad now that I didn’t know then all that was to come.
At Disney World I couldn’t ride a lot of the rides because they weren’t advised for expecting mothers, but I was so excited just to be pregnant that I didn’t care. I just sat on benches waiting for my family while they went on those rides, reading “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” on my Nook, and when they got off the rides I excitedly told them the facts and details about my baby that I had learned while they were riding. In the hotel room we took silly pictures of me sticking out and grossly exaggerating my belly (“Look pregnant!” they teased from behind the camera) and when my mom posted them online, my cousin commented it was a great first picture for the pregnancy.
After Florida, July came, and the honeymoon ended.
I began to bleed shortly after my return to my home in California. I had been intimate with my husband, and because many of the pregnancy books said that could make you bleed a bit, I didn’t worry much, but I went ahead and called my ob-gyn to schedule my first prenatal appointment.
Guillem met me at the doctor’s office, and they took us into an exam room and handed us lots of reading and handouts on pregnancy and prenatal testing and the like, and the nurse asked us questions while noting the answers on our chart. Toward the end of the appointment, she casually mentioned “things to look out for” and any bleeding was one of them. We told her I’d had some spotting; she left the room for a while, then came back in and told us I should come back in later that afternoon to see the doctor. I was a bit worried that they wanted me to see the doctor the same day, but not too stressed about it.
I went in that afternoon and met my obstetrician for the first time. She gave me a vaginal ultrasound and I remember it hurt a lot. On the screen all you could see was a black semi-circular thing which she said was my uterus. You couldn’t see much inside of it; there was a tiny bump at the bottom, which she pointed to as she said “There might be something forming there.” She measured the length and pronounced me 5 weeks, 4 days. She said that based on the date of my last menstrual period, May 17th, I was measuring smaller than she would have expected. She told me that either we had our dates wrong, or that my bleeding could be the start of a miscarriage. I felt really scared and sad hearing that.
She left, and the nurse came back in and gave me a shot of RhoGAM right in my behind (my blood type is negative, Guillem’s is positive, and this would keep my body from attacking my baby’s blood)– it really stung and made me light-headed, so I had to lay down on the exam table alone in the room for the next 20 minutes. All I could think about was that the doctor had told me I might be miscarrying. I was terrified. Finally I got up and headed down to the lab where they tested my blood (which they would again a few days later) to see if my hCG levels were rising appropriately; should they fail to approximately double, we’d know my pregnancy was in trouble.
I spent the next few days almost constantly online, researching bleeding during pregnancy and facts about miscarriage. I just about drove myself crazy.
At the time of my first doctor’s appointment I hadn’t felt any nausea yet, but it kicked in a few days later, around six weeks into my pregnancy. At first I just felt queasy, but I soon began to vomit as well. I took this as a sign that my pregnancy was progressing well; sickness meant good pregnancy hormones, so I actually welcomed it.
I also welcomed the call from the doctor’s office that informed me my hCG levels were rising appropriately. The nurse told me I probably wasn’t miscarrying, but she did tell me to take it easy: no strenuous exercise, no intercourse, and so on until the bleeding stopped. I could live with that. Anything to protect my precious baby.
A day or two after the Fourth of July holiday, my world began to slip out from under me. My mom called to tell me our blind cat Timmy, whom I had rescued as a kitten and loved with all my heart the past ten years, was very sick. I rushed home. I bargained with… the universe?… that if only Timmy could pull through this, I would sacrifice my budding pregnancy. I almost felt guilty for worrying so much about losing a baby that was only a tiny ball of cells at this point, when my cherished animal companion was so close to being lost to me forever.
The universe can be cruel.
Timmy’s breathing became very labored. We took him in for a chest x-ray. He had lung cancer and there was nothing they could do. He was suffering, not eating, and there was no chance he would get better. We made the extremely difficult decision to end his suffering that day. As he slipped quietly away I held him and cried and told him that I loved him and I tried to be strong. I wasn’t.
After I lost my Timmy, I wasn’t as focused on my pregnancy anymore as I grieved my loss. But the bleeding continued, the days passed, and I began to worry again with a fervor.
Guillem and I vacationed in Tahoe not long after Timmy’s death. I had bad morning sickness (along with, of course, the infamous bleeding) while we were there and I wasn’t able to do much, but we did spend some quality time together going out to eat (what little I could), doing some light hiking, and watching rented movies at night. I was reading “The Clan of the Cave Bear” while on that trip and I remember being reassured because the main character had bleeding during her pregnancy and went on to deliver a healthy baby.
Time passed; my bleeding began to let up. I had a doctor’s visit and the doppler revealed a healthy, fast heartbeat– 165 beats per minute, good for a baby that age. It was an incredible experience, hearing my baby’s heartbeat, so fast and strong compared to my own slow steady beats (which the doctor let us hear in comparison). Hearing your baby’s heart beat for the first time is magical. I fell in love with my baby. I began to believe, truly believe, that she would be fine and that everything would turn out okay.
In August, I traveled to the East Coast to visit my sister for a week, then attended the wedding of a good friend from grad school. The plane ride on the way home scared the living daylights out of me– massive turbulence due to thunderstorms. Funny how I worried for my unborn baby’s life more than my own. But overall it was a good trip, I felt okay, my bleeding was letting up, and I was so excited and proud to be pregnant. I was so happy about my baby.
After coming back from this trip I had my NT ultrasound (measuring neck size for chance of trisomy problems, in a nutshell), with videos of my baby (who finally actually looked like a real baby on the screen!) moving around inside of me. I made Guillem take videos of the ultrasound screen with our Flip camera. It was incredible, incredible, incredible. The pregnancy just became so real. They dated me at 12 weeks, 6 days. They told us that everything looked just fine, and gave us adorable pictures of our little baby doing acrobatics in my womb. And, music to my ears, they told us there was a 90 percent chance we were having a GIRL. I couldn’t believe it, I was so happy.
I got home and immediately uploaded my videos on Youtube and my pictures on Facebook. How blissfully ignorant I was. How could I have known the terror that would follow in less than two weeks’ short time?
I went to visit my mom for her birthday shortly after this. I proudly brought my ultrasound pictures to display for my family. My grandma gave me two cute little “baby sacks” (like a little nightie, but without legs, just an elastic band for easier diapering) with jungle animals on them and a set of matching tiny baby washcloths. My mom and I thought they were the cutest thing. She danced around the kitchen saying “Put the baby in the sack!” in a singsong voice as she held them up and I videotaped them on my phone for Guillem at home to see. She told me she was so excited she didn’t think she could wait until six months to meet this baby. I felt the same. Another six months until I got to hold my baby seemed like an eternity. Again, little did I know; an eternity would pass without my ever getting to hold her.
We had decided to decorate the nursery with an ocean animals theme (I love marine life). While I was visiting my mother, my sister sent me all these links to cute baby sets with ocean creatures. We all ooh’d and aah’d over them. I was so, so very excited. She and my mom decided to throw me a baby shower over Christmas vacation, and I happily planned ahead to ask for baby items for Christmas and my birthday (December 19th). I was over the moon with happiness just thinking about it. It was going to be the happiest Christmas ever… at least until the next year, when I would celebrate it with my new baby!
I came back home from my visit to my mom’s place three days before my miscarriage.
At this point in the story, I feel like Ewan McGregor’s character in “Moulin Rouge” as he types his story about loving and losing Nicole Kidman’s character Satine, and now I’m at the part at the end where he gets that look on his face, that pained expression as he huddles over his typewriter, where you know he’s reached the point in the story where his world has crumbled and it’s all over– she’s gone.
I woke around 1 am on August 31, 2011, with strange feelings in my abdomen. I got up and went to the bathroom. I peed. I wiped and I saw blood, but I’d had blood before; I didn’t think too much of it. I laid down again in bed, but something still didn’t feel right, so I got up again. Thought perhaps I had gas or was constipated. Sat back on the toilet and pushed, and then there was pain– bad pain. Really bad pain. And blood.
I cried out. Guillem ran to the bathroom. I told him what was wrong. I asked him to stop outside the door for a minute, as I felt like I needed to have a bowel movement. I remember thinking, How silly this will be if this pain is only gas! Shortly after he closed the door, though, instead of a bowel movement I felt a strong, quick gush of fluid. My water breaking. I had a feeling that’s what it was, but I didn’t know for sure yet. But it freaked me out beyond anything that had happened to this point.
He called 9-1-1 while I curled up in a ball on the cold bathroom floor. The paramedics came quickly. I was so scared. They took me in an ambulance to Stanford Hospital while Guillem followed in his car. The lady in in the back of the ambulance with me kept trying to calm me as I panicked, reassuring me that things would be okay. I was so scared for my baby. So scared. When was the last time I’d ever been so scared for something or someone?
We got to the ER and they wheeled me into a room and the doctor did a quick ultrasound. She found a good, normal heartbeat and tapped it with her finger on the screen as she looked at me and said “That’s what we like to see” and I relaxed a bit. That would be the last time I ever saw my baby.
Guillem came in and I was thinking, Okay, this was a big scare, but maybe everything will be alright and it will be a wake-up call, I will quit my job tomorrow and take it easy and take EXCELLENT care of myself, and maybe this happened for a reason, to show me I made the wrong decision in going back to my teaching job, maybe I should just be taking it easy, which I vowed I would do.
The doctor left for a while, came back, did a vaginal exam. She told me there was a lot more blood than she’d anticipated. They would get me in for a higher-resolution ultrasound, but I’d have to wait. They left the IV in my arm to pump me (and my bladder, for the sake of the ultrasound) full of fluids. We waited. And waited.
We waited for… hours? Felt like a long time. I was playing “Bring on the Rain” my Jo Dee Messina over and over in my head, as I did during a hard time in my life during my freshman year in college. Guillem sat there with me. I really had to pee, and I was so worried, so scared. It was so hard to wait. It was torture.
Finally it was time and they came for me and wheeled my bed into the ultrasound room. The tech lady pulled up my gown to expose my abdomen, squeezed the cold gel on my belly and got started. I couldn’t see her screen. Wasn’t sure I wanted to. An obstetrician I didn’t know (who worked with my regular doctor, and who happened to be on call that evening) walked in at that point. She quickly introduced herself and then kept her eyes glued to the screen as the tech continued. I could see on her face that she wasn’t happy with what she was seeing. It seemed to take a long time. I kept asking if everything was okay but they wouldn’t tell me anything. The doctor kept saying they would need to examine the images in another room, consult, and then we could talk about it. Agony.
They wheeled me back. I emptied my bladder and provided them with a urine sample. I had to keep telling myself, Be strong, it’s okay, you can do this, just get through this second… and this second… and this second… There was so much blood in that toilet. I’d never seen so much blood. I knew that was bad.
Back in the exam room. The doctor and Guillem were there waiting for me. As I walked in from the restroom, I said “Sure was a lot of blood in there,” smiled weakly to show them I was ok, and laid back down on the rolling bed.
The doctor said she wanted to check my cervix. She did and it hurt. She took off her gloves.
Then she dropped the bomb that blew my world to pieces.
I’m sorry to tell you this, but it was your amniotic fluid that you felt in that gush. You lost all of it. There’s just no way, no chance of survival, for your baby. I’m so sorry.
The end of my world. My heart breaking in a million pieces.
Gone. Everything gone.
Crying. Emotions flooding. Disbelief. Maybe this is a dream? Can this really be happening? No, no way this can really be happening, right? Just yesterday everything was fine!
Turning to Guillem. “How are we going to tell our parents?” Choked out in sobs, the first words, for some reason, to come out of my mouth.
Pain. Terrible, terrible pain.
So what do we do now? Just wait?
No. You need an emergency D&E, a dilation and evacuation. You’re already dilated a bit, we can’t stop what your body has started, and you’re at risk of a bad infection now. I’ve put in a call to the doctor who will come in to do the surgery.
What are the risks?
Damage to uterus. Punctured bladder. Punctured bowel.
But unlikely to happen.
Waiting for the doctor. Waiting for surgery. Alone with Guillem. No more hopeful songs playing in my head. Just silence. Numbing silence. It’s too late now. Just the tears, and the pain.
Wheeling me into surgery. Tears streaming down my face. Seeing Guillem walk away from me, down the hallway to call my mom, to shatter her world too. Bright lights, men in white coats chatting and laughing around me, early morning banter, how can they be laughing, don’t they know the world had ended? As if everything hadn’t just collapsed around us, as if everything were normal. The doctor, the anesthesiologist, pity obvious in their expressions as they look into my eyes, saying I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. My asking them to tell me after if it was a boy, or if I really did get my girl. Telling them to fix my heart too, while they’ve got me knocked out and everything. A tiny attempt at a laugh. If only they could. If only they could.
My arm tingles, goes numb, and then all is blackness.
I wake up in recovery, Part Two of my nightmare. Oh terror of terrors, I am CONSCIOUS again, oh no, I don’t want to be conscious! Put me back under! I want to go to sleep! No, no, no, I can’t deal with this reality, can’t be here, awake, experiencing this right now. I am not strong enough. I can’t do this.
I WANT TO SEE MY BABY.
Hadn’t though of this before the surgery for some reason, but the words just spill out of me, unannounced, at the poor nurse who’s leaning over, asking me if I feel alright.
I WANT TO SEE MY BABY. I WANT TO HOLD MY BABY.
A call is put in to the doctor. No, you can’t see her, sorry; she’s already in formalin, and it’s not safe. Sorry. Let me get your husband.
Now he is there, and for some reason I ask him the exact same thing. Can you call somebody, tell them I want to see the baby? I want to hold her. Somebody bring her to me. Of course, he says, just a minute. He leaves and comes back with the same answer. Sorry, they say it’s too late, you can’t see her. I fall numb.
Somehow I get dressed and get into the car and Guillem drives me home. It’s about 8:30 in the morning. I should be happily greeting students at the first day of school right now, but I am not. I am here, facing an empty home, an empty womb. But wait, this home isn’t empty; see here, it’s full of baby things. Baby clothes and baby books and baby appointments scribbled on the calendar, baby sonogram pictures and hopes and dreams of baby. She’s here, she’s everywhere, but she’s nowhere, she’s gone.
I panic. I have to get rid of these things.
I grab a trash bag. I rush around, tears streaming, and I angrily throw every little thing that reminds me of this, of my failed pregnancy, into that bag. Furiously I fill the bag and then I rush outside to the dumpster and I fling the bag into it, and I come back in the house, what now?, and that’s when I remember. The Unisom tabs, the sleeping pills the doctor prescribed to help with the morning sickness. They are in my kitchen, and they offer an escape from the unfathomable misery that threatens to engulf and smother me. I go to them. Guillem follows, helplessly. Then he sees them in my hand and he follows my thoughts.
I spend the next five days in a psychiatric facility, struggling with thoughts of wanting to end my life. Existence felt hopeless and overwhelmingly painful at the time, and I just wanted to be with my baby, even if in death. I don’t feel that way anymore, and I realize objectively now that it was a permanent solution to a temporary problem, but immediately following my baby’s death, I was not in my right state of mind.
I grappled with whether to include my suicidal thoughts in this story. There is a stigma surrounding depression and suicide, and while many consider the subject taboo for discussion, many also feel the same way about pregnancy loss. Since I have already crossed that line, might as well take another step forward and cross this one as well. It is part of the complete story, and there may be other women out there who felt the same way after losing their babies. I want them to know they are not alone, and that it does get better with time.
I didn’t actually take any pills, but because I was thinking about it and because I refused to go with him to get help, Guillem called 9-1-1 for the second time in 12 hours. He told them his wife had just lost a baby and wanted to die and he didn’t know what to do. They sent police to escort me to the county mental health facility. I was handcuffed in my home and led out to the patrol car; when Guillem said, “She just had surgery and she’s going with you willingly, do you really have to do that?” they replied that yes they did, it was procedure, they had to follow it. When you are already battling feelings of extreme guilt over not having been able to save the life of your unborn child, finding yourself cuffed in the back of a police car really makes you feel like a horrible person, let me tell you. Icing in the cake.
The 18 hours I spent in county mental health are a blur in my memory, and I prefer they remain that way. They were not happy hours. After that I was transferred to another facility that was much better, and I got fairly good help there, apart from being held longer than necessary because it was Labor Day weekend and the doctors were too busy vacationing to sign my exit forms. Once I got over the initial shock I no longer felt like I needed to end it all, but it was still helpful to have lots of support surrounding me in the early days of my grief.
Stanford University Hospital is a cutting-edge facility in many ways, but it astounds me still that I was sent away from the ER that morning after losing my baby without so much a piece of paper listing grief resources for support. My patient records showed I had long struggled with depression, and still I was not flagged for a mental health screening, or even a brief meeting with a grief counselor, before leaving the hospital. I hope that in the future Stanford will do more to recognize the significance of such a loss in a woman’s life. We were not even able to get a footprint taken before our baby’s body was incinerated, or take home her ashes after. We were told her ashes were buried with the rest of the “human tissue” coming out of the pathology lab. To them, she may have been simply “products of conception” (as the pathology report I later received described her, to my horror), but to us, she was a beloved, unique and precious child– our first baby.
We still don’t know what caused my water to break and my body to start miscarrying while my baby was still alive. Chromosomal analysis came back normal, and pathology’s findings were inconclusive: some inflammation of tissues, but more likely the result of the tragic events than the cause. Anatomically she was a perfectly normal baby, and numerous blood tests all came back normal– with the exception of one. I discovered I have two alterations in the MTHFR gene, though it’s not clear exactly what role this might play in pregnancy complications. However, my doctor recommends that I take Folgard, a supplement with a higher dose of folate and other B vitamins, during any subsequent pregnancies; MTHFR is involved in the conversion of the potentially-harmful amino acid homocysteine into methionine, so we are awaiting blood tests to check my homocysteine levels. If they are elevated, the extra folic acid should help, though sadly this does little to reassure us our nightmare will not be repeated the next time.
A week after we lost her, we named her Lily Sarah Ellen; Lily, a name we had thought about during the pregnancy, and Sarah Ellen, after my great-grandmother, whom I like to think is holding my baby right now. I was able to connect with a spectacular support group called HAND (Helping After Neonatal Death) and they, along with a handful of extremely sympathetic friends and family members, helped to see me through my darkest days. There are still dark days, to be sure, but their frequency and intensity has diminished with time, and I am beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel where once I saw only unending misery. I hope that my story, which was difficult to write and even more difficult to live through, will help bring comfort to other baby loss mothers and show them that they are not alone in their sorrow or crazy for feeling the way they do. We must continue to live our lives with joy whenever possible; feel grateful for the time (albeit short) we were given with our babies; and go on to do good, help others, and create positive change in the world, as a testament to the lives of our precious babies who will always be loved and never forgotten.
Lindsey can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org