She’s a joyful, jubilant, glowing 27-year old, and she tells me that just 12 weeks ago she received the best news of her life.
“You are pregnant! You are going to be a mother!”
I wasn’t there, but I close my eyes to imagine the excitement. I imagine the physician coming back with the results of the urine pregnancy test, and I imagine her clenching her husband’s hand until its red, white, and blue, like Raynaud’s phenomenon. I imagine them as they hold their breath to listen, so that not even a whisper of air can distract from this moment. I imagine the tension, the electricity, the anticipation, the anxiety.
Just 12 weeks ago, they had plans of bringing a baby into this world.
Just 12 weeks ago, they began to think of names.
And just 2 weeks ago, she began to feel the ‘fetus’ move, and she became even more aware that a baby, complete with 23 maternal and 23 paternal chromosomes, was growing inside of her uterus. It had a heart beat. It had life. It had a name.
She visits the clinic – alone – at 18 weeks gestation for her routine prenatal checkup. She tells the doctor and me that, recently, she hasn’t been feeling the baby move as much. And even more concerning, she had an episode of bleeding two nights ago. And she’s worried.
She’s worried. And she’s alone.
The doctor tells her that she needs to check-in to the hospital to get a non-stress test done to assess for fetal reactivity. She agrees. I know she’s worried, so I tell her that I would be at the hospital in the afternoon, and that I will check on her. She’s thankful.
When I get there in the afternoon, she is just getting to the hospital. I walk in, and we chat. We talk about the snowstorm that we are supposed to be getting over the weekend. She jokes that meteorologists are always wrong, and that we probably won’t get more than an inch. We joke and laugh, as the nurse begins to set up the doppler and tocodynamometer. I decide to step out and allow her to finish setting up the non-stress test.
I walk to the nurses’ station, and, oddly, the nurse follows behind me. She tells another nurse to call the doctor in the clinic.
Something is off.
A few minutes pass, and I get up to go to the bathroom. As I exit the bathroom, I hear a shriek from the other end of the hallway, the type of shriek that’s filled with passion and pain, the type of shriek I’ve only heard once before in my life. And in that moment, I remember that’s the noise my father made at his grandmother’s funeral.
I walk into her room to see her balled up on the hospital bed, with the doctor holding her hand. And somehow, I know what has happened. I take one look at her eyes - filled with grief, pain, anguish, agony – and one solitary tear gently runs down my cheek onto her sheets.
The doctor holds her hand, and tells her that there is nothing she could’ve done to prevent this from happening. He explains what is going to happen next. He tells her that most of the time, it is due to anomalies that are incompatible with life. She asks questions, and he takes his time to leave none unanswered. She’s tearful, and asks if she can call her husband. We leave the room to give her privacy.
After a while, she is wheeled down to the OR to ‘evacuate the products of conception’ – a phrase that I utterly despise. To her, it is more than a ‘product of conception’. To her, it is more than just a ‘fetus’.
To her, it was her baby. It had a name. It had a life.
And just then, I become disgusted with some of the medical terminology we often use in our notes. We often dehumanize and assign expressions based on legalities and constitutionality, rather than emotions and humanism.
The ‘pregnancy’ is ‘viable,’ as to not imply life.
The ‘fetus’ is not yet a baby, as to avoid an emotional attachment.
We wheel her out of the OR, and her eyes speak an indescribable pain. A pain, that if she had read my post-operative note calling her baby an ‘aborted fetus’, she probably would’ve spit in my face. And I would not blame her.
I take one look at her eyes, and I can’t stomach what I just wrote in the chart. I feel dirty, unclean, dishonest, deceitful. And I want to take my post-operative note and rip it out of the chart. And I want to tell the resident and attending that I will not refer to her baby as an ‘aborted fetus’, and that I demand that we start using terms that illustrate the emotions that this woman is experiencing for her lost baby.
But I don’t.
And I don’t know why.