By Lisa Cucinotta
A little before Julia turned two I finally got comfortable with the idea of having a second child. Although having two kids had always been my plan, the PPD and general difficulties adjusting to parenthood had left me with a big question mark on the topic. Finally I crossed the bridge from fear into acceptance and was ready to try. I think it had something to do with Julia being slightly more independent – she was walking, talking, understanding the things we were saying, and I was starting to have more fun. Ready to take the leap, I stopped birth control. With Julia, it took me around a year from when I stopped taking birth control pills to get pregnant, so I wasn’t expecting anything quickly with my second.
A few months after we started trying, I passed out on the subway. Brian was with me and managed to drag me off the train at the next stop and onto the platform before I collapsed into his arms. It happened suddenly and dramatically, but after stopping into a cafe and drinking some apple juice, I felt much better and I even went to work that day. I thought I might have had something called vasovagal syncopy , a fainting episode that can happen for a variety of reasons including low blood sugar and is relatively harmless. I chose not to worry about it too much and didn’t got to the doctor.
Then the next week, it happened again, also on the subway (weird, right?). This time I was alone and felt the same sensation that I was going to lose consciousness. I leaned forward to brace myself and ended up smashing my head into the pole in front of me, which happened to have the benefit of propping me up. Someone quickly gave me their seat and after I put my head between my legs for a minute or two I felt fine. But two times in a week seemed odd, so I made an appointment with my primary care physician for a quick check in. She asked some questions, ran blood work and didn’t find anything out of the norm, so she told me to let her know if it happened again.
That weekend Brian and I were scheduled to go on our first solo trip since Julia was born. It was just two nights in Philadelphia in October, not exactly a tropical vacation, but we had lined up a bunch of fun stuff to do, including the Mutter Museum, which I’ve always wanted to visit. It’s a museum of medical oddities, something I am really into (don’t even get me started on conjoined twins). I remember one display there was of a fetus at every week of development during the first trimester. This was not the most unusual thing (they had giant tumors, casts of medical anomalies and an enormous collection of skulls) but the tiny little fetuses stuck with me as a mom.
Within a day of being in Philly I got terrible heartburn and stomach pains. We had to stop at a drugstore to pick up Tums and Zantac to try and alleviate my symptoms. I have celiac disease and although I am vigilant about not eating gluten, I occasionally get cross contaminated or accidentally ingest traces which can lead to symptoms like this. Not fun, but not worth cancelling a trip over. While we didn’t get much romantic time, we still went sight seeing, ate some great food and generally enjoyed being childless people for a few days.
The day after we returned I was due to get my period but I didn’t. I thought maybe the heartburn and weird stomach aches while we were away could be early onset symptoms of pregnancy so I took a test which confirmed I was indeed expecting. This was pretty crazy news to process, as we hadn’t been trying for long and I was taking a really exciting work trip the next day.
I would be flying to San Francisco to go to a Facebook conference at their headquarters. I would also get to drop in on the Twitter headquarters and it was to be my first trip at both. I was seriously jazzed about going, in particular because my company sending me was an indication of how seriously they were taking my role in growing our social practice. The morning of the trip my stomach felt worse than it had before, and more than that, it felt weird. I’ve had a lot of medical problems in my life, but this was a feeling I hadn’t experienced, both dull and sharp at the same time and in multiple locations. But I just felt couldn’t very well pass up this super exciting opportunity.
I met up with my coworkers at the airport but we were all split up on the plane. During the flight, I passed out four times. I didn’t even know you could lose consciousness when you are sitting down, but apparently you can, because I did. I’d get this wave really fast of knowing it would be about to happen, my head would drop, and then I would come to a few seconds later, feeling tingly and sweaty. One of my co-workers stopped by my seat to say hi mid-flight, and I told him what happened, but played it off as if it was a weird, lighthearted thing and not at all a concerning development. When we got off the plane, I didn’t even mention it to the other two. I was traveling with all men, and in retrospect I think this affected a lot the way I handled the situation. I didn’t want to show any signs of weakness, especially since they were all in more senior roles at the company than me.
I struggled to act normal on the way to the hotel and immediately called Brian crying from my room. “Something’s wrong, and I’m scared”. I remember trying to convince myself that I didn’t need to go to the doctor, because then I might miss the dinner scheduled with our Facebook team (um, seriously?). He insisted I go to the doctor, pointing out that being pregnant made it literally twice as important.
As luck would have it, there was an urgent care literally next door. When I stopped at the concierge to get walking directions there, I must have looked like a hot mess because the hotel insisted on sending someone to walk me there. I shot a super casual email to my co-workers. “Hey, I’m going to run over to the urgent care as I have a minor medical issue I just need to check out before dinner!”
At the urgent care, my pain was intensifying. I thought maybe I had an ulcer, or the world’s worst case of heartburn. Once I got into the exam room and the nurse realized I was pregnant and checked out my current state and symptoms, she looked at me like I was crazy. She refused to let the doctor see me and insisted I go to the hospital and called me a cab. I really thought she was overreacting (denial is not just a river in Egypt, folks). I called Brian with an update from the cab, and he was getting more worried, but I still figured it would turn out to be something minor. I am the master of random but not serious medical maladies.
At the hospital, I wasn’t allowed to get out of a wheelchair because I was a “falling risk” due to the fainting. They took some blood, and while waiting for the results, the decision was made that I needed an ultrasound. They had to give me IV saline to pump me up with enough fluid to take a look which is rough because I am someone that has to pee ALL THE TIME. The IV saline was killing my bladder, plus the pain was making the need to go to the bathroom worse somehow. I begged them to let me pee, but was told that doing so would likely extend the time until the ultrasound because they’d have to fill me back up. I held off as long as I could but eventually I just had to go.
Not too long after I peed, an ultrasound tech came over to get me. I told her that I wasn’t sure if I was ready because I had just peed and she made it clear that they had to do the ultrasound NOW. Nobody said anything during the exam but they spent more time on one side than another. I wondered if maybe my appendix had burst or maybe I had a kidney stone. Quickly after the exam I was brought into a private room and given the news. I was in a more advanced state of pregnancy than I thought. I wasn’t just a day or two passed a missed period, apparently I had been pregnant as of the previous month, but because I got a light period and my temps had gone back down I never tested. But here was the triple whammy: I was eight weeks pregnant, the pregnancy was ectopic and it had ruptured. I was bleeding internally and likely had been for a few days. They were amazed that I wasn’t septic already. They said I required surgery to remove the fetus.
This is how you’ll know I was in shock: My first thought was that I was going to miss the Facebook conference. Next, I asked them if I could wait until I got home to have the surgery. As in, fly back across the country. The doctor looked at me like I had two heads. “We have to do the surgery RIGHT NOW. Immediately. You are lucky that you came in when you did or you could have died.” I had to call my husband and tell him that we were losing the pregnancy and that I would be having emergency surgery while he was across the country. There was crying on both sides. He assured me he’d find a way to get the first flight out there.
Here’s the third piece of proof I was in shock: My Facebook rep and my boss’s boss stopped by to check on me in the hospital on the way to dinner (I had sent them a follow up to my earlier email informing them that I was in the hospital and might be late to dinner) and I decided they should take a picture of me in my hospital gown giving the thumb’s up sign to post on Facebook in order to be meta.
Let’s examine some layers here. 1) I posted a hospital photo of myself to Facebook. 2) I was giving a thumbs up. 3) I neglected to remember that despite my parents being on vacation in Australia, it was the modern era, which meant that they had internet sporadically and therefore the ability to check Facebook (they hadn’t been notified of my condition like the rest of my family had because we didn’t want to worry them on vacation) 4) I was losing my baby. To my credit, if there is anything redeeming about this action at all, it’s that I didn’t actually tell Facebook that I was pregnant. I just said I was bleeding internally and needed surgery. But still, but still, but still. Have I ever mentioned I’m an oversharer? Also, as it turns out, even though I am an obsessive thinker and can spend hours turning over a conversation or decision in mind, I literally turned my brain into a blank slate of denial and repression to deal with this situation.
My husband arrived the next morning after the surgery was over. The surgery went well; they had to remove one of my Fallopian tubes because the damage was too severe, but otherwise everything went smoothly. I was able to fly home the day after that, on the original flight I had planned to take home. Amazingly, the seat next to me on the plane was free and we were able to book it without having to deal with it at the airport. I cried some on the plane when Maxwell’s cover of Kate Bush’s song “A Woman’s Work” popped up on my playlist (it’s a song that was written for the movie “She’s having a Baby” about the scariness of childbirth) until my husband made me stop listening to moody music. Then I mostly slept.
My company was kind and generous in paying for expenses as well as offering as much time off as I needed, but I went back to work quickly from home, because I couldn’t bear to be alone with my thoughts. Surprisingly, I didn’t mourn the loss of the pregnancy much. I had only known I was pregnant for 2 days when it happened, and hadn’t begun to attach myself to the idea of a baby in my mind. In addition, because I knew it was not viable, it helped me feel that it could never have been my baby. Mom tip: Just because I didn’t struggle much with the loss doesn’t mean that is the experience of other moms who have gone through something similar, or any other kind of pregnancy loss. It hits every woman differently and there’s no right or wrong way to feel.
But a few months after the ectopic, during the time it began to sink in that I might not be able to have a baby, I struggled pretty hard with something similar to PTSD. It was as if the realization that I almost died just smacked me in the face one day, and I became terrified. I withdrew emotionally, I cried a lot, I had way more anxiety than usual. Everything I had closed in my brain just opened up and started spilling out. This seems to be a bit of a pattern for me – I handled my postpartum depression the same way, not actually recognizing it until after it had been going on for too long. One thing that helped was my doctor explaining to me that having one tube doesn’t reduce your chances of pregnancy by half, as women don’t consistently ovulate. Some women might only ovulate from one tube, some might alternate every month, and some can ovulate on one side for three months and then switch. He said I should trust my body to do it’s job and that I was still young enough to have a good chance of a happy outcome.
My story has a happy ending, as you likely know if you’ve read my blog and remember that I have two kids. Despite having only one Fallopian tube left to work with, after getting permission to try again after three months, I was able to get pregnant within a year, and that’s our delicious Luca. And every year I make a donation to the Stanford Hospital in California as a reminder of what I’ve lost and what I’ve gained. It’s because of them that I’m alive and I have my boy.