My Birth Story
By: Annie Murray
I’m fairly certain that the quote about it “taking a village” was written about the raising of a child, not necessarily the birthing of a child. Nor saving the life of said mother following that birth. Three times.
After a couple of years of fertility treatments, which included a pretty severe case of Ovarian Hyper-Stimulation Syndrome (OHSS) during the thick of our IVF process, I became pregnant with our first son. It just so happened that my OBGYN (who later became our delivering physician) was our neighbor who lived in the house directly behind us. My husband and I became fast friends with her, partially because we liked to drink red wine together (pre-pregnancy, of course) in our garage bar, and partially because she has seen my lady parts a bunch so it seemed like we might as well be friends. Either way, it was pretty convenient to have my OBGYN in such close proximity, and for some weird reason I felt safer knowing that she was so close should something bad happen. Little did I know, the relationship that I formed with my doctor in our garage turned out to be an integral piece of my “village.”
My first pregnancy turned out to be pretty normal; however, delivery and post-partum were complicated by hemorrhages right after delivery and another at six-weeks post-partum, requiring an emergency D&C for retained placenta. Although scary, at the time I did not require transfusions or interventions beyond the relatively straight-forward surgery; it did, however, make for good garage bar storytelling with my OBGYN and other neighbors that went something like this, “Remember that time when I hemorrhaged and I sent you a picture of the puddle of blood and you texted me to come to the hospital and I had emergency surgery?” Yeah, that one.
It took me a while to not feel so traumatized by my first delivery. After about a year or so, my husband and I began the process of trying to get pregnant with our second child. After a successful frozen embryo transfer, and as my pregnancy progressed, I communicated my fears of having another post-partum hemorrhage to my OBGYN. Obviously, I never wanted to repeat that scenario, even though the odds of another PPH occurring only increased with my “advanced” age (38) and prior PPHs. I was nervous for delivery, but felt assured that we had a ‘plan’ as to how to mitigate the chances of a repeat. My second pregnancy was not as smooth as the first, as a sub-chorionic hemorrhage threatened my pregnancy during the first trimester. It was a time of high anxiety, and I felt like I could not really talk about what was going on to anyone except for my husband. To everyone’s surprise, our little guy continued to thrive, and we thankfully had a less eventful second and third trimester. This delivery went a lot faster, as I’m told they often do, and I only had to push three times before my second son was born, healthy and a spitting image of his older brother. But I knew something was wrong almost right away because I could see my OB continually checking her watch, while my body showed no signs of delivering my placenta. That event, or non-event I should say, prompted them to manually deliver my placenta, or at least part of it. Immediately afterwards, on an ultrasound scan while still in the delivery room, it showed further retained placenta. Right away, I underwent surgery in an effort to preempt another post-partum hemorrhage. From what I understand, however, operating on a uterus right after delivering an eight-pound baby is much like exploring the Milky Way or some intergalactic space, a virtual black hole; big, black, and impressively vast. Considering that, the outcome of the surgery was seemingly positive with a healthy dose of let’s-hope-for-the-best. Two days later, we took our new baby home, now a family of four, and we crossed our fingers that my post-partum recovery would progress without further incident.
One night, at about three weeks post-partum, while my toddler was soundly sleeping upstairs and my husband (a pilot in the Navy) was flying, I stood up with the baby, intending to go to bed. That’s when I felt the initial warm gush of blood; since I had felt this sensation before, after the birth of my first son, I immediately knew that I was hemorrhaging and knew that I had to get to the hospital. That marked the beginning of my personal post-partum medical crisis.
Over the course of the next three weeks, I experienced three significant and life-threatening post-partum hemorrhages, a total of four emergency surgeries, multiple massive blood transfusions, and ultimately an emergency hysterectomy.
Figures indicate that approximately 4–6% of women experience post-partum hemorrhage, and PPH is widely accepted as the world’s leading cause of maternal mortality. Considering that I hemorrhaged three weeks after my son’s delivery, this was classified as a secondary or delayed post-partum hemorrhage, or one that occurs after the first twenty-four hours following delivery. Delayed post-partum hemorrhages are an extremely rare phenomenon, making up less than just 1% of all of post-partum hemorrhages. As my husband always sarcastically says, we like to live life in the margins.
It is hard for me to describe the hemorrhages, both physically and emotionally. After my second hemorrhage and subsequent surgery, one of my girlfriends, curious about the experience, asked if it was like having a really heavy period. Um, no. We are talking crime scene amounts of blood and clots, measured in liters. Liters. There’s no uterine tourniquet you can tie when you are bleeding out, and the actual visual of that amount of blood was shocking. One of the operating physicians joked that I looked like “Carrie” when I was brought to the hospital, as in the bloodied character from a Stephen King novel. Unfamiliar with the horror genre, I later had to google what “Carrie” looked like, and when I saw the picture of her covered in blood, I felt nauseous and had to throw up. Emotionally, it was even worse. During the hemorrhages, I was more scared than I have ever been in my entire life, and I felt like I had virtually no control over my body. To complicate things further, during the weeks that all of this was happening, my husband was preparing for a military deployment and then actually deployed. That, in and of itself, is a stressful life event, especially with a toddler and a newborn in my charge. During those seemingly very long weeks, I lived from medical appointment to medical appointment, constantly having my blood counts and volume monitored, hoping that my uterus, which in hindsight was a ticking time bomb, would not bleed again; but it did. That anxiety was intense, so when my husband deployed in the midst of all this, I felt very alone, overwhelmed, vulnerable, and terrified that I would die, leaving my children alone.
Nine months later, I still cannot quite shake these events. I think about it a lot. Like, a lot a lot.
As a former Navy pilot myself, I felt like I was pretty good at compartmentalization. It is a trait that allows pilots to focus on the task at hand, not allowing other forces to interfere, vital for managing in-air emergencies or the complexities of combat. In the aftermath of my post-partum medical issues, that trait came in handy as I had to compartmentalize to some extent, for my own sanity and in order to care for my children while my husband was deployed. I was in literal and figurative survival mode. Once my husband safely returned from deployment months later, the effects of those events started to haunt me more, as my compartmentalization skills had degraded, likely just from all of the stress. I felt ashamed and weak that I could not simply shake my negative thoughts. I now work as a Clinical Psychologist in the Navy, obviously a more emotion-centric job, and I understand the mechanisms of trauma in an academic sense. As I struggle with the emotions of what happened, I know that I need to make sense of it, first by processing what happened, and then by organizing my thoughts so that they may be filed away as memories that are no longer threatening to me. Right now, they are too jumbled in my head; so I write in an effort to organize my thoughts and memories, and to put them somewhere that feels better to my head and to my heart.
So here goes nothing.
I am having a hard time with anxiety. Since everything happened, I feel like I am waiting for the other shoe to drop, like something bad is going to happen and I will not be as lucky this next time, whether it is another hemorrhage or one of the other awful demises I have imagined for myself or my family (natural disasters, chronic diseases, victims of crime, freak accidents, or military aviation disasters). I tried to compartmentalize that anxiety, but it all exploded recently when I broke down to my husband, absolutely sure in my head that I was dying of some terrible disease, after I simply made a mole bleed from scratching it too hard. And then there was the time last month when I had a mini panic attack at the Billy Joel concert, prompted by my own existential thought process, which has seemed to plague me since all of this happened. It went something like this: Wow, I remember Billy Joel looking so much younger. He’s so old now. Once he dies, I will be the one who’s old then and people will be saying the same about me. Oh my gosh, I’m going to die soon. I’m next. I’M DYING!
Seriously, that is what I was thinking. Cue the heart racing, sweating, and chest pain.
I am even more hesitant to admit this, but I am also sad at times. I am really having a hard time with the fact that we will not have more children after my hemorrhages and hysterectomy. I feel guilty for even feeling this way, even guiltier for making my feelings public, considering the fact that we are blessed with two beautiful boys and that there are far worse things happening in the world. I am now healthy and alive, and I am so very grateful. I have not shared what happened to me with many people, and I have shared with even fewer people the gruesome details, so when I do it seems that most people are not sure what to say. It seems like people default to saying something well-intentioned (albeit true), but something cliché that minimizes all that I have been through such as, “Well, it’s all worth it” or “be grateful for what you have.” Of course I am grateful, my children are my greatest joy, but right now I am also sad. I am sad that we worked so, so, so hard to be able to have children in the first place, and that once we were able to, that part of me was shut down. Forever. In such a scary and uncontrollable way for me. I am sad that my body seemingly failed me in the two jobs that seem to befit just about every woman on this planet, fertility and birthing babies. I have not yet found my peace with the fact that I physically do not have my reproductive organs either. Most days I can honestly say that it does not bother me, while other days I feel deformed and like less of a woman.
Recently, I casually approached my husband about having a third baby via surrogate, but I do not think that is in the cards for us. So I think about all of our embryos that we still have, and I am sad about the babies that we will never meet. I cannot bear to think about what to do with those embryos yet; for now, they will just remain frozen in space and time, before I ever bled.
I have decided that these matters are not so black and white. I am incredibly grateful and happy, but I am also dealing with the leftover anxiety and sadness from what happened, emotions that do not have to be mutually exclusive of one another. I can feel conflicting emotions at the same time.
So let me get back to my village and all that I am grateful for, because there is so much.
I am grateful for the medical treatment that I received throughout: I literally had my OBGYN (the same one who lives right behind us) on speed dial as all of this was going on, and I am grateful that she saw me through all of my surgeries and treatment. I am not sure what my outcome would have been otherwise. Even with such access to top-notch medical care, I still almost died. I am grateful that emergency medical help was so close to me, and the ambulance was only a 2 minute drive up the street from me, another 5 minutes to the hospital; access to the best medical care at the Navy’s largest hospital, with the trauma care and blood bank resources that I needed. I received all of this medical treatment free of charge since I am active duty military, so I am thankful that I have insurance and that I did not go bankrupt to pay for my life-saving care. I am grateful that I no longer have to worry about bleeding to death.
I am grateful for the people I have in my life: my husband, a true partner in every way, who let me know that what I was feeling was ok and normal; my family and friends who helped care for me and my children while I was hospitalized; our neighbors who came over in the middle of the night to be with my sleeping kids while I was rushed to the hospital; more neighbors who came over in the middle of the night as well, except they cleaned up any trace of blood, scrubbing walls and floors, and throwing away furniture and clothes, so that my toddler did not see such an awful scene when he woke up the next morning; my dear friend who showed up at the emergency room to hold my hand as they wheeled me into surgery, so that I wasn’t alone; the support network of military spouses who somehow got word to my husband on an aircraft carrier in the middle of the night, so that he knew his wife was safely out of emergency surgery for the fourth time, the same spouses that then brought us nourishing meals for weeks; for the Navy flying my husband home from deployment to be by my bedside when things were not looking good for me, and then for letting him stay to care for our family for two weeks. I am grateful for family and friends who moved in with me during part of my recovery, and while my husband was deployed, since I could not lift my own children.
Most of all, I am grateful for the health of my two boys. They are everything that is good and genuine in this world and they bring our family such joy.
Finding Every Mother Counts has been a blessing. It is an organization that validates the importance of maternal health, both physically and emotionally. It has given me a voice in all this, as if to say that as a mother of two little boys, I matter so much. I am their world right now and, if I had not made it, it would have left a gaping hole in my family, and potentially my community and beyond. It reduces the stigma that accompanies these experiences, and it makes me feel less alone. When I think about the women who do not have access to the resources that I did, it makes me want to take action. After hearing the stories of women who have to walk dozens of miles to receive any maternal care or who experience grief and loss with little or no support, I feel compelled to get involved. Sharing my story is only the first step, and I realize that there is a lot of work to be done. After all, it takes a village.