When Brian and I lost our first baby, I was very particular about the language I used to describe the loss. It wasn’t a miscarriage. It was an ectopic pregnancy. I wanted people to know there was a difference and that difference meant something to me. Over the years I have become less particular about that distinction. I have come to let go of the things that separate me from my sisters who have experienced the same pain of the death of a precious child. I have found it is easier to say, “I have had two miscarriages” than to say, “I have had two ectopic pregnancies” and then have to explain exactly what that means. Even in my writings here you will find me using more general and inclusive language about my losses because I am more interested in what unites grieving woman than what divides us.
But I want to tell you my story. And it’s the story of ectopic pregnancies.
I happened to run across the blog of a woman who had also had an ectopic pregnancy. She commented on one of my blog posts, I checked out her blog and I found we had a shared story. It was amazing to me how in reading about her ectopic I felt a sense of healing. Some of what she was expressing was familiar to me, but they were thoughts and emotions I had shoved down long ago. So I’m sharing my story not because I want to separate myself from women who have had a more “typical” miscarriage experience (whatever that means), but because maybe there’s a woman out there who is grieving her ectopic pregnancy and is having a hard time finding someone who understands. I understand that pain and the need to find someone who has walked this road, too.
If you’re wondering what an ectopic pregnancy is, The Mayo Clinic has a great overview. The short story is that babies belong in a uterus. If they don’t implant there, they may implant somewhere else, most commonly in a fallopian tube. That pregnancy can’t be sustained. Hopefully someday doctors will be able to successfully transplant them to the uterus, but at this point that isn’t a viable option. So here’s what it’s like to experience an ectopic pregnancy.
The pain is incredible: And I’m talking about the physical pain. I couldn’t straighten up or walk during the worst of the pain. I can’t really describe the pain, but it doesn’t feel like cramping the way you might expect a miscarriage would. It was just like a sharp lump of pain and nothing could fix it. I also was so wanting to protect my unborn child that I didn’t want to take anything for pain. I legitimately thought I might die and told Brian if he found me dead in the morning, he should tell the paramedics it was an ectopic pregnancy. This was before we had an official diagnosis, I just knew. My second ectopic pregnancy I ended up collapsing on the ER floor before somebody put me on a gurney in a hallway while I waited to see a doctor. This is a pretty traumatic way to be initiated into losing your baby.
The disappointment is intense: In my experience, ectopics can be kind of tricky to diagnose. Sometimes hormone levels don’t rise as they should, which tips off your doctor. But sometimes they do rise exactly as they should. Sometimes the baby can be clearly seen in an ultrasound and you can tell it’s in the wrong place. But sometimes you can’t really see the baby at all. Eventually it becomes clear, but for awhile you may be in this weird place where nobody will tell you exactly what’s going on. One person says your hormone levels are fine. The next person says they can’t find a heartbeat. Now you’re being walked down the hall to the most high-powered ultrasound machine to “take a look around”. The next thing you know they’re talking about surgery. As the mother of that child, you hold on to hope until the last possible moment. Even when they tell you your baby has implanted in the wrong place, you want to imagine that your child can beat the odds and continue to grow, or magically roll into a better position. What you most want is total clarity, but it seems like a hard thing to get. And all of the sudden nobody cares about your baby anymore and they’re talking to you about the signs that you might be in danger from internal bleeding. It’s hard to really take in that information when you’re trying to understand how you went so quickly from being a pregnant woman to being a woman carrying a dead child who is now in danger herself.
The questions are haunting: Is this baby alive or dead? Is there any hope? What can we do? Why did this happen? Did I somehow cause this? Can’t we move the baby? Is the procedure to deal with an ectopic pregnancy essentially an abortion? All these questions are complicated by the quick timeline required by an ectopic pregnancy. To avoid rupturing a fallopian tube (which along with impairing your fertility could also kill you) decisions have to be made quickly. Doctors know how to deal competently with removing ectopic pregnancies, but I don’t think they always know how to explain it to you, allow you a moment to grieve and help you feel empowered in the decision making process all in the timeframe that feels safe to them. If you don’t get your questions answered, they may stick with you for a long time and can complicate your grief.
The guilt is unexpected: Oh, the guilt. It’s hard to put words around this. I felt guilty because my body failed me. I felt guilty because we had infertility issues (which can correlate with a higher risk of ectopics). I felt guilty because we did infertility treatments to get pregnant (although I also had an ectopic pregnancy with a spontaneous pregnancy). I felt guilty because I had previously had surgery which may have increased my risk. I felt guilty because I chose to have my child surgically removed from my body (in one situation) and chemically removed (in another situation). Even though we were reassured that there was not a living child still in my body, I agonized about if we were doing the right thing to end the pregnancy.
The ramifications are longterm: It is a double whammy to lose a baby and then realize you are now at a higher risk to lose another baby in the exact same way. The surgery I went through may have left scar tissue that contributed to the next ectopic pregnancy I had. My future positive pregnancy test results were met with fear instead of joy as I felt a correlation between pregnancy and painful loss. We were told if we had multiple ectopic pregnancies, the best thing to do would be to remove the faulty tube, which was a sad thought.
God is bigger than your fallopian tube: I’m not going to say that every infertile woman is going to someday be pregnant. That absolutely isn’t true and I think false hope is incredibly damaging. With that being said, statistically speaking, a lot of women who at one time struggle with infertility will eventually have a biological child. For us, that took ten years and three pregnancies. But I want to take you to that moment in the doctor’s office when they were looking for the location of our baby at his early ultrasound. The first thing the ultrasound tech did was look to see which ovary I had ovulated from. She could tell I had ovulated from my right ovary. . . and it felt like the beginning of the end. Both of my ectopic pregnancies had happened in my right tube. My doctor had said if we had a third tubal pregnancy, he would surgically remove the tube to avoid that happening again. I began to mentally prepare for that reality. But that’s not what happened. God choose to do a miracle in not only providing conception and a proper implantation, but doing it through the damaged tube we were certain would mean death for any future children. I struggle with having hope. I’m not very good at being hopeful, but I am learning that God is not constrained by my lack of hope or a doctor’s bleak prognosis.