This is the conclusion to a five-part series on the birth and loss of my baby girls, Summer and Malia. Follow these links for parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.
Death. There are many people who say that it is part of life. We are born and then we die. This is the unfortunate reality of life here on earth. Get used to it, kid. You can’t fight fate. We’re all fated to die.
I take umbrage with this for two reasons. First, I don’t think death can be part of a condition that embodies the very meaning of existence (e.g., not existing is not part of existing) any more than the opposite of something can be part of the thing from which it differs (e.g., up is not a part of down, and wet is not part of dry). Second, I don’t think that death is something that anyone can (or should) ever get used to. It grates against our natural bent to live as individuals and be in relationship, and robs us of the very thing to which we are all entitled – life, and everything good that is meant to come with it.
How terrible it is to love something that death can touch.
Maybe it’s because of death’s otherworldliness that we have such a hard time letting go of the people that we love. No matter what we do, we can’t move beyond our own existence and bring them back.
After Dr. Blaszinsky determined that my cervix was open and that I was 1 cm dilated, I was quickly wheeled to a private delivery room in the FBU at Surrey Memorial Hospital. I was in so much anguish during the mayhem of that night that the pain had robbed me even the liberty of weeping over the news that my body was preparing itself to let my babies go. The only thing on my mind was that I wished the pain would stop. It was a menace of a distraction. I couldn’t even give my full attention to the grave circumstances in which I found myself.
“Please, please give me something for the pain!” I cried. Maybe if I had a few more months and time to sign up for a birthing class like I had planned, I would have handled the pain better. It was pitiful. I felt so unprepared, so caught off guard and utterly exposed.
“Here, take this, put it over your nose and mouth and breathe in deep,” I heard someone say. The next thing I knew, I was sucking in nitrous oxide through a mask. It did absolutely nothing for me.
“You’re also on morphine,” someone else said.
Seriously? You could have fooled me.
“I need something stronger!” I begged. “It hurts so much! Please, help me!“ What I needed was the mother of drugs in this case; what I needed was an epidural.
In the delivery room, the nurses tried to calm me down, but there was no use telling me to relax and reassure me that everything would be okay. Everything was not okay. How could it be? The more intense the pain got, the more I felt like one of the babies wanted to come out. I clutched onto one of the nurses, Hayley, with such force that I’m certain I bruised her. If the circumstances I found myself in were like the unstable currents of white water rapids leading straight to a waterfall, then I was headed for the drop without any chance of escape.
When the anesthetist finally arrived, I was asked to sit on the edge of the bed so he could inject me with the epidural. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my poor husband in tears as he spoke on the phone with my mom to tell her what was going on. I’m so sorry, honey, I thought. I’m trying really hard, but I can’t hold on to them much longer. Suddenly, while sitting on the edge of the bed with my arms wrapped around Hayley’s neck and my fingers digging into her back and shoulders, there was a big gush and surprising relief. The pain was gone. But so was my water, because at that same moment it broke.
In the middle of the chaos, the doctors and nurses determined that I was running a fever. It soon became apparent that my temperature, my blood pressure and pulse rate were dangerously high. Little did I know that I was showing signs of a serious infection. Immediately, the cannula that Manny had inserted into my left hand earlier that day was hooked up to an IV so I could receive heavy antibiotics. At that point, not only were the babies in danger, but I was too.
There was talk that night that I might get sepsis and that before the doctors could do anything to save the babies, I needed to be stabilized. Until morning, I wouldn’t get a clear answer on what could be done for the babies. One thing everyone was very clear about was how sick I was. That, however, was entirely lost on me. Other than feeling really hot, I didn’t feel sick at all. All that mattered to me was my babies and keeping them alive. But symptoms and temperature readings don’t lie.
Around the same time my water broke, I was administered the epidural, so if I kept having contractions the rest of the night, I was no longer aware of them. It was one less thing to worry about. For now, my mom, my sister, and my husband would take turns icing me down during the night, and the nurses would stick to me like glue, checking my vital signs every hour on the hour.
It was the middle of the dark night. My mom and husband took turns trying to get some sleep, but sleep was elusive, especially for me. My sister, her husband, and my dad went home around 1:00 a.m. The lights were dim and there was no more whaling and no more crying of pain. The swarm of medical professionals that flooded my room was gone. The silence was deafening.
“You’ll see your babies again,” I heard my nurse Pauline say as I lay in bed completely broken and helpless. Her voice was gentle and soothing. Her African head wrap, a shade of blue, I think. She took a moment to encourage me after taking my blood pressure and temperature. Holding my hand she continued, “I know this. God loves you. He is your strength. Cling on to Him. No matter what happens, you will get through this.“
Through. All I needed was to get through this dark, cold valley. But how would the other side look? Would my babies be with me? The possibilities were unsettling to think about.
By morning, it was clear that the antibiotics were getting somewhere because my vital signs were showing some improvement. As I waited for the doctors to do their rounds at 8:00 a.m. and to finally come see me to tell me what they could do, if anything, to save my babies, I couldn’t help but feel a mixture of hope and total despair. Throughout the night, I clung onto the small hope that maybe, just maybe, one of my babies would make it alive. At some point after my water broke, my husband and I were told that it was baby A (Summer) whose sac was broken and it was unlikely she would make it, but that there was a possibility baby B (Malia) could be saved. (We later learned that this was misinformation, because the doctor who told us this actually had no idea about the babies’ fluid levels.) I hated the prospect of losing one of my babies, but it was nowhere near as devastating a possibility as losing them both. At least I could have one.
“Janzel! Oh, what are you doing back here, sweetheart?” I heard a voice say. It was Dr. Grabowska, the hospital maternal fetal medicine (MFM) specialist I saw the first time I was hospitalized the week earlier.
The next few minutes, I sat in bed trying to pay close attention to everything Dr. Grabowska said, however, this was a difficult task. By morning, I was so weak and physically defeated that, looking back, the only thing I really remember from our conversation with her is that it was highly unlikely that they could save one baby if the other was in jeopardy because they shared a placenta. Before making any decisions, however, Dr. Grabowska wanted to conduct an ultrasound first.
The first time I heard my babies’ heartbeats on December 22, 2015, I remember walking out of that appointment feeling like it was the most surreal experience of my life. At the time, I thought I was only having one baby. (They were so small back then that my prenatal doctor didn’t catch the other baby’s heartbeats.) I’m not sure which of my two girls’ heartbeats I heard, but, boy, were they ever fast. So active! So alive! I couldn’t believe that they belonged to a little person inside me and that those beats I was hearing weren’t my own, but someone else’s and that this ‘someone’ was a life that I played a part in creating. It truly was like hearing the melody of a miracle playing.
That morning, on March 7, 2016, I heard my little miracles for the last time. As my husband and my mom watched Dr. Grabowska run the transducer across my abdomen and as we all listened intently to the sound of my babies’ heartbeats, our own hearts sank. The beats we heard were nothing like the fast-paced and lively pulsating sounds my husband and I had grown accustomed to hearing at our prenatal appointments. Instead, they were much quieter and painfully slow. Baby A’s (Summer) heart was nearly on its last legs. We could tell that she was fighting with every bit of strength she had left to let us hear her one last time. Baby B’s (Malia) heartrate was a little faster than her sister’s, but also much slower and subdued. To make matters worse, neither of them had adequate fluid levels anymore. All of the fluid they needed came out when my water broke the night before.
“I’m so sorry, Janzel,” Dr. Grabowska said, fighting back tears. She then went on to explain that given the babies’ low fluid levels and my own condition, which, although slightly improved, was still extremely precarious at that point, she would not recommend prolonging my pregnancy. The risk to my own life was far too great. If I proceeded to an early delivery, she said that my fever and the infection would start to go away. In that moment, my husband and I were faced with the most difficult decision I believe any parent could ever make: save my life or save our babies.
Words are too flimsy to describe the unimaginable position that I was in at that moment. I know in my own heart how much I loved and cherished my two girls and how absolutely terrified and excited I was to meet them. The cornucopia of emotions that fill your heart as a new parent is absolutely overwhelming. It’s enough to make it swell and deepen in ways you never thought possible. So the moment my husband and I looked at each other through teary eyes and agreed to let our babies go, someone might as well have crushed our hearts and turned them into dust.
A couple of hours later, at 11:00 a.m., I was given a dose of Oxytocin through my IV. At about 2:00 p.m., I went into labour and at 2:20 p.m., my babies were born. Instead of hearing their sweet cries, I heard my own. It really was a labour of love.
Looking back, even with the pain and sorrow of that day, I can’t help but chuckle to myself a bit. All my adult life I imagined cursing my way through labour and delivery and blaming my husband for putting me in the horrifying position of pushing a human out of my own body, but, to my surprise, I never cursed once and my husband, well, he was my hero during that entire ordeal. Strange. How things turn out sometimes.
Baby A was breeched and came out first. She was stillborn when she arrived. She weighed 462g and was 28.5cm long. We named her Summer Elise. My husband picked out her name. We both loved the name Summer because we can’t get enough of that time of year (especially in Vancouver!) and it just sounded like such a happy name. Of the two babies, Summer was also the most active. She was the one I felt kicking me all the time. My husband and I imagine that she probably would have been the troublemaker. We laugh when we think about the kind of attitude she would have had. It definitely would have come from him!
I tell people that baby B came shooting right out as soon as her sister was born. She really did! Neither I nor the doctor who delivered them, Dr. Ho, was expecting her to come out so soon. In fact, Dr. Ho had his body turned to quickly deal with Summer when baby B came out. I remember hearing her tiny body bounce on the net they had below my legs because no one was prepared to receive her. If you ask me, I don’t think she wanted to leave her sister alone.
We named baby B Malia Joelle. I picked out her name. She weighed 452g and was 28cm long. Malia was alive and breathing when she came out. For a few, short moments, we had a living, breathing baby girl to hold in our arms. It pained me and my husband that there was nothing we could do to save her. She was my quiet baby, the one I worried about because I never felt her as much as her sister. When I was pregnant, the doctors said it was probably because of where the placenta was in relation to her position in my belly, but I think she was just quiet. She probably would have been more like me – contemplative and serious. I’m sure we would have had to remind her that it was okay to have fun sometimes.
As I close the last post in this series, I can’t help but feel like I’m losing them all over again. Today, they would have been exactly 29 weeks. It was my goal to get them to at least 30 weeks, when they would have had a good chance of surviving without any health complications. I certainly never imagined that this is where we would be at this stage. By now, I would have had my baby shower and would have likely been busy at work with the nursery. Instead, I’m now part of a very devastating and staggering statistic of women who experience pregnancy resulting in miscarriage or neonatal death. Although I now belong to this exclusive club (a club that no one ever wants to join), I refuse to let this loss define me. I have no doubt that the road ahead will be difficult (it has already been filled with so many tears and crippling heartache), but I know that if my girls were still with me, they would want something better for me – something much better than living inside my grief. So, here I am, putting one foot in front of the other, still trying to get through this valley. I can’t fly over it and I can’t transport myself out of it; it’s just something I have to get through. And even though there has been so much darkness, I have a tenacious hope that there is light on the other side.
Oftentimes I catch myself remembering how my babies felt in my arms. The blankets they were in were so bulky, much too big for their little bodies. Though small, our girls were so perfect, even with their delicate skin and tiny features. They were our little miracles. And as I wrap my arms as if to hold my babies and close my eyes while I remember how it felt have them in my embrace, although ephemeral, sometimes – before that very tangible feeling vanishes into thin air – I can almost feel them again.