‘My baby died’
Even though she was a foetus, our baby was terminally ill. She had 69 chromosomes – an overload no one can survive. After three long years of trying to conceive, what was meant to be a happy new beginning for our family came to a sudden end.
She was going to be our baby and the little sister to our daughter, filling that little space reserved for so long for a fourth member of our family. She was our last hope after years of hoping, of trying everything.
Three months before, we had reached the end of a long road of trying to get pregnant the fun way. Except after three years it stops being fun and becomes a draining cycle of counting calendar days, discussing mucus, monotonous sex (touching your husband, you get a raised eyebrow and a desperate, ‘Do we have to?’), waiting, feeling the menstrual hormones building up, hoping you are imagining them, seeing the blood, crashing into disappointment. Then counting days again, discussing mucus, monotonous sex, waiting, feeling hormonal, hoping you’re imagining it, seeing the blood… Month after month after month. Thirty-six months, in fact.
Then we had some extra money and decided on IVF.
I was the star patient! Forty-three years old, with 10 eggs maturing! Nine eggs viable, seven successfully fertilised, five viable after three days!
We were brimming with hope. The injections were easy; it was the Christmas holidays. Everything looked good. The eggs were harvested on 26 December, and the three-day-old embryo was implanted on the 29th. It was auspicious, exciting, wonderful. We knew I would be the incredible exception to all statistics. We were going to have a baby!
Except that wasn’t how it was. The 11-day wait for the pregnancy test was torture. I started bleeding. Panicking, I phoned the doctor. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘Go for the blood test anyway.’ Negative.
I don’t remember how I felt. I suppose I was disappointed, but we still had one viable frozen embryo. We decided to wait three months, then try again.
We returned to the clinic, full of hope. Would the embryo survive defrosting – a dangerous time for these little things? It survived! We were on our way again. Eleven days later, I bled. Devastation, lost hope, lost everything.
We gave up.
You tell yourselves you have given up; you tell everyone you have given up – but secretly you hope.
And then it happened.
My period was late, my breasts were a bit more than the usual handful. I bought a pregnancy test and casually went to the loo, knowing it would be positive.
Shaking all over, I approached my husband, holding up the plastic stick with its two pink stripes. He looked at it blankly, then cried.
He took me into his arms and said, ‘I knew it when your breasts got bigger!’
We shook, cried, laughed.
I pulled myself together and tucked my smile into a secret place only for us. We fetched our seven-yearold daughter from school and took her for sushi. No raw fish for me that joyful day!
Our daughter was speechless. She had been waiting for this moment for three of her small seven years. Finally, she was going to have a little sister or brother.
The family was elated. Everyone knew it would happen eventually. It wasn’t too late. We deserved this.
I felt sick; I wanted lots of Hellmann’s mayonnaise and lime juice. I began to touch my tummy and think of names. I kept my smile ❛ I began to think of names. I kept my smile in its secret place until I could tell the world.❜
in its secret place until I could tell the world.
I went for a scan. The little peanut did a sudden flip; we laughed.
I booked my 12-week foetal assessment.
Then, red spots in my underwear. ‘Don’t worry,’ my gynae said. ‘This is quite common, but you must have a blood test.’
I went immediately. The hCG levels were low but in the normal range.
‘Don’t worry,’ my sister-in-law, who is a nurse, told me. ‘The range is broad; many normal pregnancies show low hCG levels.’
Except mine wasn’t a normal pregnancy.
I went for another scan. The baby was smaller than usual for this gestation period. ‘Don’t worry,’ the gynae said. ‘Your dates could be wrong.’
Except the dates weren’t wrong. The spotting became more like bleeding. I took progesterone to prevent miscarriage.
Twelve weeks drew nearer. The Foetal Assessment Centre rooms were sleek, minimalist. Low tables offered decorating and childcare magazines; the receptionist offered tea and coffee.
An older woman came out of the consulting room, joyful. She said, ‘Everything was fine.’
I wish everything were fine for us, I thought. Because I knew things weren’t fine.
We were called in. I lay down, exposing my bladder-bloated tummy. My husband held my hand. The scan was long and thorough. We saw our baby’s little head and hands, little spine, little feet.
The sonographer said there was a problem.
I was not shocked. I knew something was wrong with our baby.
The sonographer thought it was trisomy 18. I had briefed myself on everything Google could tell me about trisomy 18, 13 and 21 – all chromosomal defects associated with maternal age.
The sonographer explained: Unlike those of normal foetuses, our baby’s hands were not moving but were tight little fists. There was a hole in the septum in her heart, and something wrong with the vein from her liver.
A chorionic villus sampling (CVS) was ordered.
We left silently. What can you say after that? Whatever the diagnosis, our baby would never live a normal life if she lived at all.
We had talked about Down’s syndrome and possible termination. It had been a hard discussion to have, requiring deep thought.
A child with Down’s is a gift in many ways but also a hardship. It would take most of what we had to give, leaving only a small bit for our first child. We did not want that for the daughter we already had. But Down’s is compatible with life and we would have had a choice.
Trisomy 18 is not compatible with life. We could not choose. Our baby would die.
‘Our baby is very sick,’ we told our little girl. ‘She is going to die.’
The CVS appointment came. Another scan, a very long needle, a risk of miscarriage. The foetal specialist was gentle. She explained the procedure and risks, and prepared the scan.
‘This looks more like triploidy.’ Triploidy? I did not know what that was. Sixty-nine chromosomes instead of 46. A whole extra set. Chromosome overload. Not compatible with life. If triploidy babies make it beyond the first trimester, or the second or the third, and are lucky enough to be born, they die within hours or days. They are severely disabled; they cannot breathe properly.
I had beaten all the odds. Pregnant naturally at 43. A baby with triploidy – 1% to 2% of pregnancies. And the tragic irony? Triploidy has nothing to do with maternal age.
A week later triploidy was confirmed. Our baby was a girl who was going to die.
We chose to terminate the pregnancy, giving ourselves time to try again before I was too old.
My gynae explained termination as a simple procedure. The foetus is removed by suction, with the mother under general anaesthetic. A D&C follows to ensure all placental tissue is eliminated. This seemed sensible and the hospital was booked.
I talked it through with a doctor friend over tea while our daughters played. It turns out termination is not very nice. The suction rips the foetus limb from limb, with no anaesthetic given. All the bits are then poured out and counted to ensure no little arm or leg is left behind to cause infection.
Horror filled me. I could not do that to our little sick baby.
I would give birth. I could tell my gynae thought this unorthodox, but she respected my wish.
I was admitted to hospital, to a private maternity room.
❛ I tried to see whether her heart was beating. It was not.❜
I was induced. It was not known how long it would take. Nine hours.
My waters broke, then
45 minutes of intense, very painful labour. I cried and cried.
Nothing happened. No baby came.
The pain stopped. I got up to shower.
A sudden gush between my legs… I rushed to the loo. And our little dead baby slipped out into the toilet bowl. I just caught her, but she slithered between my fingers onto a bed of paper.
The placenta followed moments later. It was primal. Complete absorption in this basic function of my body focused everything I was in that moment. I was the animal mother, naked, bleeding, birthing. Nothing existed beyond my vision.
Our baby lay soft in my hands, fitting gently within the cradle of my fingers. I tried to see whether her heart was beating. It was not. She was dead.
Nurses came to clean up. We asked to be alone. We examined every transparent little part of her. Head soft like jelly. Tiny arms and legs, umbilical cord like a stem to the dead flower placenta fanned out on my hand. She was warm.
We laid her on a cotton pad on the table.
My body shook. Disbelief, shock, horror, love, pain, loss.
The nurses wanted to take her for incineration. I forbade them. They were unnerved, giving the table a wide berth when coming into the room.
When my sister-in-law had asked me whether I wanted to bury her, I had replied no.
While waiting for the birth,
I had spoken to our daughter on the phone, thinking it would be too difficult for her to see her dead baby sister. But when she asked whether I would bring the baby home, I changed my mind.
Our baby would be brought home and buried.
All night I was terrified the nurses would take her. My sleep was fitful, unsettled.
At daybreak I cleared out my toiletry case. I carefully wrapped our baby in the cotton pad, gently laid her in the case, and put her in the fridge beside the orange juice. She was safe from nurses and natural processes wanting to take her.
Upon discharge, the hospital would not let me remove this human waste from its premises, but my gynae stepped in. I got special permission.
I signed a form.
We took her home.
My mother and our daughter gazed at her little body – sorrowful, disgusted, fascinated.
My father could not look.
Our daughter was silent, head resting on hand. I took her in my arms. What can you say at such a time?
My brother, his wife and their two little boys also wanted to see the baby. The five-year-old was horrorstruck, the three-year-old fascinated.
We buried our baby at the end of the garden overlooking the valley, beneath a yellow protea.
She was Pandora, because she left behind a glimmer of hope.