In honor of Infant Loss Awareness Month and to our son, Harold (Harry) Francisco, I’d like to tell his birth story.
**Disclaimer: this is my son’s birth story- a story that deserves to be told- no matter how sad it might be. But I am fully aware that it can be hard for some to get through. I absolutely don’t recommend anyone currently pregnant to read it.
I was 32 weeks when I had a regular 3rd trimester OB check-up. Our son Harry’s growth, heart rate and health were all normal as it had been throughout the pregnancy. We saw an alternate doctor that day because ours was not available. She assured us everything was progressing smoothly and also mentioned that our baby might not move as much from this point forward, as he would be growing rapidly in preparation for birth. It made complete sense to us and we left the office happy that everything was going well.
A few days later, I went on a quick 2 day work trip to Las Vegas. As the doctor had told us, Harry’s movements became less intense and infrequent. I really didn’t panic until I arrived back home to San Francisco. I mentioned to my husband that the baby’s movements seemed to have drastically changed overnight, they went from lots of kicks and somersaults to faint flutters. Our son had been very active throughout the pregnancy, so it seemed very unlikely that his size/weight would increase so much, causing such a drastic change in his patterns. But we had a clean bill of health, so the thought that anything could go wrong was so far from our minds. I had assured myself that he was just sleeping more, or just too big now.
Just to ease our minds, we called our doctor who told us to head into the hospital for some precautionary monitoring. As soon as we arrived they hooked my belly up to the fetal heart monitor. His heart was beating strong and we were so relieved. We were in triage, so there were other moms in labor, waiting to be moved into a room. My husband and I were sharing a room with a young mother laboring and I wondered when it would be my turn. I tried to imagine what my contractions would feel like, or how excited I would feel, being that close to holding my baby in my arms. We waited in triage for almost 2 hours when a doctor finally came to see us. He wheeled over the ultrasound machine and also took a look at the fetal heart rate results, he didn’t say much and said he would be right back. We were calm, not thinking that it meant anything. We thought to ourselves that he must’ve had a million other patients that had more urgent matters to attend to. Shortly after, another doctor came in and she had a serious look on her face. She did another ultrasound, looked at us and paused. The words were coming out of her mouth and I was convinced that they were directed at someone else: “You’re baby is very sick, and I’m afraid he might not make it through the night”. My eyes welled up and I couldn’t speak. I wasn’t just in shock but I was in denial. Kyle asked all the questions because I couldn’t talk through the giant lump in my throat. Harry had a Fetal SVT (an irregular heartbeat, not a structural problem but instead an electrical one)– the doctors weren’t sure how long his heart was battling this condition. It could’ve been there all along throughout the pregnancy, likely that his heart would just beat irregularly on occasion– making it easy to miss at every check up. The other possibility was that he developed it sometime after our last OB appointment and it progressed to a life threatening stage over just a few days. Regardless of how long he had the SVT, it had already caused Hydrops (fluid back up around his heart and all his major organs). Our son was alive but in grave condition.
Not too long after receiving the news, a team of doctors gathered and came in to review all the options we had, so we could make the best decision for our family. My instincts were to get him out immediately, so we could treat his condition and do everything we could to save him. But the neonatal doctor explained that the Hydrops was putting so much pressure on his little body, that if he had to breath or eat on his own, it would make everything worse for him. She also explained that even if they could get his heart-rate under control, they would likely need to extract the Hydrop fluid with giant needles throughout his body. I couldn’t fathom subjecting my tiny, sick preemie to such a terrifying welcome into this world. The best course of action was to keep him in-utero to treat his heart condition through me, where he was comfortable and his basic needs were met. I was to take heart medication to slow down my heart, which in turn would pass to my baby through the placenta. The doctor said that if we could get his heart to slow down and correct the irregular heartbeat, there was a good chance that the Hydrops would clear itself and he would be okay.
They moved us into our own room, they immediately medicated me, they hooked me to an EKG machine 24/7, to monitor my heart while on the medications. That first night Kyle and I cried ourselves to sleep. We sang to our son and talked to him so he could hear how much we needed him to hang in there. We were fighting for him just as he was fighting for us.
He made it through that first night, and we were hopeful that it meant there was a chance he could survive this thing. We waited to see improvement on Harry’s condition. We had an echo-cardiogram to take a closer look at what was happening to his heart, it was beating twice the speed of a regular fetal heartbeat. I am still haunted by the sound of a heart beating fast enough that it could burst. This uncertainty continued on for 2 more days. He was in distress, and then he was out it. The doctors couldn’t figure out how to keep him out of it, permanently. On the morning of the third day, the nurse came in to hook me up to a fetal heart rate monitor, as she had done everyday. She couldn’t find his heartbeat and said she just needed to get a new machine, insisting that “this happens all the time” (it had never happened to us before). She tried again, then called the doctor. The doctor called the fetal cardiologist, who finally confirmed what we knew was happening all along. His heart had given in, he fought a hard battle but ultimately had to let go. My heart crumbled. We cried and cried, and cried until I could barely open my eyes.
I asked myself, how could this be happening? How could everything be so perfect, and then not at all? Was it something I did or didn’t do? Was it because I flew in my 3rd trimester? Was I in the sun too often? I blamed myself and my body for not being able to keep him alive. I convinced myself that it was somehow my fault, because he was healthy the whole pregnancy. Now I know it was the grief talking, trying to make sense of how quickly things changed from good, to the worst possible outcome. All these things really didn’t matter at all because none of them would bring Harry back to us.
Now we were faced with the decision of how to deliver our son. The doctors would’ve respected anything we wanted to do, but we decided to induce labor and try to deliver vaginally- as was the plan all along. They hooked me on Pitocin, gave me an epidural, and we waited. Nearly 24 hours later, I was fully dilated and ready to push. My mom held my right hand, and Kyle held my left hand, with his mom my his side. I began to push, I followed the cues from the nurses because I had no clue what to do. Ironically, our birthing class was scheduled for just a few days later. I was scared at what was about to happen. I couldn’t feel a thing below my waist but my heart was in shambles. I remembered the moment in triage, where I wondered what this moment would feel like, and I was terrified. I was terrified of the silence immediately after his birth. I was afraid he would be put on my chest, and he would feel cold or stiff. I was scared of having only one memory of him and that it would be of my child looking “dead”. That fear drove many decisions, some that I would later regret, like not taking any pictures of him. I wanted to keep his memory in my mind and heart. I was afraid that keeping a picture of him would be morbid, but now I wish I had pushed my fears aside. My memory fades a little as the time passes, and I struggle to remember that moment as vividly as I would like to.
Some of my fears were realized, the room was silent after the last push that brought him into the world. That silence was quickly broken, by weeping sounds from all the adults present. The doctor placed him in my arms. He looked so peaceful, his eyes were closed- I’ll never know what color his eyes would’ve been. He had soft, beautiful, rosy lips- just like his little sisters. His nostrils were sealed because no air would ever travel into his lungs. He was wrapped up in a blanket, with a hat, and I wondered if the doctors were trying to hide something. I hesitated to unwrap this blanket, but ultimately decided I wanted to look at his whole body. He was my son, despite anything that might scare me. I wanted to see those toes that showed up in every ultrasound. I wanted to touch the chest that carried his weakened heart. I imagined staring at his little body so many times, that I had to soak it all in even if he was lifeless. I will never forget his sweet smell, the faintest variation of how sisters smelled at birth. He had a full head of hair, similar to our little Camila. It was dark, silky straight hair, and he shared his father’s hairline. He was beautiful and I was incredibly proud to be his mom. I held him, I kissed him and I said goodbye. I passed him to Kyle, he did the same, as he also prepared to say goodbye to his little boy. One at a time, my mom and my in-laws did the same, and they stayed with him until they took him away. My body went cold and I began to shake uncontrollably as he was taken away. I truly thought I was dying. His body kept me warm for 8 long months, and now he was leaving me, forever. The nurses wrapped me up in warm blankets and my husband held me until I passed out. Part of this reaction was due to the removal of the epidural, but I also felt my temperature drop 20 degrees as Harry left my body, and my sight.
We asked the nurses to could keep him wrapped up, like all babies should be. They gave us his blanket and hat to take home. These items smelled like our son and they brought so much comfort to us. For a long time, we kept his blanket on our bed, as if our son was sharing our bed with us. Over time his smell faded and it made me very sad, but I reminded myself that I can’t keep his memory frozen in time. We all evolve and change over time, and I know my memory of that day will be sealed in my brain until the day I die.
Some people have asked me why I decided to deliver him vaginally and my response is very simple. He was my son, he existed, he was mine and I wanted him so much. I wanted to mother him, I wanted to watch him grow and become who he was meant to be. Although, I know most of that I will not get to live with him, I do get to tell his birth story. He came into this world like any other baby and I am incredibly proud of that.
The time came to go home. We packed our bag and I was taken down in a wheelchair, to the front entrance where my in-laws were waiting for us in our car. I sat in the back and we drove home, empty-handed. This was the lowest point of this whole week, leaving the hospital without our son. I sobbed thinking about all the lost dreams and hopes we had for our family. Never in a million years, would I have imagined I would give birth to a baby that I would never bring home. It wasn’t right and it will never will be.
It was another cold summer day in San Francisco, as it is normally in June. This time of year the weather is always overcast, but that day the sun shined bright as we left the hospital. I looked up at the sky and felt his light shining on my face and knew he would be with us where ever we would go.