The Crazy Things We Do
The reality is that three years ago when I was in the hospital feeling that pain, not knowing what was causing it, I had turned to David in a moment of extreme vulnerability and asked him what cancer feels like. And I thought about my two beautiful girls at home, and my infant son, and for the first time my mind timidly probed the heart-sickening possibility that I might die young and leave them to grow up without a mommy.
I was thinking about my kidney when I almost impatiently strode into the emergency room three weeks ago. My newest son was not even three weeks old, and again I was experiencing unidentified, severe flank pain. This time on my right side, near ribs that felt like they’d been broken. The pain radiated up into my right shoulder and I thought maybe I’d pulled a muscle in my torso. But my concerned husband consulted my doctor brother-in-law, who heard my symptoms and firmly suggested that despite coronavirus fears, I go to the ER.
I think it was then that I started to realize something was horribly wrong. I'd thought walking into the ER that any breathing troubles stemmed from the pain. I thought I wasn't breathing deeply because it hurt too much. Lying down for the CT scan taught me that I couldn't breathe because I couldn't breathe. As I processed my panic I wondered, what was it that was taking my breath away? What was I dealing with?
I am humbled and inspired by the examples of compassion I experienced from the staff of the hospital during my stay. I seem to have been labeled "the new mom," and in their great concern over this patient with a newborn at home, so many women mothered me as they cared for me. Some I remember by name: Agnes, the nurse who was attending me when I received my diagnosis. She clucked around me while she took blood samples, shaking her head telling me how sorry she was that a nice mama like me had to go through such a thing. She testified in her Southern, straightforward way that God knew me and would provide. Later, when they were wheeling me away to a different floor, Agnes called my new nurse on the phone and told her she was praying for me.
Their kindness meant more because of how difficult this hospital stay was. I was in pain despite medication. The dry hospital air scratched my throat and made me cough, but even the tiniest cough made my lungs feel like knives. I still couldn't recline, so I got minimal sleep sitting up, curled over a tower of pillows. Breakfast one morning made me throw up. And through it all, I ached for my baby. I came to dread pumping, when I'd have to juggle cold, hard tubes and feel the pump's stinging, lifeless pull. Milk came reluctantly and only after pulling up photos of Reid on my phone and trying to remember what he smelled like and felt like, after trying to imagine kissing his soft hair and holding his warm body. I felt a deep, visceral need to be reunited with him, to be able to feed him again and care for him. It didn't feel like an emotional need. Still bleeding from his birth, pouring forth milk for his nourishment, it was a physical and fundamentally instinctual need. I was deeply grateful for all the staff - male and female - who showed me they understood that.
Slowly I showed progress. By my third day I could walk without doubling in pain and stopping for breath. I could even sleep with my hospital bed somewhat reclined. I felt more like myself and I was desperate to go home. My cardiologists had promised I was very close. The next morning, I woke up energized, hopeful there would be an imminent discharge. The doctors came early, starting with the internal medicine doc who had checked in daily but to whom, to be honest, I hadn't paid much attention. I'd been troubled when she'd suggested that I shouldn't nurse my baby for the next few months so I could choose stronger pain medications, and I'd dismissed her as someone who didn't understand what it meant to have a three-week-old baby at home. When she arrived that morning, she asked me a few questions then prepared to leave. Before she did she turned to me and asked, in an off-hand tone, "You don't need to rush home for any reason, do you?"
I think I might actually have gaped at her. The first thing I wanted to do was scream. Then I wanted to throw something - hard. Then I wanted to sob hard, ugly sobs. After she left I did sob and felt some relief that I could get enough air to cry some. But in that moment I somehow kept calm enough to say, probably rather strongly, that yes, I needed to get home to my baby. The doctor looked surprised, then displeased. She grumbled that the appointments I needed weren't set up and that she didn't know if my pharmacy could fill my essential blood thinner prescription. I vowed I'd drive to any pharmacy in town.
To her credit (and after the cardiologist firmly agreed it was time for me to leave), the internal medicine doctor quickly arranged for the needed appointments and medications. I was discharged by lunch. Dave picked me up and we drove home to where my in-laws, who had flown in the day before to help, were waiting with the kids. Anna had taped welcome-home hearts all over the garage door and Madelyn ran outside to greet me as we pulled up.
And then I sought my baby; I could hear his cries inside. Higher pitched than I remembered, and in Grandma's arms he looked smaller than I'd remembered too. He was fussy, hungry. I cried as I took him and hugged his little body, curled in the newborn way, and I like to think that his fussing stumbled as he heard my voice and turned toward me. For a second I held my breath to see if he would nurse after four days on a bottle. I needn't have worried; he ate easily, contentedly. Madelyn asked me later why I'd wanted to feed the baby so much. I don't know, child. I don't know which gene drives a woman's primal instinct to nourish and sustain her little ones, to find closeness through succor. But it's there. I've felt it.
With no family or personal history of clotting and no other risk factors, my doctors are ascribing my embolisms solely to pregnancy*. Pregnancy and postpartum changes in the body affect the blood in drastic ways. While clots aren't usual, they're also not wholly uncommon in pregnant women. Sadly, pulmonary embolism is a leading cause of maternal death in the United States. The good news is that once it is caught, the scariest part is already over. Blood thinners prevent the clots from growing or spreading and give the body a chance to break down existing clots, even one as big as mine.
It has been four weeks since I entered the hospital and I am recovering well. I can now walk out my front door and breathe in the scent of these gorgeous spring days slowly, fully, and without pain (though I can still feel the bottom of my right lung, a sort of heaviness as it expands deep inside my chest). Unfortunately for me, there is not enough data yet to know whether the newest blood thinner pills are safe for breastfed babies. So now across my abdomen, alongside my kidney scars and stretch marks, I bear a freckling of tiny bruises and pin pricks - remnants from the blood thinner shots I had to give myself twice a day, additional tokens of the physical price I've paid to bring children into the world.
Absurd as it undoubtedly seems, I am inspired by those marks my body bears, for the beauty and power of what they - and their associated struggles - represent. I am deeply grateful for the sweet soul who has joined our family, with eyes that gaze at me from a much older place and tiny fingers that twine through my hair. I am deeply awed by my role as mother, awed in a way I have never been for any other role I have ever played, for any other duty I have ever been given, for any other task I have ever thrown myself into. After my recent experience, I have a renewed gratitude for every day, for the chance to hug my little ones and be the one they call mama. What happened to me was scary, and huge, and will affect my life for a while. But the physical toll has also felt, somehow, appropriate - commensurate to the profound enormity of what mothering has meant and will continue to mean in my life.
*Note: Yes, they tested me for Covid-19 and my test came back negative. They are finding blood clotting in coronavirus patients, especially, apparently, in the younger adult age bracket I'm in. But between the negative test and the otherwise clear scans of my lungs, my doctors are sure it wasn't Covid that caused clots in my case.