By Genevieve Wagner
Genevieve is a dear friend of mine for many years. She has graciously agreed to share her family’s recent full term stillbirth, and the hope and faith that her family has.
After a trial run of labor the week before where the whole birth team had been called out to the house and hours of 3 minute apart contractions just… stopped… it was time for what would hopefully be my last prenatal appointment. Because I was so large and easily tired, my husband volunteered to drive me to my appointment, and I gratefully accepted. We don’t live near family and it was a last minute decision, so our 4 older homeschooled children came along for the ride. It wouldn’t be an issue – they’ve come with me before and there are plenty of waiting room toys to play with and comfy places for the older kids to read. I even got a nap in on the almost hour-long trip down to her office.
My midwife asked how I was feeling, and I admitted that I was done. I was 39 weeks and 4 days pregnant, very uncomfortable, and getting discouraged, especially after we thought baby was on the way last week. We did our routine: weigh in, test for spilled glucose and protein, take my blood pressure, measure the belly. Everything was mostly good. My blood pressure, which I fought with the last trimester, was starting to creep up again. I was spilling “less than trace” protein, so I just needed to make sure I was drinking lots of water and keeping an eye on any other odd symptoms. We talked about my kick counts, and I said that they had been taking longer to get the required number. Baby had been so gentle the entire pregnancy, though, and we both assumed that he or she was running out of room in there. As long as I was still getting the kicks, we were okay. I told the midwife that I had even pulled out my doppler the day before because “Bucha” as we were calling the baby hadn’t been as active. But I got a good, strong, reassuring, galloping heart rate on the doppler right where it had been most of the pregnancy.
It was time for the best part – hearing the heartbeat. My 10 year old daughter came in to listen as well. The midwife squirted the ultrasound gel on my right lower abdomen where she always did, turned on the doppler, and we searched. That slower, distant thumping was my heartbeat. She moved it more to the center. To the left. We both were urging the baby that this wasn’t the time to be playing hide and seek, we just needed to check on you! She decided to try my upper abdomen, though we didn’t think the baby would have flipped this late. Same thing. My midwife could tell I was getting nervous, so she said, “I’m just going to grab the ultrasound to get a quick peek at what’s going on.” My daughter was asking questions, and all I could say was that baby’s heartbeat wasn’t getting picked up on the doppler, so we were going to check with the ultrasound. I also called for my husband, Geof, to come back – if we were going to get a peek at the baby, he might as well be there, too!
The midwife got everything set up, my name typed in, turned the screen so that all of us could see. By this time my other 3 kids had wandered in to the small room as well. Her ultrasound machine is small – like a compact laptop – and the picture isn’t the clearest. But I saw this dark, still object, and the only thing I could say was, “That’s the heart, isn’t it?” She assured me it wasn’t, but that baby was turned in a weird position so that her machine couldn’t actually see the heart. Baby was pretty large, and she wanted to get a second opinion from an OB friend of hers in Denver, a good 90 minutes away. I called a friend who had just moved to a town near the interstate and simply said, “I need to drop the kids off – Geof and I have to go to a specialist to check on Bucha.” She readily agreed. My 10 and almost 12 year olds were concerned, “What’s going on, Mama?” I explained that we were having a hard time finding the baby’s heartbeat. Like the good Lutherans that they are, they asked, “What does that mean?” “There is a chance that they baby may have died. The midwife and Dada are going to take me to a doctor in Denver who can take a better look and let us know for sure what’s going on, but there’s a very real chance that the baby has gone to heaven, and we have to be prepared for that.” Both of them started crying, the little girls were confused but excited to be going to our friends’ new house, and I excused myself to the bathroom to just be alone for a few minutes. More than likely, I was in shock.
Everything moved very quickly after that, but it still felt dreadfully long. I encouraged our kids to pray for the baby. Our friends were painting when we dropped the kids off and sent us off with hugs and promised of their prayers as well. We were soon back on the road to the doctor’s office. We were making phone calls to church members to establish a prayer chain, our Elder, my “pocket pastor” (the pastor I could contact for pastoral care when my pastor-husband couldn’t be that for us), Geof’s parents, messaging my girlfriends who jumped into “What can we do?” support mode. I asked them to look up the local contact for Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, an organization of professional photographers who volunteer their services to take pictures of stillborn or terminally ill babies and their families – at this point, I had made peace with what we were probably about to find out. I reached out to all our Christian friends that I could think of in that moment to pray: pray for us, pray for this child, pray for our kids.
My midwife arrived a few minutes before us and did all our preregistration that she could. I finished what she could not, and we had to wait for a few minutes. They wanted me to take a seat, but I just couldn’t – I just stood there and silently prayed, begging God to please let this baby be okay, but if not, please guard my heart. We were quickly taken back, I was situated on the table with the ultrasound screen hanging from the ceiling – the same screen where so many have found out the sex of their beloved, anticipated children. When the nurse started the exam, I said, “As of right now we don’t know if we’re having a boy or a girl. If you can tell, please tell us, though that’s obviously not the most important thing right now.” She couldn’t. The doctor came in and did and started really looking around, there was that dark “glob” again. He kept focusing on it, and I again asked in a panic, “Is that the heart?” He said no, but he kept measuring it and looking at it from different angles. He finally said, “I’m really sorry, but your baby doesn’t have a heartbeat. How long has the baby been breech?”
My midwife chimed in at that time that she had just checked at her office 2 hours before and the baby was definitely head down. That black “thing” was much lower than where he was scanning it, too, that she had taken stills of it as well. Doctor explained that the thing we were seeing was a blood clot. The cord had wrapped tightly around the baby’s neck and developed a clot, cutting off the blood supply to the baby from the placenta. More than likely, the baby had been dead for a few days. That’s when I snapped out of it. “How? I’ve been doing my kick counts? I just used my doppler a day and a half ago and got a good strong heartbeat at 132-145!” He explained to me that I had a lot of amniotic fluid and the baby was probably floating – that’s the “kicks” I had been feeling. As for the doppler, the device I purchased in my last pregnancy to watch and monitor my now 4 year old, it’s job is to search for that fast, galloping heartbeat. If it can’t find one, sometimes it will double or echo the maternal heartbeat instead. He was so sorry, and he wanted us to know that this wasn’t our fault – it was a freak thing that can happen sometimes, but there was nothing we could have done differently to prevent it. He shared about a family story of infant losses, and he assured us that if we chose to have another child down the road, this likely wouldn’t happen again. The doctor sent us to a specialist across the street to confirm his findings (they were), and he sent us home to pack our things and get clothing for our children to now spend the night with our friends. He wanted us to come back that night to be induced, and again, he was so very sorry. The good news was that he was the one doctor in the area that did breech deliveries, so I would hopefully be able to avoid a surgical birth.