| Sept. 30, 2009 |
Three days after I returned from my honeymoon, at about 9 o’clock in the morning, I found myself in the passenger seat of Joe’s Honda Accord, lying on my side, curled up like a shrimp, crying softly into the car’s fabric upholstery on route to a St. Petersburg emergency room.
We thought my appendix was rupturing.
It happened in the kitchen when I was making Joe a tuna fish sandwich. It started out as a slight cramping in my lower abdomen. Nothing major, no more alarming than a dull wave of period cramps –– except that I didn’t have my period. I wasn’t even close to getting it.
I kept on with Joe’s sandwich, cringing as the cramps got stronger.
I squeezed a dollop of mayonnaise into the bowl. I mixed it with the tuna. And then a cramp hit me that was so fierce it brought me to my knees. It felt like I had a lead weight in my abdomen that with each breath grew larger, making it impossible to stand up.
The dull ache I experienced minutes earlier had been swallowed whole by a new, godawful kind of cramping; the kind that actually makes you whimper.
I crawled my way into the bedroom and climbed up onto the bed. I curled into the fetal position with a pillow between my legs and waited for Joe to get out of the shower.
When he emerged, he found me on his side of the mattress, groaning and clutching my side.
It was only a few days earlier that we were holding hands in Upstate New York, tooling around the Adirondacks in our car, listening to The Beatles on repeat, lamenting the end of our honeymoon. And now here I was: doubled over in our bed, stinking like tuna, moaning uncontrollably as Joe looked on in fear and confusion.
“What’s WRONG?” He asked.
“I d-d-don’t know,” I cried. “But my stomach hurts really bad.”
Fifteen minutes and one phone call to my mother later, we decided to go to the emergency room. One of my favorite books as a child was Madeline. Like all little girls who grow up reading Madeline, I’m keenly aware of my appendix.
I stepped outside into the blazing September sun and walked like a hunchback to the car, sweating and freezing in a pair of flannel boxer shorts and a men’s undershirt.
I wasn’t in triage for very long before they called me into an examination room, where I was asked a battery of questions.
On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is the pain?
I think I answered 7, but I wanted to answer 8.
Did you eat something unusual?
Your last menstrual period?
Two weeks ago.
Are you pregnant?
My lady parts were examined. I peed in a cup. The doctor surmised that I had a ruptured ovarian cyst, but without an ultrasound she couldn’t be sure.
I’ve never had an ultrasound, so I had no idea what it entailed. By then the pain was subsiding and I was beginning to feel embarrassed about the whole thing. I pictured Joe in the waiting room, biting his nails in an unhygienic environment, surrounded by snots and coughs and sickness. I asked the nurse if my husband could join me in the meantime. She said yes and then left the room, apparently to fetch him.
That’s when a second nurse came in and in broken English told me I needed to lie down and spread my legs.
Perplexed, I told her I’d already been examined. She shook her head as if she understood and the next thing I knew I was being catheterized. I mention this because a.) I had no idea I needed a catheter for an ultrasound and b.) The nurse performing this task failed to communicate what she was doing until it was DONE and c.) Just as she began to insert the tube, Joe walked through the door and caught a glimpse of his blushing bride in all her spread-eagle gynecological glory.
I was mortified.
Joe looked horrified.
We were newlyweds.
I flagged him away from ground zero.
“I don’t even KNOW what she’s doing!” I muttered.
“I don’t even WANT to know what she’s doing.” He replied.
That’s when the rotund Spanish nurse mumbled, “Catheter.”
Joe and I shared a moment of relief. Ah Catheter. We’d heard of those.
Before I could even tell him that I was feeling better and that I wanted to go home, the nurse wheeled me into another room, where I underwent an unpleasant ultrasound, the results of which required not one, but two doctors’ opinions.
The imaging revealed that yes, something had in fact ruptured. There was so much fluid floating around in my pelvis the technician had a hard time seeing anything. I wasn’t wearing my contacts so I can’t adequately describe what she saw, but I can tell you what I heard her SAY midway through this adventure.
Two words you never want someone to say when you’re lying on a hospital bed with the inside of your stomach broadcast on a television monitor.
The technician called for a doctor, who arrived with another doctor. The three of them huddled around the screen, pointing to dark shapes and speaking inaudibly about what the shapes meant. For all I knew the Loch Ness Monster had taken up residency in my uterus.
They wrapped up the test and issued a pelvic CT scan. Being a reporter, I asked five million questions. The only answer I got was: the doctor saw something and she needs a better image. By now I felt almost 100 percent better, except that I couldn’t stop picturing the Loch Ness Monster drinking Red Bull and vodka, partying recklessly among my organs.
In preparation for the scan, I choked down two cups of green liquid and then waited some more. When the doctor poked her head in to see if I had finished my foul-tasting Ecto-Cooler, Joe asked, “Is there a lemon law on wives?”
We laughed. The doctor did not. Four hours later I was wheeled away from Joe and into another room.
The test revealed that my appendix was intact. My womb was monster-less. The cramping I had suffered earlier that morning was the result of a ruptured ovarian cyst –- the doctor’s first educated guesstimate. This also explained why the pain had gone away. What I had felt earlier while making Joe’s tuna sammie was the cyst rupturing. There was nothing left to do, except wait for my body to expel the fluid it had retained.
I was told some women are prone to ruptured ovarian cysts. Prone. Like acne.
I was released from the hospital at 5 p.m. with a prescription for extra strength Ibuprofen and told to make an appointment the next day with my OB/GYN.
I dutifully made my post-ER appointment, thinking it was a mere formality, that there was nothing left to discuss with my lady doctor other than the obvious appendix miscalculation.
“Next time something decides to burst on my ovary,” I told her. “I’m NOT going to the emergency room. Knowing what I know now, it’ll pass, right?”
She agreed and then pulled out my ER chart.
“The ER docs did see something on your ultrasound,” she said cooly. “An enlarged tubal structure.”
Oh no! Nessie!
“We’ll need to do another ultrasound just to be sure.”
“Be sure of what?” I asked.
She paused and snapped my file shut.
“Do you plan to get pregnant one day?” She asked.
“Sure. Yeah. I mean. I just got married. We’re not there yet, but we will be. Why?”
“If you do have an enlarged tube, you’ll have some difficulty. Things like ectopic pregnancy …” She trailed off and decided against sharing the information. “Let’s not worry about it. I’m sure everything is fine. Come back in two months for an ultrasound and we’ll talk then.”
And that’s how my appointment ended.
I drove home from the doctor with a cloud of doom hanging over my head. I had no idea what a tube was, much less an ectopic pregnancy. If my doctor wouldn’t explain how and why these things were problematic, the least I could do was embark on a Google search.
Google taught me that a tube is actually a FALLOPIAN TUBE. (Duh.) An enlarged one is bad news and can lead to infertility. An ectopic pregnancy is an ill-fated pregnancy that occurs outside of the womb, which as you might suspect, is not a safe place for a fetus to develop.
My doctor had made it clear that the hospital’s imaging was fuzzy at best. The ruptured cyst had obscured their pictures. For all they knew, the enlarged tubal structure was my colon.
Still, the seeds of panic were planted. I had Googled things my doctor uttered in sloppy haste. Big mistake.
I spiraled into a fit of hypochondria.
I was distraught over my doctor’s flippant non-diagnosis. I had just gotten married. Joe and I wanted kids. We had both agreed to start trying after our one-year anniversary. The conversations, like all baby conversations, held uncertainty and unbridled excitement. Now less than three weeks into our marriage I was being told I might be broken.
I had never contemplated my fertility before. In fact, I’d spent most of my life avoiding pregnancy at all costs. I was the girl who never missed a birth control pill. In all my years of sexual activity, I never took a pregnancy test. I was so safe, so cautious, I never once even considered forking over $10 for an EPT stick.
It wasn’t until I met Joe that I even began picturing children and now I was picturing them as undeveloped eggs, lost in an enlarged tube, a sea of nameless and faceless specks orphaned by a biological defect.
I spent two months waiting for my second ultrasound, mourning the loss of my fertility. I didn’t think it was possible to grieve over something you never had.
I overreacted. I cried. I apologized to Joe. I told him he if there was such a thing as a lemon law for wives, he had a pretty good reason to return his.
“You wait and see how fertile you are,” he said. “This whole thing is a big mistake.”
In the meantime we received an ER bill for $3,054.
Two months passed. I returned to the doctor for a follow-up ultrasound with the recommended full bladder. (No catheter this time. Praise Jesus.) Sitting beside me in the waiting room was a very pregnant women, who felt compelled to ask me what I was “in for.”
“An ultrasound,” I replied flatly.
“Oooo! Congratulations!” She squealed. “You must be so excited!”
“I’m not pregnant,” I replied.
Her face fell. She apologized for assuming. I told her it was OK that I was currently a neurotic mess.
In the 10 minutes before the nurse called my name I let everything I had been feeling for two months pour out of me. I told her about my ER visit, the enlarged tube, Google, the lemon law on wives, my honeymoon, my wedding day and the dangers of having an overactive imagination.
I asked her when she was due. She said in two months.
And then the nurse called my name.
“Honey,” she said softly, as I left the waiting room. “You’re going to make a great mom.”
I believed her and decided no matter the results, my pregnant companion was right.
Two days later I left to spend Thanksgiving at my sister’s place in Conway, SC. Remember her house was burglarized and my computer was stolen? What is it they say about honeymoons being over?
Nonetheless, I was beginning to make peace with it all. By the time I returned home, I had forgotten about my second doctor’s appointment.
On a Sunday night I realized the answering machine in my office was blinking with one message. I pressed play. It was from my doctor’s office. The results were in. Everything looked perfectly normal. Nothing looked enlarged or usual. All plumbing was in place and anatomically correct.
I listened to the message twice. I walked into the living room, where Joe was perched on the couch watching TV.
“I’m normal,” I said. “There was a message on the answering machine in the office.”
“No need to look into that lemon law,” I said.
“Guess not,” he said.
“All of that for nothing,” I sighed. “A $3,000 bill and two months of freaking out for what?”
“To learn that we should avoid hospitals at all costs,” he said.
I had lost my mind over a murky picture obscured by a ruptured cyst.
Eight months later I went off my birth control pills.
I’m now 14 weeks pregnant and as they say, glowing.
I decided to share this story because I realize there are women out there who have struggled with (or currently struggle with) fertility. If you’d have told me when I was 16 that I might not ever have babies, I’d have said, “Fine. I’ll adopt.”
Until recently, I never appreciated the awesomeness of what my body is capable of producing. Growing up I spent so much time fearing pregnancy would ruin my life that I never pondered the alternative: that one day I would want to get pregnant and the improbability of this would cause me profound despair.
For those of you who can’t have babies: My heart goes out to you. I can’t claim to truly know how you feel. I do, however, know how I felt when I thought there was a chance it might not happen. It cast my first pregnancy ultrasound in a whole new light.
Last month, as Joe and I watched our baby do acrobatics in utero, we both realized how incredible and incalculable life really is.
PS. Photo by enggul via Flickr.