If Miscarriage is So Normal, Why Doesn’t Anybody Talk About It?

When she loses a pregnancy, Anna Lea Hand searches in vain for vital advice and information.

Anna Lea Hand | Longreads | March 2020 | 28 minutes (6,996 words)

 

PART 1: If It’s So Normal, Why Aren’t People Talking About It?

The entire time I am pregnant, the entire three-and-a-half months, Jamie and I tell no one about it except for a couple people out of necessity. I tell no one because that’s what I’m supposed to do, and, honestly, because I didn’t want to be seen as a pregnant person and have people put their expectations on me, their joy on me, their definitions of how I must and should be feeling on me. I figure that for thousands of years people have been getting pregnant, and though this is certainly miraculous and empowering, I don’t need the Hallmark congratulations, not even from friends and family I trust and love. The entire time I am pregnant I watch and feel how my body is changing and feel normal. The entire time I am pregnant I know that a miscarriage could happen, and feel normal about that too, because I know that people have them. The trouble is that no one talks about them beyond repeating what they’ve been told, “Miscarriages are so common,” and none of this information tells me what it’s like to experience one. So here I am, pregnant, feeling how my body is transforming, and feeling equally light over the normalcy of a possible miscarriage, and heavy under the weight of what to expect.

And then it happens. Late on a Wednesday night I start to feel heavy, deep cramping and a heat and loosening near my cervix, a feeling similar to right before I get my period. Even though I’ve made it beyond the traditional 12-week-you’re-in-the-clear zone, I know something is not sitting right. I wake up at 3:00am Thursday morning and google “signs of a miscarriage,” and end up on Mayo Clinic’s website. I am bleeding a little, but I’m still unclear about what I’m experiencing. I call the obstetrics department of the hospital first thing in the morning and say, “I think I’m having a miscarriage,” and because I haven’t started my prenatal care with them, they ask me who has confirmed that I am pregnant as if I’m making things up. I am insulted that they think I don’t know my own body. They hesitantly agree to see me and tell me where to go. Already I feel like a problem. Already I feel out of place.

***

The cramps and light bleeding continue into the morning and I make my way to the triage unit in the delivery ward of the hospital’s brand new facilities in the city. I take a Lyft there because I don’t want to deal with parking my car and walking from the parking lot while doubled over with cramps. And I don’t feel like this is an emergency, so I don’t need an ambulance. There is no in-between. Because I don’t look pregnant, the security guard at the elevator doesn’t initially let me go up to the delivery floor and tries to make me sign in as a visitor. Other people are in line signing in and I have to announce to everyone that “I think I’m having a miscarriage” and feel humiliated having to do so. He lets me get on the elevator, and when I get off on the 3rd floor there are no clear signs as to where the triage unit is and I don’t know where to go. There is a robot cleaning machine whirring down the hallway buffing the floor, and another delivering things to rooms. The more I walk, the more out of place I feel. I arrive at a desk in a poorly lit corner staffed by one person who is checking in a couple; the woman is very pregnant and her partner has his hand on her back, gently rubbing it. I am not greeted by anyone. It is clear that I am in discomfort. I am holding my gut with my hands, slowly moving them back and forth, trying to generate some heat in order to self-soothe. It is more comfortable to stand, so I lean up against the wall and wait my turn.

The trouble is that no one talks about miscarriages beyond repeating what they’ve been told, ‘Miscarriages are so common,’ and none of this information tells me what it’s like to experience one.

Finally the man behind the counter asks what I am there for and I say, like a broken record, “I think I’m having a miscarriage.”

The first thing he asks me is, “Are you contained?”

What the fuck does that mean? I think.

He adds, “Are you bleeding?”

“Yes.”

“Are you wearing a pad?”

“Yes.”

“Can I see your ID?”

I take out my ID.

“And your insurance information?”

I give that to him too.

More time goes by and finally a nurse comes out and takes me to a cold room and asks me to undress and put a thin gown on and wait for a doctor. I ask “How long should I expect to wait?” The nurse doesn’t know. Immediately I regret putting on the gown because I am shivering. I put my socks back on and my down jacket, and then curl up on the examination table to read my book.

The doctor comes in after 20 minutes and asks what I’m there for.

Again I say, “I think I’m having a miscarriage.”

“Have you ever been pregnant before?”

“No.”

“How many weeks are you?”

“Around 13-14.”

She is kind and straightforward with me as she takes out the ultrasound machine and begins probing around my lower abdomen to get a good view. When she gets the image she’s looking for, she turns to me and says, as if I didn’t know, “Looks like you are pregnant.” I ask for her to tilt the screen so I can see the images as well. She eventually turns to me with a very somber and apologetic face and says something that I can’t remember, but I do remember that it is in a tone of voice that is not nearly as kind and straightforward as when she first came in the room. By the way the doctor is talking to me, I feel as if I am doing something wrong by not responding to the news in the way that she expects. From what she says I understand that the baby does not have a heartbeat. Somehow I find myself consoling her, trying to bring the conversation back to the kind and straightforward tone set in the beginning. Am I supposed to feel sad with this news? Lost with this news? Am I supposed to cry? “The baby does not have a heartbeat,” I think. But did the doctor use the term baby? Or fetus? Somehow distinguishing between the two terms becomes important. Am I even allowed to use the term baby? What exactly is inside me?

Somehow what I have inside me begins to feel like it doesn’t belong there. I think about the few times it has felt like it belonged there. I think of swimming in the ocean over the last three months, crashing around in the waves at Black Sands Beach in Marin, and at Baker Beach with views of the Golden Gate Bridge, and at Halfmoon Bay. For some reason, those were the times that I felt what was inside of me and knew that it was alive. Otherwise my uterus is literally just taking up more space and causing me to pee three to four times in the middle of the night.

“What are the next steps?” I ask.

“It’s sitting very low in the uterus, right next to the cervix, so your body is getting ready to expel it. You can take a medication to speed up the process, or wait and let your body process it over the next two weeks.”

“So when I go home, how will I know when the process is complete? What exactly should I be looking for coming out of me?”

“It will be like a heavy period with clots.”

“How will I know if I’ve passed the fetus?” I don’t remember if I say fetus, or baby, or just it.

“You might see some larger clots that will be silvery and greyish, like tissue instead of dark red uterine lining.”

They do an internal exam to see that my cervix is already 2cm dilated. They take my blood pressure and they take some blood samples to confirm I don’t have Rh-negative blood, and I have to wait for them to return with the results. An hour passes and another doctor comes in to check on me and see if I have more questions.

“How big is it?” I ask.

“It stopped growing at 10 weeks.”

I do calculations in my head to see what I was doing at that time. Did I notice a difference? Did I feel when it stopped growing and died inside of me?

“How do you know it stopped growing then?”

“There’s a scale for these measurements during the gestational period. It’s very accurate.”

“So when I go home, how will I know when the process is complete? What exactly should I be looking for coming out of me?” I ask again just to confirm my understanding.

This doctor says the same thing as the other doctor, and also adds, “If you bleed through more than three pads in an hour, call this triage line immediately. It goes directly to our nurses’ station down the hall,” and then hands me a set of outpatient documents. I ask for more literature on miscarriages so I can read up on accurate information and not be bombarded by potentially false data online, and they print and give me a code to access more information through the hospital’s website. I’m frustrated that this information isn’t easily accessible and that I need a password to view it. Why are they gatekeepers to information about something that is so normal and common?


Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up


At some point during all of this I call Jamie. He’s on the east coast starting a new job and I’m all alone in San Francisco before joining him. In a matter-of-fact way I tell him the news. All along I have been saying in matter-of-fact ways, “Can you believe we’ll have a kid in early March unless I have a miscarriage first?” I suppose that being matter-of-fact has been my attempt to normalize the possibility of it happening. And now it’s happening. I take a Lyft home and as soon as I get there I hide a key in a spot on the outside of the apartment. What if something happens to me I need someone to come in and help?

***

My body knows that I am home and severe cramping starts as soon as I shut the door behind me. I am confused by the doctor’s quote of a two-week processing period, because this shit seems to be happening a lot faster than that. Windows are open for fresh air and I don’t care that the neighbors can hear me scream and moan. The cramps are worse when I hold back, so I just let loose and don’t give a fuck. I am surprised that no one knocks on the door to see whether I’m okay, and at the same time am grateful for the privacy. For a while I’m on the toilet passing clots. I say “a while” because I have no sense of time. At some point an intense contraction takes over my body and while I’m wiping the blood from my inner thighs I notice a huge cervical mucus plug that is trying to escape. I grab onto it with my hand and gently pull in an attempt to clean myself. In a rush of pain and openness, I unplug myself and a torrent of grey fluid gushes out of me and the ache of emptiness that I feel makes me scream out loud in fright. At this same moment I realize that I can feel something sitting in my vaginal canal right by the opening and when I reach with my hand to remove it, a little body falls directly into my palm. I am gasping for air, for words, for relief, for strength, and without thinking I throw the little body from my hand into the tub to my right and move the shower curtain so I don’t have to look at it. I end up on the bathroom floor, lying on my fleece jacket with my cell phone in my hand FaceTiming with Jamie screaming loudly and crying, “I’m okay I’m okay I’m okay. Don’t worry.” I don’t know why I’m saying “I’m okay,” but somehow I do feel okay. All this screaming and crying just feels okay to do. I forget everything that was said on the phone as the hours pass, and Jamie talks me through the remaining contractions and bleeding, but I do remember laughing and crying and doing a lot of deep breathing. At one point I make Jamie go outside so he can show me the trees.

Somehow what I have inside me begins to feel like it doesn’t belong there. I think about the few times it has felt like it belonged there.

Jamie says, “Apple ads never show scenarios like this when they advertise how useful FaceTime is.” I picture a commercial with a woman bleeding all over the place having a miscarriage with her partner on the phone’s screen being unreasonably calm. It makes me laugh and more blood gushes out of me onto the floor. I am accumulating a little pool by my left hip, which is naked against the linoleum. I gauge the amount and it’s definitely less than the three pads per hour the doctor warned me about. I say to Jamie in a real moment of dark humor, “Well, I’ve always wanted a home birth.”

Nowhere in the doctor’s description of, “It will be like a heavy period with clots…you might see some larger clots that will be silvery and greyish, like tissue instead of dark red uterine lining” is what I experienced. And nowhere in the description are directions for how I’m supposed to deal with the literal bloody mess I’ve made of the bathroom. Not to mention directions for how to deal with the more mundane chores that need to be taken care of, like taking the dog out for a piss. Mere minutes after figuring out I’m still alive and have enough strength to walk again, I’m opening the bathroom door, putting a leash on the dog and walking slowly down the hall and outside the apartment gate. People go past me and have absolutely no idea what I’ve just been through, and I look at them in a state of rebirth, viewing them with new eyes and a sense of curiosity that thinks, “And I have absolutely no idea what you’ve been through today either.” With most every person I see I think, “You’ve had a miscarriage…or you know someone who’s had a miscarriage…” and I want to scream “I had a miscarriage!” But I don’t. I’m now suddenly a part of an unspoken club.

***

I call my friend Sumra; she’s the daughter of a midwife and the only person I told of my pregnancy. Together we brainstorm what to do with the fetus that is sitting in the tub, and what to do with the blood on the floor, and all the clots in the toilet. She asks simple and grounding questions like, “Do you want to clean it up?” and “When do you want to do it?” and “What do you have to clean with?” Flushing the body down the toilet doesn’t seem right. Neither does throwing it out. She helps me decide that I want to remove the body from the tub and put it in a little box for now so I can figure out what to do with it later.

“What type of box?” Sumra asks. She’s full of great questions and leaves no step of this process up in the air. It takes us a while to figure out what sort of container I have available and I decide that a little cardboard tea box feels right. I have a flattened one in the recycling that I pull out and reshape.

“How do you want to get it into the box?” At that moment I know I don’t want to touch it. Or look at it. “Do you want to wear gloves? Maybe you could cover it with something?” Nothing feels right. I don’t understand why I don’t want to look at it. I don’t understand why I don’t want to touch it. But Sumra doesn’t give up. She suggests that maybe I have some sort of cloth or something I might want to wrap the body in. This is the first thing that feels right in a while. I love fabric and sewing and I easily find a scrap I used at Jamie’s and my wedding that feels appropriate. Sumra comes back to, “When do you want to do it?” and I don’t know how to answer that question. “Later,” I say, and I shut the bathroom door and go into the kitchen.

“How much have you eaten today?”

I realize I’ve only had a few handfuls of granola but that I have an appetite, which is good.

“When’s the last time you drank water?”

I go over to the sink and drink a few glasses.

“Are you still bleeding?”

I check my pad and there’s only a little bit there.

“Is there anyone that you can call that can come over and keep you company?”

I don’t know how to answer this question either. There are a few people I could call, but I feel more comfortable and relaxed alone. Having people over just makes me feel like I’ll have to explain myself, and just thinking about that exhausts me. I tell Sumra about the direct number to the triage line at the hospital that I have and she feels better about me being alone. “I don’t feel alone,” I tell her, “Except for the fact that I’m actually physically alone.”

“Is your phone fully charged?”

I go over to the wall and plug in my phone, which is down to 20%.

Sumra keeps supporting me and stays on the line until Jamie is available to talk again. She leaves her phone on all night by her bed stand so I know I can call at any time and someone will be there.

I make a small meal for myself with some fresh fruit and veggies. Jamie and I video chat again and by now I have enough courage to go back into the bathroom and clean. I realize I am waiting until I have Jamie there to witness the mess with me before I clean. I don’t want to be the only person harboring these images. (Maybe that’s why I’m writing this, as a way to not feel alone in my experience.) I zoom the camera into the clots in the toilet and we both say goodbye as I press the flush lever.

I prop the phone against the wall and make Jamie watch as I scrub the blood off the floor. I leave the hardest part until last and open the shower curtain.

I don’t know if I’m supposed to show it to the doctor, so I take a photo of the body in its current state. My chest and gut have an unnatural reaction to seeing the body up close. At any other time I would be fascinated, but I am heaving and nearly retching now. It’s about three inches long and I know it would fit perfectly in the palm of my hand. Its eyes are closed and its mouth agape. Its ears and nostrils and fingers and toes are all there. Its arms and legs are crossed in front, one leg askew, probably from me throwing it. Its intestines are on the outside of the body.

It’s got a penis.

Who knows how I do this, but I count to three in my head, the same way I do when I’m convincing myself to plunge into a sea of cold water when everything in my body is telling me this is uncomfortable don’t do it, and on three I reach down with the wedding fabric scrap and pick it up. It’s damp and cold. It’s heavy and weightless at the same time. I can’t describe the texture of the body through the cloth because I feel compelled to be as delicate as possible and avoid squeezing it. I don’t know what I’m so uncomfortable about. Maybe it’s a feeling that I’ve really screwed up and made the biggest mistake and killed this thing. Maybe it’s because I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing and I’m all alone doing it despite having Jamie on the phone. Maybe I’m upset with my body and confused about what this thing is, and what the fuck is the meaning of life anyway?

The body is lifeless though it looks like it shouldn’t be. We take one last look at it before I tuck it into the tea box and close the lid.

“What are you going to do for the rest of the night?” Jamie asks.

“I signed up for a macrame class several weeks ago, and it’s tonight.” Somehow the idea of going to an art class is the only thing keeping me going. It’s only a few blocks away and my friend Audrey will be there too. She just had a kid in January and we are comfortable talking about poop and blood and boobs and all that stuff. She’s also one of the only people I would have thought to call to come over, so this gives me an excuse. At this point in the evening I only feel crampy like I would during a normal heavy period, nothing I haven’t experienced before. As I macrame my wall hanging, I have flashbacks to the bloody body lifeless in the tub, but overall the crafting helps me take my mind and put it into my hands.

***

 

PART 2: The Pyre

When I turn my phone on in the morning the first text that comes through is from Liz, my sister-in-law. It’s a group text to that entire side of the family saying, “We’ve got a three-year-old, folks.” She attaches a photo of their son standing barefoot by a flower bed; it’s his 3rd birthday today. It takes everything in my power to not respond with an attached photo of the fetus and say, “We’ve got a 13.5-week-old dead baby, folks.” My sense of humor seems on point to me as part of my innate coping mechanism, but I know the text will not be well received. Society tells me that I must protect people from also witnessing what I’ve experienced. It expects me to hold the true gory facts of life to myself and somehow be comforted in knowing that so many other people experience these things too. I am so frustrated that it’s not the norm to talk openly and graphically.

With most every person I see I think, ‘You’ve had a miscarriage…or you know someone who’s had a miscarriage…’ and I want to scream ‘I had a miscarriage!’ But I don’t.

Still no one knows about what I’m going through except for Jamie and Sumra. I think, “What just happened to me yesterday? Did I give birth? What the fuck does miscarriage mean anyway? I carried something wrong? I dropped it?” I want to walk around the neighborhood wearing a t-shirt that says, “I just had a miscarraige, come talk to me about it” or “Had a miscarriage? Honk if you’ve had one too!” I go to the dog park and one of my neighborhood dog park buddies is there with their dog. They casually ask me “How are you?” and I respond, “Do you really want to know?” and they say “Sure,” so I tell them everything while our dogs are rolling around in the grass and chasing tennis balls. They give me a big hug and over the next few days text me to check in. I appreciate it.

I wake up on Sunday morning and lie in bed for a while gathering my thoughts and making plans for the day. Now that I’m not pregnant, what doors does that open? What doors does it, for now, close? I decide I want to use the experience as an excuse to talk more openly with my mom. I’m tired of holding onto things as if they are secrets and things she’ll just worry over. I decide my first action of the day will be to turn my phone on and call my mom and tell her everything. Before I get the chance to place the call, a text comes in from Jamie: “You awake? Hi. I’m at the hospital. Your mom had a stroke this morning.”

The first sounds out of my mouth are a gasp and then a silent wailing. When my voice finally touches sound, it’s with the word “no,” the ‘o’ trails off for several seconds before I am able to breathe again and come back to reality. How could the universe be playing all of its cards on me within these few days?

Jamie puts me on the phone with my dad who starts off by asking, “When are you coming east?” I have to explain to him that I can’t physically pack up and come back yet. I have to explain that I was 3.5 months pregnant until a few days ago and that I am recovering from having a miscarriage. He asks a lot of questions that I can’t remember, and expresses his concern about my continued bleeding and getting to the doctor for a follow up. An hour or so passes and by then my mom has her speech back and Jamie puts me on the phone with her. Her voice is slow and labored.

“Your dad told me what happened,” she says.

“Yup.”

“Where is the being?” My folks refer to the fetus as the being.

“It’s in a tea box on the kitchen counter.”

“What are you going to do with it?”

“I haven’t decided yet.”

I still haven’t figured out what feels right. I move it from the kitchen to the top of my dresser. I think about planting it in the bottom of one of my house plants. I think about burying it in the dog park or Golden Gate Park, where the dog and I have had some fun times. But those places don’t help me feel like I am letting go of something; instead they feel like I am burying it deeper. If the entire miscarriage happened at the hospital I would be fine with them disposing of it or studying it, but I’m left to deal with things myself. I finally arrive at burning it, but I don’t know where to build a fire. Regardless, venturing out will have to wait until I’m feeling better; three days later and I’m still very low energy and bleeding and cramping.

I hang up with my folks and take the dog out. I have only enough in me to walk around the block and that’s it. Nate and Ryder are over, helping me pack the apartment. Hearing my dad ask me when I’m coming east had made me reach out to them and ask for help. I told them the basic facts of what’s been going on with me and with my mom and they dropped everything and came over. I don’t know how they took the news but when they arrive, they are eager to get to work and don’t ask too many questions. Before my eyes the apartment is torn apart: the artwork is stripped from the walls, some furniture is removed, the rugs are taken up.

I’m slowly letting go of a nest that I’ve built over the last eight years of living in this space. By some sick coincidence, my body at that very moment begins to rapidly let go of the “nest” in my uterus that it hasn’t completely shed over the last 72 hours. I go to the bathroom and put on a new pad and as soon as I stand up it has soaked through. I know something is not right and I calmly call the nurse’s triage line and tell them what’s going on and as we end the call they tell me: “We’ll see you soon.”

***

The next several hours of my life are dramatic and awesome. With the blood gushing out of me I feel very alive and aware. I put on a new pad and by the time I tell Nate and Ryder, “I’m not feeling so well and I need someone to take me to the hospital,” it is filled and the seat and thighs of my pants are starting to take on the excess. In this moment of crisis I have enough presence of mind to grab an absorbent puppy pad for the passenger seat of the car and Ryder helps walk me towards the door and down the stairs and across the sidewalk where Nate is waiting to give me a ride. Every step I take, more and more blood is literally pouring out of me. The cramping mixed with the extreme heat escaping my body with the blood is alarming and it is hard to sit still without tears streaming down my cheeks, screaming, “Holy fuck!” and “There’s so much blood!” We keep the windows rolled down so I can concentrate on some fresh air amidst the insanity. En route we get stopped at traffic lights next to a few popular outdoor brunch spots that are packed with SF’s tech scene and I disrupt their hipster dining experience with my wailing. Nate gives them a small wave and smile as if to say everything’s okay, though I don’t think they are convinced.

En route I realize I need to call Jamie and let him know what’s happening. I try to reach Audrey too so she can come to the hospital. I can’t reach either of them and suddenly I feel very alone. I finally get a hold of Jamie and Nate coaches me through what to say. “I’m on my way to the hospital. I’m bleeding a lot. Nate’s with me. Ryder’s at home with the dog. I’m okay,” I say through choked breathing, “Can you please reach Audrey and tell her I need her to come to the hospital?”

This time my arrival to the hospital is not construed as that of a visitor who needs to sign in. The security guard at the elevator rushes over with a wheelchair and helps Nate get me into it, and then presses the elevator buttons for us. We arrive at the same desk in a poorly lit corner on the 3rd floor that I was at a few days ago, and this time there’s a woman behind the counter who asks for my ID. At this point blood is pooling in my seat and I am so shocked that the first thing they are doing is asking for my ID so I naturally shout, “What the fuck is this beauracracy?”

The lady is not fazed and responds with something like, “We have to get you in the system first.” Too much time passes and eventually we’re given permission to enter into the delivery ward. As Nate wheels me past the check-in desk I throw my fist in the air and shout again, “Down with the patriarchy!” With this I make myself laugh and more blood gushes out of me.

A team of nurses greets us and tells me to get undressed. “My socks too? I hate cold feet,” I say as I start disrobing. No one answers so I just follow directions. Nate says, “You’re in good hands, Anna. I’ll be outside if you need anything.” I’m shaking as I stand up, and the nurses hold onto me and strip down my pants and underwear and drape a medical gown on me. My shaking has turned into uncontrollable shivering and I have to tell them, “I’m really cold.” I’m surprised how quickly they come back with several blankets fresh from the dryer and pack them around my head and torso as I lie on the examination table.

“I have a really strong urge to pee,” I say. The nurses have to check with the doctor to confirm that it’s okay, and when they get permission, they roll me onto a very uncomfortable plastic bedpan and then wait for me to pee as if I can go on command with them staring at me. They realize they are on autopilot and snap out of their nursing role and turn around to give me some simple privacy.

En route to the hospital we get stopped at traffic lights next to a few popular outdoor brunch spots that are packed with SF’s tech scene and I disrupt their hipster dining experience with my wailing.

I can’t do much with my hands, as by now I’ve got an IV for fluids in my left arm and a blood pressure sensor on the other. I want my hair put up and out my face so Nate comes in and tries, with my verbal instructions and directional head nods, to put my bangs up the way I want them clipped back. I can feel he’s fumbling, so with a smile on my face I tell him to “Go watch some youtube tutorials and come back to me.”

The doctor enters and encourages me to tell her what I’m experiencing, “You want to tell me what’s going on?”

“I had a miscarriage on Thursday and have had normal bleeding over the last few days, but just a little bit ago I started hemorrhaging.”

“How many weeks pregnant were you?”

“Around 13.”

“There’s a lot of blood. We’re going to take a look at you and figure out what’s going on.”

She takes out the ultrasound machine and sees immediately that there are some very large chunks of uterine lining blocking the cervix. She exchanges a nervous look with one of the nurses and turns to me to say, “We’re going to do our best to remove them here. If we need to, we’ll go down the hall to an operating room with better equipment and lighting.” She patiently responds to my questions about why my body is responding to the clots by bleeding so much, and tells me more about the manual uterine aspiration (MUA) she’s about to perform. Someone comes in to give me a dose of ibuprofen and antibiotics, an apparent standard procedure for these things, and then everyone sets to work.

The doctor pops the foot stirrups out and says that classic line that any person who’s had a pelvic exam knows: “Just slide to the end of the table.” In this moment I hate it. I barely have the energy to prop myself up let alone push myself down to where she wants me. With some help, I move my ass to the edge and put my feet in their correct place.

“Ugh. I fucking hate stirrups,” I tell them. I feel compelled to let them know where I am at with everything that comes up. Perhaps it’s my way of leveling the playing field and asserting some of my power in this doctor-patient relationship.

My back is now lying directly on top of the medical absorbent pad that is soaked with my blood. It’s cold, squishy, and uncomfortable, so I ask them to replace it with a new one. My legs are shaking so much that I have to ask a nurse to hold them in place; they do so hesitantly. I’m not relaxed at all so the speculum feels like it’s ripping me apart when the doctor puts it inside of me. I grab the hand of the nurse who’s holding my left leg as they begin the suction. No matter how hard I try to relax and breathe, there never seems like a good moment to do it. I’m moaning loudly and swearing because it’s the only thing that brings me comfort, and this prompts a nurse to come in and offer me pain killers.

“Would you like some fentanyl?” she asks.

“Fuck no! Don’t you listen to NPR?” I say in shock over the known opioid epidemic. and the knowledge that fentanyl causes overdoses.

“Well, it seems like you’re in a lot of pain.”

Isn’t it supposed to hurt? I have no idea what’s normal. I ask the nurse who’s still holding my hand to do some breathing with me, but she’s not as good as when Jamie was doing breathing with me over the phone. I turn my head away from her and start crying for the first time since arriving at the hospital.

“I wish Jamie were here,” I sob.

“You’re doing a great job, Anna. We’re almost done,” says the doctor.

“I’ve heard that before! Don’t get my hopes up — I’ll believe that when I see it,” I laugh.

I close my eyes and try to catch my breath and disassociate from my body. I try to focus on something that will take me away, but I can’t find it. The suctioning and pain continue.

***

Before long the MUA is complete and the doctor hands me the largest pad I have ever seen. Its plastic liner is the color of orange sherbert, and I stick it in the bottom of a pair of disposable mesh underwear and somehow slide them on while still lying down. The doctor wheels her chair over to my side.

“We were able to remove a lot and the bleeding has improved. You did a great job. Do you have any questions?”

“Can I see what came out of me?”

“Sure!” She wheels back with a stainless steel dog bowl that’s halfway filled with what can only be described as a very hearty homemade strawberry jam with very large dark strawberry chunks. I ask her to use the utensils and pick some up so I can assess the texture. An aroma of iron wafts up at me.

“Do you have any questions?” she asks again.

I don’t know how to answer this. Yes. No. I can’t think of any. I’m filled with questions but haven’t had time to form them yet.

I get Jamie on the phone. Audrey arrives soon after and joins Nate and me in the room. We’re there for a few hours but time passes quickly. We laugh a lot while recounting the ridiculousness of the day’s events: driving past the brunch spots with a screaming lady in the car, being offered addictive drugs, all the blood, etc. I ask Nate if he’s brushed up on hair up-dos since we last spoke and shows his progress on Audrey’s ponytail.

Over the next few days I think a lot about how without medical intervention I would be one of those women filling the statistic of ‘died from complications due to childbirth.’

Nurses stop in every once in a while to check my blood pressure in different positions — lying down, sitting, standing up. Finally a nurse comes in and gives a spiel that she’s clearly given before.

“Put nothing up your vagina for the next six weeks. No fingers, no tampons, no douching, no penises, and no toys.” And then the doctor comes in again and asks “Do you have any questions?” I still don’t have any. Not enough time has gone by for me to even process what I’ve been through. She gives me a dose of methergine and directions for taking it every 4 hours for the next 20. She offers me a follow-up appointment with a gynecologist and gives me the number to the triage line again in case anything comes up. I look her straight in the eyes and reach my hand out to say thank you. We shake, and with that, it’s as if I was never in the hospital. No one comes in after that to walk us to the door or say goodbye, or ask where I’m going for the night. As I leave, I shout down the hallway to the nurses, “See ya! Thank you!” and they give a quick wave in return.

***

I doze lightly, but in general don’t sleep much. Every four hours I’m up taking the medication to help my uterus continue to clamp down and stop the blood flow. On the east coast my mom is up every four hours too, but she’s got pressurized cuffs on her calves to encourage blood flow. I’m up at 3:30am, and knowing that she’s got a direct line to her room in the hospital, I give her a call. She picks up after two rings with the same sleep deprived voice that I use.

“Good morning,” we say to each other. As we lie in our beds on opposite sides of the country, we laugh a lot about hospitals and the medical establishment. I don’t know why we have the courage to laugh, considering they have literally saved both of our lives in the last 24 hours, but we still feel it’s within our rights. “When are they going to figure out how to be more fucking human?” we say to each other. My mom swears too. That’s where I get it from.

Over the next few days I think a lot about how without medical intervention I would be one of those women filling the statistic of “died from complications due to childbirth.” It’s not like I feel as if I’ve gone through a near death experience, but I certainly understand that I probably would have died without the help of modern technology. This is the first time in my life I’m having to come to terms with this. I am now officially a modern woman whose life relies on modern conveniences, not just someone who uses them out of convenience.

I realize that my inner cavewoman, who’s strength has gotten me through a lot of things in life, has now officially died and I am mourning her death. In one last effort to connect with her and honor her life, I drive down to Ocean Beach and build a little pyre with driftwood, cardboard recycling, and sprigs of cedar, mugwort, and sage. In the middle I place the tea box with the being inside, and while the dog runs around in the surf with a husky friend, I light it on fire and watch it burn.

* * *

Anna Lea Hand is an artist, high school math teacher, and sexual health advocate. She currently lives in Vermont.

Editor: Sari Botton