Sitting in the waiting room, Jason and I nervously wait for our 18 week ultrasound. This is a big deal. For us, we get to find out the gender. For the doctor, she gets to make sure baby is on track. It is December 16th. Three days after my mom’s birthday, almost a week before Christmas. General excitement floats through the air everywhere we go. It is such a magical time of year. How great to be able to share the information we get today with everyone.
My thoughts wander to how we can reveal the news. Just blurting out “it’s a __!” is a ho-hum way of doing it. The anticipation leading up to this moment is too big for that. Searching online for good ideas turns out fruitless. Suggestions such as find a candy with “he” or “she” in the title, wrap up gifts of some sort in either pink or blue, and so on seem exciting to others, but I find them a little gimmicky. We still have time to decide, I tell myself, until our family Christmas gathering where we will make the big reveal.
The waiting room is oddly crowded, filled to the brim with pregnant ladies. They seem so calm and collected, while my hands are sticking to each page as I leaf through a magazine, pretending to be calm and collected. My eyes wander around the room, my gaze stopping on a woman clearly further along than I am. She is alone. She looks bored. I sure am lucky to have a husband who comes along to my appointments. I don’t think I could handle this stress or anxiety without Jason. I imagine if I were that woman, she would be thinking, I sure wish my husband was here with me. What a lucky girl over there! Or maybe she’s thinking the opposite, Why does she have him here? Can’t she go to an appointment by herself? I break my gaze-turned-stare quickly when I realize how absurd I’m letting my thoughts get. I wish we could just get on with this.
The TV as a distraction is no better. The fake doctor news with Dr. Sanjay Gupta has already looped 10 times I’m sure. The previously quiet Jason breaks my train of thought and annoyance, jokingly saying “I feel like I’ve seen this before.” I chuckle. This is why I need Jason here.
“Laura,” calls a nurse from the doorway. Finally! I start to gather my purse and jacket. Jason puts down his magazine and grabs my hand. When I look up, I see the other, more pregnant lady, has also gotten up. The nurse realizes the confusion, and says a last name foreign to me. Sigh! I lean back in the chair, and continue to wait. More-pregnant Laura gets to go first. Moments later, it is my turn. My irritation falters.
“How are you today?” She asks. It’s probably only the 20th time today she’s asked this question.
“Fine,” I say. “How are you?”
“Good. We’ll get a urine sample. Today we’ll do a more extensive test with it, so be sure to write your name on the cup with the sharpie, and put it in this other door.” She points to the small metal trap door on the opposite side of the room from the common door. It seems like every appointment there is something new and exciting. Today’s excitement includes this new urine door! I feel like I’ve been clued into a secret only meant for women who have made it to their 18th week.
“When you’re done, come on down to the end of the hall. We’ll wait for you there.”
Jason goes with her to the ultrasound room, and I begin gathering the sample. I feel rushed, as if I have to do it as quickly as possible before the next pregnant lady bangs desperately on the bathroom door. Or worse yet, opens the door while I’m still in there. Convinced this will definitely happen, I’m breaking world records at how fast I can do this now. I finish up, put the lid on the cup, write my name on on the label, and put it in the new door. A few seconds later, I hear a noise from the other side, like a wild animal has scratched its way in to find a tasty treat. My curiosity get the better of me, and I pull the metal door open ever so slightly to peak. Like magic, my cup is gone. I wash my hands. It’s now time for the main attraction.
Jason and the technician had been chatting, but stop abruptly when I enter. That’s strange. What do they not want me to know? I figure they were being cordial while waiting for me. I refocus my attention to where I am. The room is very much how I remember it from the last ultrasound: dark, warm, glowing with soft computer lights. All is comforting. I hear music so faint I can hardly detect what song it is. The technician seems somewhat distracted, and reaches over to turn it off. I hop on the table, lie back on the paper pillow, and carefully pull up my white corded sweater. I feel like a pro.
“Looks like you know what to do. Let’s get this started.” The warm gel on my stomach feels sticky and slick. It’s almost too warm, hot even. I try to think what would have been better, cold gel or hot. Abate, stray thoughts! I need to focus on baby! The wand touches my stomach, which always makes me jump a bit at first. She is a different technician from the first time I did this, and so far she’s not winning any popularity contests with me. Her face is stoic, eye contact is nearly non-existent. She hardly talks, and smiles even less. The wand slides up and down my abdomen. The room is drowning in silence. I begin to wonder, what is it that she’s thinking? It’s like watching a silent movie, but one that is blurry. I need subtitles, translations, or something! It feels torturous, not knowing what she’s seeing, and not knowing what to ask about to find out more information. Eventually, she begins talking.
“There is the head.”
Four words; I’ll take it! At least she has found the baby, and it has a head. Whew. Then silence again, and the worry creeps back in my head. Now what? What about the rest of the baby? Calm yourself, Laura. She’s gathering information, Laura. Stop worrying, Laura. These thoughts are less helpful than I had hoped.
“I’m sorry I’m not explaining much. I’m just trying to get some measurements here. Did you guys want to know the sex of the baby?”
“We do want to know. Can you tell?”
“Well, I think I can. It’s not 100% for certain, but I’m fairly sure it’s a girl. Most people think that we detect the sex by either the presence or lack of certain body parts, but that’s not entirely true. For girls, we actually look for three lines where the genitals should be.”
She begins pointing out where she sees these lines. I have never heard of this “three-line” method of gender detection, but it makes me feel more sure of what the technician is saying. I was one of those people the technician spoke of who thought girls were guessed on by the lack of genitalia. Ten seconds later, my brain finally hears what my ears did, that we will have a daughter. It’s a girl! Jason squeezes my hand, and he is clearly already a proud papa of his little girl.
She’s beginning to drive the wand hard over my lower stomach, and I feel wrenching pain pushing straight into my gut. She might as well stabbed me with a knife. I remember this pain from last time. I try hard to fight back the tears, knowing that she must have a reason for pushing so hard. Jason is squeezing my hand, sensing my discomfort.
“Are you OK, Laura?” Someone asks, but as I hold in tears, I’m not sure who.
“Yeah, it’s just a bit uncomfortable,” I make a huge understatement, hiding my embarrassment for feeling the pain. I refocus on what she’s doing, on the baby, the screen, and try to figure out what she’s thinking. She labels different parts of the image, clicking away one-handedly on the keyboard, taking measurements, drawing lines. I have no idea what she is doing, and I wait. After a few minutes, she states,
“It looks like your bladder is filling up again. See the dark area here? That means there is fluid there. Why don’t you take a break and use the bathroom?” She is not one to mince words.
Creeped out that she knows more about my bladder situation than I do, I take her advice and hop off the table, adjusting my sweater. Heading down the hallway, I see my doctor, and even though I attempt to say hi to her, she seems busy with some papers. I feel a bit sheepish for trying to greet her. Returning to the room, Jason is waiting in the dimmed room, alone. It is eerily quiet.
“Where did she go?” I ask.
“I don’t know. She said she’d be right back.”
We sit together in the dimly lit room, and wait.
“I hope nothing is wrong.” Watching Jason’s face, very serious, I know that’s exactly what Jason is thinking too. I look out the opened door, and watch people pass in the hallway. The silence is deafening. It’s amazing how a few minutes and an eternity are the same thing in this moment. The technician returns, and following behind is Dr. Walsh. Her aloofness toward me has disappeared; there is a strong sense of urgency in her presence now.
The technician finally addresses us, “I saw some things in the ultrasound that I wanted Dr. Walsh to look at.”
“OK,” I say warily, and lay back down on the table. The wand returns to my belly, and Baby appears on the screen once again. I crane my neck sideways to see what it is they are looking at, but the screen is now turned slightly away from me, hiding any view I had. I give up and put my head down on the table. The two medical experts hunch over the screen, pointing and whispering things like “right here…” and “this too…” The panic inside of me is rising exponentially as they talk amongst themselves, not sharing anything with us. Dr. Walsh stands back, looks sadly into my eyes, and finally addresses Jason and me.
“It looks like there are some abnormalities showing up on the ultrasound. The technician found a couple things that don’t look normal, and at this point I’m not sure exactly what that means.”
These dreaded words are inconceivable to me. I’m not understanding the gravity of her tone. She means something looks weird, but will be OK, right?
Dr. Walsh turns the screen slightly, and we both turn our gaze to the soft glow. She begins by pointing at Baby’s legs.
“See here how the legs are bending at the knees? They shouldn’t be bending in that direction. It’s as if they are crossing over each other. Take a look at the wrists. Her hands are at 90 degree angles. Again, they shouldn’t be bent that far.” She mimes with her own hands what she says. “She does not seem to be moving the limbs either, which is unusual. Also, if you look at her feet, they appear to be clubbed, or rocker-bottomed.”
I look at the screen in disbelief, feeling my brain scramble to understand what it is she’s actually telling us. I’ve never seen joints bent that way. Is that even a thing? What is going on here? I feel like this is a joke, and the real images of Baby will show up any second.
My confusion is deep, my thoughts feel like a pile of papers thrown to the wind. Is she saying that the baby’s healthy, except for these deformities? Are there therapies that could fix this? Kristi Yamaguchi had clubbed feet as a baby and went on to be a world champion ice skater, so our baby will be OK too, right? With all this confusion in my mind, all I can utter is,
“So what does this mean?”
“Well, I’m not sure exactly. It could be any number of things, like a chromosomal abnormality such as Down’s Syndrome. There is a blood test, the quad screen test, that could help determine if there is a possibility that this is one of four chromosomal abnormalities. We could have that done today. I’d also like for you to see the Maternal Fetal Medicine doctors and have a more extensive ultrasound done. Then maybe we’ll get some answers about what is going on. Would you like to do the blood test today?” She pauses briefly, realizing we are not keeping up with all she is saying. “Take a few minutes to talk it over between you two, and we’ll check with the Maternal Fetal Medicine office to see when you can get in.”
They both leave the room, shutting the door this time. They expect we will need privacy. They expect us to cry. I look at Jason, and the tears begin to flow from my eyes. He immediately stands up from his chair, and puts his arms around me. No words are spoken; I can’t stop crying. What is happening? Our baby has Down’s Syndrome? Is that what she just said? I begin to worry about having a baby born with disabilities. I have worked my whole young career in organizations helping kids with disabilities, yet I don’t think I can ever raise a disabled child myself. I immediately feel like a monster for having this last thought: I can never raise a disable child myself. My mind is racing with questions that I desperately need answers to. I know answers are impossible at this point. We sit quietly, waiting for the Dr. Walsh to return. I try to breathe slowly, regaining my composure.
There is a soft knock on the door, and Dr. Walsh enters with the technician.
“We were able to get you in to the Maternal Fetal Medicine office tomorrow at 1pm for a more extensive ultrasound. It lasts up to an hour, and they take many more measurements than we can. Their tests are much more sensitive than ours are, and so they can assess the situation more accurately than we can. Will this time be OK with you both?”
Tomorrow? Already? The immediacy of this situation is now apparent. This is no joke. There is no time to waste. My body and brain feel woozy all at once. I have to work, and Jason has to teach, and how will I make all these arrangements? A realization settles quickly over me that we really don’t have a choice about when to go to this appointment. This is urgent, life can wait. I look to Jason.
“I guess I can just email work and tell them I can’t make it in tomorrow. She should understand.”
“That should work, Babe. I’ll find someone to cover my class at school. We’ll figure it out.”
I begin to feel the enormity of the situation. We decide to go ahead with the blood test. I feel a desperate need to understand what was happening, and how to fix it. I feel helpless. I feel handcuffed and pinned in a corner. Doing exactly what the doctor says is all I can do.
The white, sterile lab is not a place of comfort. Waiting for the needle to stick my arm is not of comfort. Replaying images of Dr. Walsh’s demonstration of the bent joints is not of comfort. I feel sick and forlorn. I want to wake up from this. I want a redo.
The phlebotomist is very good, and she easily gets several vials of blood while I stare off to the corner of the room in a daze. She covers the site of my needle stick with a cotton ball and bandage, and I attempt to pull my sleeve down over the bulge. Jason holds my coat out, carefully placing each sleeve over my arms. We slowly shuffle out of the doctor’s office. Mentally, I’m attempting an impossible task of preparing myself for this appointment tomorrow. I cannot focus on my current actions; Jason’s hand clasped in mine, guides me gently to the car. Holding the door open for me, Jason makes sure I get in okay. It is cold out, near freezing. My hand shake, my teeth chatter. The contrast from the warm ultrasound room to outside is another insult. We try to get the heat going as fast as possible. All I can do to keep the tears from flowing is to focus on the car heater, adjusting the fan speed, clicking the direction of the vent back and forth, changing the temperature up and down. I need to make it perfect. I can control this. When I am satisfied I have done what I can, I move on to messing around with the radio dial, trying to find a decent song to listen to on the somber ride home. Too annoying, too upbeat, too sad, too noisy. It’s impossible to find the right thing, so I settle for neutral commercials. We don’t speak much in the car, just the few reassuring things we know to say “it will be okay”, “let’s just see how things go tomorrow, Babe.” There is nothing beyond that.
“I know. But it’s so hard not to worry. Something is clearly wrong.”
“Whatever it is, we’ll make it through together. Let’s just wait until tomorrow to find out more answers before we worry ourselves too much.”
I know he’s right, but my eyes well up anyway. I quickly wipe away the tears before they are released, pretending they don’t exist. The drive home feels long, and slow. I stare out the window, watching the seemingly carefree world go by. A new fear strikes: how are we going to share this news?