Me, January 2018
I got an email the other day that reminded me why I keep writing this site, even during the times when it’s especially hard, and I very much don’t want to. The email was from a woman who feared she was in the midst of an ectopic pregnancy, and was having trouble “convincing” the doctors of her suspicions. She remembered the post I’d written nearly two years ago, about my own ectopic pregnancy – the one that very nearly killed me, and would have had I not been fortunate enough to have a friend who knew the signs to look for – and kept her questions for the doctors coming.
It’s isn’t the only email like this I’ve ever gotten. It’s not even the only email like this I’ve gotten this month. It turns out that despite the fact that ectopic pregnancies account for 1-2% of all pregnancies – making them not particularly uncommon – vast numbers of us have no idea what they are, or what they might look like. Myself included.
And that is fucking dangerous.
I do not enjoy writing about this, and don’t especially want to – certainly not again. But I’m going to anyway, on the off chance that there is a woman out there who missed this story the first time around, and will one day benefit from having had another opportunity to hear it.
In January of 2018, I took a pregnancy test that I was very, very insistent was a massive waste of sixteen dollars and a shot glass’s worth of urine – because there was literally no way.
I said as much to my friend Erin on our walk home from preschool drop-off that morning, after I mentioned the odd mid-cycle spotting, bleeding, and night sweats I’d been having. Her face got all worried-looking and she started going on about her friend who’d had some condition I’d never heard of and was therefore certain I did not have. I explained to Erin that I had a fairly robust understanding of how things like “getting pregnant” generally come to be – one must, as an example, have had intercourse in the time period that has transpired since the last time one menstruated – and said that she had to trust me on this one: I was. not. pregnant.
Except I was.
An hour or so after Erin and I parted ways – but only after repeated texts from her reminding me to take the test – I finally did, complete with eye rolls and sighs. Then two straight lines – faint and blurry at first, then most definitely there – swam up out of that little white square, and within ten minutes flat I was in the passenger seat of Erin’s car, on my way to the hospital. Again, not because I “thought I should” go – I didn’t, not really; I was more confused than worried – but rather because Erin insisted.
What happened over the next few days was not only something I “never saw coming” – it was something I very literally never knew was possible. But now I know. And you do, too.
What I learned after three separate hospital trips (not counting the OB appointments and the inpatient admissions), countless blood tests, emergency surgery, and an MRI to check for a suspected brain bleed: At the time that I took the test, I’d been pregnant for six weeks, and my cycle had continued as if I wasn’t because the embryo was located not in my uterus, but in my fallopian tube. The bleeding and pain I had described to Erin on our walk home from preschool? It was the embryo looking for space to grow in a place where it couldn’t.
The first time I went to the ER, they gave me a pregnancy test, cheerily confirmed that I was pregnant, did an ultrasound that showed nothing, and said that was probably because it was too early. I explained that the facts, taken together, seemed to me to mean that I couldn’t be pregnant. I ventured that it might be an ectopic pregnancy. I said that there was no way this was normal. I said that I’d been pregnant twice before, and that nothing about this time felt right. They sent me home.
In the hospital, during the hour or so I thought I might actually be for-real pregnant
For that little window of time I let myself be excited, even though I knew there was nothing to be excited about, and that letting myself imagine there might be would only make it worse. I named him, or her.
An hour later, I rang my neighbor Alisa’s doorbell, and asked her to watch my kids because I thought I might have to go back to the hospital. Then I collapsed right there where I stood, on her doorstep, and stayed there in a ball on the ground until my Uber arrived a few minutes later. The pain on my right side – right where my fallopian tube was located; right where they say an ectopic pregnancy shows its face – was like nothing I’d ever experienced, apart from childbirth. I curled up in the backseat of my Uber and screamed all the way to the hospital, so loudly that I scared the driver half to death (in addition to terrifying Erin, whom I’d accidentally butt-dialed and who was now listening to her friend crying as if she was being ripped in half).
At the hospital, they took a blood test and told me I was having a miscarriage. I explained again that I couldn’t have been pregnant in the first place; at least not with a healthy pregnancy. I got on all fours because it was the only position I could bear, and screamed help me over and over. I begged for medication, and I could tell they thought I just wanted drugs. I waited. I told the doctor who finally came that I was having an ectopic pregnancy. She tested me for appendicitis. She told me it might be kidney stones. She gave me a prescription for painkillers, and sent me home.
Over the next three days my stomach grew and grew, swelling until I appeared four months pregnant, at least. Finally my OB, who’d been checking in with me over the weekend, called me in for another ultrasound. I was in emergency surgery within the hour. I woke up to discover that my right fallopian tube had been taken out, along with 7cm of what was determined to be embryonic tissue, and that my left fallopian tube had been found to be heavily scarred (likely due to a previously undiagnosed bout with endometriosis).
And so that’s where I am now: Missing parts of my body that I didn’t know I cared quite so much about until they were gone, and unlikely to ever again be able to conceive a child. I’m okay with that now – I really am – but that doesn’t mean that it’s a choice I wanted to have made for me, rather than make myself.
I don’t consider myself a litigious person, but I thought about a lawsuit, of course. I spoke with several lawyers, and did my own research, and ended up discovering that by giving me an ultrasound – insufficient though the results were – the ER doctor had provided the “base standard of care” required by law. They dismissed my questions; they ignored my pain; they brushed aside symptoms that any first-year medical student would have recognized. They were negligent. But the law disagrees on that point, and so that’s where the story ends.
My stomach stayed swollen for weeks afterwards. I found myself unconsciously cradling it from time to time. That might have been the worst part.
I can’t help but find it strange that from now until forever I have to answer “three” whenever a medical questionnaire wants to know how many pregnancies I’ve had. I’m sure this is particular to each person, but having to lump this experience in with the experiences of having my children makes me feel an odd sort of pain. I don’t want this to be bullet-pointed in my file next to the hernia operation I had in 2003 and the fact that I take 150 milligrams of Zoloft every day. I know it makes sense to have it in that list. I don’t know why it makes me angry. It just does.
I’m writing about this – again – because I didn’t know that any of this could happen, and now I do. You can get your period, and still be pregnant. You can go to a hospital with clear signs of an ectopic pregnancy, and be sent home with a handful of Vicodin. Your innermost body parts can break into pieces, and people can look the other way and pretend that you’re whole.
So what to take from this?
You advocate for yourself. You ask questions. You seek out other opinions. And most of all, you trust your body when it’s telling you something is not right. I was lucky to have a friend like Erin, but my chances of survival shouldn’t have depended on her – just as yours, or your friend’s, shouldn’t depend on you having read this article.
But it might. So I am grateful that you did.