The Declarer (Floyd McWilliams' Blog)

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

I never thought I would take a woman to two abortions in one year.

I was raised Catholic, and went to Catholic grade schools and high school. These schools were not stridently anti-abortion, but occasionally the students would be instructed in the Church's preferred brand of politics. One instance I vividly remember was when a large and unkempt woman proudly explained how she and her fellow protestors would throw blood at the Pentagon, and throw blood at abortion clinics. (I took this as a hint that maybe abortion wasn't as bad as it was cracked up to be.)

My personal position on abortion was that abortion was okay early on in the pregnancy, and probably close to murder very late in the pregnancy -- but that questions of morality could to an extent be put aside for the salient point: Abortion is for idiots who can't be bothered to use proper birth control. (I never, in my most right-wing moments, thought that the Catholic Church's stance against birth control was anything other than insanity.)

Smugness, complacency, fatuousness -- all these sins will be punished in time.

In 2003 my wife Sherry and I decided it was time to have children. In the fall of that year we found out that Sherry was pregnant, with a due date in June. Sherry proceeded to have regular visits with her obstretician. She was subjected to a battery of tests, one of which was a blood test to see if she was at risk for various birth defects. The test was positive, though this was not particularly alarming as false posivites were common. An amnioscentesis would be the definitive check. In late January of 2004, we went to a doctor's office near the Stanford Mall. Sherry lay down in a small dark room, and jelly was smeared on her abdomen to allow the ultrasound receiver to slide back and forth. Two doctors looked at the fetus, which was moving its arms and legs. They scanned various organs, and at one point the taller, younger doctor turned to the other and said, "What's that?"

"That" was a long, bifurcated organ. The other doctor hemmed and hawed and said it might be a gall bladder. I was blissfully ignorant of any impending trouble. I was looking at our baby! For some reason it did not seem real until now, when I could see her -- the ultrasound appraised us of the sex. The doctors drew a fluid sample through a needle, and told us to schedule an appointment for a detailed ultrasound.

Just to show you how stupid and blind people can be, in the car on the way back my wife and I picked a name.

When my wife called me at work it the Friday before the Super Bowl. A genetic counselor had called her up and told her that the fetus had an extra 18th chromosome; it would not be viable. When I got the news I rushed out of the building and drove home. I was careful not to speed, careful to pay attention. I had been upset and scared and frustrated before, but never totally devastated. I turned on the radio to see if the news could make any impression on me. It did not.

We lay around the house numbed. On Sunday some friends came over for a subdued Super Bowl party. (I took frantic notes of each commercial so I could make fun of them on my blog, and as a result I have absolutely no recollection of the football that was played, though I am told it was one of the most exciting title games ever.)

On Monday we got around to the business of getting rid of the thing inside Sherry. We had an appointment with the genetic counselor -- and how shitty a job is that, anyway? "At 10 a.m. I have to tell the McWilliamses that their baby has Trisomy 18 and won't be born alive, and at 2 p.m. we inform the Johnsons that they are carrying a fetus with Down Syndrome. The Changs' results came back positive for Trisomy 13? Well, pencil them in at noon." There wasn't much for her to do, as we agreed that there was no point carrying the fetus to term.

The more important appointment was with a surgeon recommended by our obstretician. He specialized in late abortions. He struck me as genuinely caring, but also extremely competent and authoritative. He looked much younger than his years -- a plaque on his office wall announced his graduation from college in the year I was born.

I wondered if we would have to go to an abortion clinic and run a gauntlet of protestors. I felt as though it would be impossible to restrain myself from punching one. Sherry went into Stanford Hospital like any other patient, at an obscenely early hour. She wore a gown and was hooked up into IVs, which made her seem pathetically fragile. I began to worry and sweat. What if she didn't survive the procedure? After awhile the surgeon showed up in operating gown and cap, which made him look even more competent. He said everything had gone okay.

I took a very groggy and woozy wife home. In the days following the surgery she developed pleuritis and was very weak and miserable. But she got through her illness, and after a few more months we decided to try again.

The surgeon had said that we would not have any trouble getting pregnant again. He said that many of his patients send him cards after giving birth successfully, and it usually took them about 14 months. That was actually a pretty accurate estimate.


In July we were overjoyed to find out that Sherry was pregnant. Soon after that a close friend, who had been trying to get pregnant for a long while, miscarried at five months. In August, Sherry went in for her first ultrasound. The fetus was quite small at that point, but was able to exhibit an audible heartbeat.

Not that the doctor could hear it.

The followup appointment confirmed what we had feared: That the pregnancy was not real, except to Sherry's uterus. Once again we scheduled an abortion. This time the obstretician performed it at El Camino Hospital in Mountain View. Once again Sherry was hooked up to fluid lines and wheeled into an operating room.

An abortion at two months is much easier than an abortion at four months. Sherry recovered quickly, and a few days after the surgery we were able to make our third yearly pilgrimage to Eureka.

We were concerned that there was something wrong with our genes, or the combination thereof. But genetic testing confirmed that we there was nothing intrinsically wrong with our chromosomes. We had just been very unlucky.

Sherry left in late October for a three-week trip to Shanghai. We decided that we would try to conceive after she got back. She came back with a cold, then I got the cold. So it was to our great surprise that we discovered just before our Christmas trip to Reno that she was pregnant!

The early exams and tests seemed to go well. It was with trepidation that we returned to the same medical office near the Stanford Mall for an amnio and ultrasound. My mood was not improved when the nurse turned dimwitted on us, pointing in confusion to the file from last January. "You were pregnant on January of last year?" she said. I wanted to say "Yeah, it's been in there 15 months and we're kind of worried about it." But I held my tongue. Soon the ultrasound was being performed, and everything looked great -- no "what's that", just lots of shots of a normal healthy fetus. I loved the nurse, I loved the doctor, I loved everyone. I was happy.

So happy, in fact, that I hit a car backing up on the way out of the parking lot.

Someone had parked their Mercedes-Benz -- it would have to be a Mercedes-Benz -- sticking out several feet into a narrow aisle. But I was clearly at fault, so I gritted my teeth and wrote a note giving my name and phone number.

I gritted my teeth some more when the owner -- who had some foreign name with an approximation to "Baron" -- called me up, praised me for being honest, and said he would send me a bill as soon as the bill came from the garage. And he said that the last time someone bumped into him, it cost around $600 to fix.

The last time!? Geez, how many times is the guy going to get hit before he realizes his car is too big for the parking lot?

Anyway, the test results from the amnio came back negative (as in "good"). And we also found out that we had a little boy on our hands. For no very good reason we came up with the name Jason. His middle name would be Ming, to honor Sherry's deceased aunt.

In preparation for his birth, we signed up for childbirth preparation classes at El Camino Hospital. These classes began in late June, and ran from 6:30 to 9 p.m. every Thursday. I would leave work at 6, grab a sandwich, and meet Sherry in the parking lot. Then we would proceed to find out about the wonders of childbirth. I soon discovered that childbirth is both wonderfully disgusting and wonderfully terrifying. I began to refer to the classes as the "Thursday Night Horror Show." The videos were full of public-spirited earnestness; pregnant women would say things like "I decided to get an epidural because the pain was interfering with the enjoyment of my child's birth," instead of the more truthful "I screamed for an epidural because it felt like I was pissing a bowling ball through my urethra." (Also the videos featured a distressing number of the worst sort of hippies: Those who don't use drugs.)

When I met Sherry before these classes, she was doing a lot of walking. This was because she had tested positive for gestational diabetes, and was controlling it through diet and excercise. The diet side of the equation meant that she could no longer eat a lot of her favorite foods, like white rice. The first time she cooked brown rice she asked if she had cooked it right. I had to tell her that yes, brown rice was supposed to be that dry and tasteless.

As the due date of September 2nd approached, we enjoyed our last summer that would lack parental duties. We normally take lots of weekend trips, but culinary excursions are a big part of that experience and the diabetes put a damper on fine dining. "Let's go to Monterey and eat salad and crackers!" So we stayed in the Bay Area, had friends over, and slept late in the mornings.

In August Sherry visited her obstretician more frequently. Twice a week she would take the NST test, which consisted of two bands around her abdomen that would pick up the baby's heartbeat. To pass the NST the heartbeat had to vary, to show that the fetus was responding to stimuli and was active. Usually this was not hard, but sometimes the baby was asleep and showed little activity; when this happened Sherry would drink ice water to wake him up!

On one of these visits, Sherry heard from the office staff of a terrible tragedy: The obstretician had lost one of her five children when the child's nanny crashed a car. The death was prominently featured in the local Woodside-Menlo Park-Atherton newspaper.

What was heartbreaking was how much the picture of the girl looked like Sherry's doctor.

The final ultrasound was scheduled for Monday the 22nd. As I got there I found out that Sherry had failed the NST twice. The ultrasound went well, though it provided much less detail than I expected -- Jason was still an X-ray style blob, though a larger one. Just to be safe the obstretician wanted Sherry to try the NST one more time in El Camino Hospital. If the fetus still did not pass, labor would be induced. Furthermore, she did not want pregnancies to go past term when gestational diabetes was involved. (When Sherry was diagnosed with diabetes we were given a pamphlet that listed side effects; the last was "large baby.")

We had already made preparations for childbirth, but we weren't that prepared! We walked across and down the street to the hospital, and they checked us in to Delivery Room 1. While the nurse was putting sensor bands around Sherry's abdomen, we heard a woman scream next door. We both looked at the nurse, who said "I didn't realize how scary that sounds until I had my baby."

There was nothing much for us to do but hang out and watch the output of the NST test -- the equipment was just a computer, and a printer that produced jagged lines on graph paper. The nurse came back and said everything was okay and we could go.

After that, with a definite due date in mind, we prepared more energetically. We had been piling baby paraphernalia -- some purchased, most obtained from friends who had had babies recently -- in our spare bedroom, and now we cleaned the room and arranged the clothes, crib, changing table, and other sundries. We packed a carryon and a backpack with clothes. I bought some books.

There was no sign of contractions, so at 6:30 a.m. on Thursday, September 1 we called El Camino Hospital. They said to come in at 7:30; our early morning dazed state was responsible for us being about 15 minutes late. We settled into Delivery Room 9, and Sherry was hooked up to an IV delivering pitocin to start labor. Nothing much happened for most of the morning. I left for breakfast, and found that El Camino's cafeteria was decent and quite cheap. It was not nearby; the materinity building is separated from the main hospital, and I never did find a good shortcut between them. Around 11 Sherry started to feel pain from her contractions, and was given a painkiller through her IV. Our obstretician stopped by, clad in OR gear; she had delivered one C-section and had assisted at another. She was returning to her office to see the patients from her regular practice. And she was returning, probably quite late, to deliver Sherry! Something to think about when you complain of a long wait in the doctor's office. (Medicine is traditionally considered a high-paying job, but I make as much as a software engineer as many doctors -- and I don't have to work 18-hour days in which I slice open peoples' abdomens.)

The pain medication made Sherry sleepy. I went to lunch, and then to Starbucks. Sherry was drinking ice water, but at one point she ran to the sink and threw a lot of it up. She started to feel real pain around 3 p.m., so the nurse called for the anesthesiologist. He was a slender, athletic man in his 40's with a great bedside manner. He told me that I had to sit while he performed the epidural and I did not argue; I had already seen a needle go into a woman's spine in the childbirth preparation class, and had no desire to see it again.

Sherry felt a lot better, and drifted back to semi-sleep. Now she was stuck in the bed (the epidural came with a catheter insertion). I wondered what would happen if she got sick, as she could no longer rush to the sink. I put a disposable bedpan next to her (the suite had a whole stack of them), and it was well that I did -- a few minutes later she had another fit of vomiting. The nurse forbade any more water or ice intake, and arranged for anti-nausea medication. To her surprise the medicine had little effect, and Sherry was to have dry heaves throughout the rest of the labor.

We continued to wait. The point of early labor is to wait while the cervix opens to 10 centimeters in width so the baby can pass through. Sherry had started at 2 centimeters, and by late afternoon was at 7. I continued to read my books: A book on Roman arms and soldiers; a bridge book by Fred Gitelman; a book on the exploration of Africa. The book on Romans was rather brief, and was mostly a list of arms and armor, and an explanation of tactics. Gitelman's book is good, but I was tired, and tense, and not in the mood for bridge problems. The book on African exploration was amazingly interesting and exciting, but the African societies of the 19th century committed an amazing number of atrocities against animals, human beings, and infants.

So I was happy to stop reading when at 9:25 p.m. the obstretician returned and Sherry was deemed ready for pushing. I knew that the average first-time mother had to push for two to three hours, and was prepared for an interminible and exhausting time. Actually it was not so bad. Sherry could not feel her contractions because of the epidural, so we watched the monitor and looked for quivering on her belly. When a contraction came, Sherry was to curl into a ball and press down.

The childbirth prep class referred to the pregnant woman's husband or companion, not as "partner" as I had expected, but "coach." (There would be no Heather with two mommies; all pregnant ladies were accompanied by one person of the male gender.) This led to a lot of Coach Z accented wisecracking between me and Sherry. "Keep porshing, honey! Great jorb!" I expected to hold Sherry's hand and lend moral support. Instead I was pulling up on the small of her back, and helping the nurse push her legs back. (The obstretician had gone to a sleep room until Sherry was closer to giving birth.)

Sherry pushed three times during each contraction. Since they came about five minutes apart, Sherry (and me and the nurse) rested more than worked. Sherry seemed to be making good progress, and at around 11 the obstretician came back. (At one point between contractions we were talking about our jobs, and the nurse said that being an obstretician meant that she didn't have to worry about being laid off. The doctor said that she might have been better off if she had. That was the only time I heard her as much as allude to her daughter's accident.)

Now Sherry was very close, but from my vantage point I couldn't see any difference. Then I heard the nurse say "Floyd, you won't want to miss this!" and when I looked over they were pulling out a somewhat bloody and face down baby! They cut the cord immediately as it had been around his neck, and put him on Sherry's chest. He did not screech as I had expected, but rather looked at me and Sherry and all over the room.

Jason Ming McWilliams, born 11:19 p.m. Sept 1, weighing 7 pounds 8 ounces. Here are some pictures from the first few days:



Congratulations to both of you, Floyd! I'm so happy to see you succeed after so much heartache.

Paul Hepburn

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:50 PM  

I second what Paul said. Jason is a cutie, and considering what you two went through to get such a beautiful baby, my greatest congratulations.

Jason reminds me of my wee one when he was a baby.

By Anonymous Lauren, at 4:00 PM  

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