Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Beneficial Effects of Roach DNA on the Human Spirit

   I have a colleague at work, a young operating room nurse named Sara, who is about to enter the third trimester of her second pregnancy. Through an app which estimates the size of her uterus, she keeps us all updated on the progress of her little girl, who has expanded over the months from the size of a grape to a fig, a lime, an orange, a mango, and now, a soccer ball. To someone who's never longed to be a mom, Sara's daily Facebook posts may seem a little excessive. If you enjoyed a perfect pregnancy where you bore a perfectly healthy baby who you welcomed home after your perfect vaginal delivery to a perfectly appointed nursery, you probably wouldn't understand. Sara's first pregnancy ended in the premature birth of her twin boys, both of whom died shortly after being born. After suffering a loss like that, she's got every right to be ecstatic about this baby girl.
      When I was 27, my biological clock went off. This was weird for me because I'd never really been a kid-oriented person, and I'd certainly never pictured myself being someone's mom. As a teenager, I didn't like baby-sitting other people's children. I felt awkward around them. Unlike my sisters, it was difficult for me to come up with fun, entertaining ideas for the toddler set.  Baby talk seemed so stupid; it wasn't intuitive to me. I'd rather be drawing or knitting or making chocolate mousse. My husband, Jim, and I started trying to conceive in November of 1989, when I was in the last year of my associate degree nursing program. I stopped taking the pill that month, and by early January, we were pregnant. We went to see the movie "Parenthood" the night before I took my home pregnancy test, and as we watched it together,  I was overcome by the thought that a life could be growing inside me. The next morning, I discovered I was pregnant.
     I was a ridiculously happy pregnant lady. I read every pregnancy-related publication I could get my hands on, and was especially intrigued by a wonderful book called "Life." It was written by a Swedish photographer named Lennart Nilsson and it featured stunning images of life inside the womb at all stages of gestation. I couldn't wait to get past the first eight weeks so I could officially refer to my baby as a fetus, instead of an embryo. At sixteen weeks, I had my first ultrasound. The ultrasound tech kept pointing to the baby's head, saying "This is a head." Then, she'd scan over to the other side of my belly and say, "And, this is a head." She must have discerned that Jim and I weren't getting what she was trying to tell us, yet she went back and forth, repeating, "Here's a head, and here's a head!" Something finally clicked, and we got it: we were having twins! The tech later told us that she had hesitated in telling us she was seeing two babies because couples tended to freak out about stuff like that. To her relief, we were euphoric, and couldn't wait to share the news with our families.
     At 30 weeks, I took my nursing boards in Macon. I stayed with Jim's aunt and uncle, Priscilla and Harris, who lived in a big old house downtown. One night, Priscilla and I went out to eat. We enjoyed an appetizer of Camembert cheese, a nice salad, and I-don't-remember-what for dinner, making sure we went home early so I could get plenty of rest before my exam. Two weeks later, I developed an unusually high fever. Jim and I were moving to our new house in Marietta that weekend, and he was 45 minutes away, painting, cleaning, and getting the place ready for us. This was before we had cell phones, and I had no way of getting in touch with him. Over the course of just a few hours, I became delirious. I repeatedly phoned my HMO, telling them that my fever was 104 F. The patient hotline flavor-of-the-day kept advising me to take Tylenol, and to call back if I was having any signs of premature labor. I ate half a jar of marshmallow creme, and then I took a tepid bath. By the time Jim came home that evening, I was grey and unnervingly calm. He took me to the emergency room at Northside Hospital, and within twenty minutes, I was whisked back to the operating room for an emergency C-section under general anesthesia. The last thing I remember was the pain of having a catheter shoved into my bladder and thinking that my babies were going to die.
     Nick and Rory were born at 32 weeks gestation, and both of them were on the ventilator for a week. Because of my fever,  I was not permitted to visit them for the first 24 hours, and Jim kept me updated with Polaroid photos of each baby. I shared a room with a woman who had a big healthy newborn. As she contentedly breastfed her child, I lamented the loss of my perfect pregnancy, and grieved over not being allowed to hold my own babies. I felt cheated. I wanted to know what it was like to experience labor and delivery, to have an epidural, to hear "push push PUSH!" When I finally did get to see Nick and Rory, it was overwhelming. The NICU was noisy and disturbingly bright. The boys were connected to machines which breathed for them, and they had tubes coming out of their mouths and belly buttons. They looked like aliens, only they were our sons.
     Because my test results came back positive for Listeria, the CDC became involved. The epidemiologist assigned to my case informed us that Listeria was a food-borne disease, and that he'd need to come out to our house to culture the stuff in our refrigerator, in an attempt to identify the source. He told us that unripened soft cheese, like the Camembert I'd recently eaten, along with foods like processed turkey were common sources of Listeria contamination. Luckily, the bacteria hadn't had time to cross the placenta. The effects of Listeria on newborns are quite serious, and include seizures, meningitis and encephalopathy. After I was discharged home, the epidemiologist visited our house, and oddly enough, he was accompanied by one of Jim's and my ex-psychiatric patients. As a surgical resident, this young woman had tried to commit suicide, and she was hospitalized at the mental hospital where Jim and I worked. Apparently, she'd changed career paths after receiving treatment for her depression. She instantly recognized us, but none of us acknowledged how we knew one another. The CDC never found the source of the Listeria, but I suspect it was either the Camembert or the turkey hot dogs I had become addicted to. The boys came home five weeks later. They'd both had a rocky NICU course, and Nick had even undergone surgery for an obstructed bile duct. Both boys failed to thrive and were diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at the age of three months. Very little about our early parenthood experience was easy or pleasant, and I believe the unresolved grief and stress from the boys' illness was instrumental in the failure of our first marriage (Jim and I were married to each other twice).
    There's an axiom in medicine which goes something like this: bad things happen to the nicest people. It's a cruel irony which leaves many of us questioning whether the human genome actually contains roach DNA. Those who receive a disproportionate amount of this arthropod DNA are the survivors, the ones you just can't kill. All too often, the women who demonstrate the least interest in their own health, much less the health of their unborn fetuses, are blessed with healthy children while those of us who do everything right seem cursed with complications like sepsis, preterm labor, and genetic defects. This brings to mind another axiom: God doesn't give us more than we can handle. It doesn't seem fair, but maybe those of us with insight and compassion are just better equipped to deal with sick children. Maybe we're part of a divine plan to enable their survival and make their time here on Earth not just bearable, but meaningful and worthwhile. Yes, it makes parenthood a lot tougher. Having a sick or gravely ill child is stressful beyond belief. It permanently changes you. Those of us who have lost a child or who have chronically ill children spend much of our time wishing we could trade places with our kids. We yearn for them not to suffer. When my boys were in and out of the hospital, I was secretly envious of other moms whose babies were fat and healthy, and I often wondered whether I was being punished for things I'd done back in the 80s. I've come to the conclusion that God doesn't work that way. I refused to become a slave to my grief, and in doing so, parenthood took on a rich new perspective for me. Over the years, I've come to appreciate the beauty of living life in the moment, of being completely present, of attending to right now. Adopting this mindset has made the big deals in life seem a little less insurmountable. I've thoroughly enjoyed the ups and downs of parenting Nick and Rory, some more so than others. We've courageously pushed through their illness together. We embrace our lives with unparalleled passion. We're sort of like bohemians in that we don't worry too much about the future; that's a concept that's hard for most people in our future-oriented society to understand. Living in the here and now is a necessary part of our survival. It's been well worth the effort for us to cultivate this attitude of cautious optimism, hence the third and final axiom: That which doesn't kill us only makes us stronger. Maybe we got a sprinkling of that roach DNA after all.
P.S. Sara, you go, girl! Enjoy the heck out of this pregnancy; you SO deserve to be happy! Keep us posted! :-)

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