"When did it start?" he barked. I wasn't trying to listen, but in the stillness their conversation echoed. "How far along are you?"
His shoes squeaked as he rounded the reception desk and picked up the phone. "I've got a thirty-year-old woman, 13 weeks, spotting for the last two hours. Yeah. I don't know, hang on. Have you had an ultrasound lately? Did they do bloodwork?" I heard her voice responding.
"Ok." To someone closer, he said, "I need blood, then, quantitative hCG, then send her upstairs."
The skin on my back prickled. My palms started sweating, and my mouth went dry. Get ahold of yourself, I thought. This has nothing to do with you.
The ambulance staff started talking about the order. "What's hCG?"
The gruff male RN explained the difference between qualitative and quantitative, and one of the ambulance guys started to piece it together. "So, if the second reading is lower, that means a miscarriage."
Shut up! Just SHUT UP! She is right there! She can hear your moronic, insensitive conversation! I wanted to jerk back the curtain and punch the speaker, but a wave of dizziness planted me on the bed. I shook my head, trying to steady myself. My heart was racing, my skin clammy. This is not about you, Sarah. Let it go. My throat tightened, and when tears starting pricking my eyes I finally realized why the scene in the ER bothered me so much: it ripped my mind back to two years ago, when I was standing in that woman's shoes.
During the first few weeks of my pregnancy, I was living with friends while we all finished student teaching at different schools. I was miserable with my placement and though I was thrilled to be pregnant, my new symptoms were making teaching tough. A few weeks in, waves of morning nausea drove me to the teacher's restroom, and I noticed I was spotting a little. I steeled myself, and fought to rationalize what was happening. It's probably nothing, don't worry. I'm sure this happens all the time. I hoped the spotting would go away. I checked, I checked again, and again, hoping. But the spotting persisted, and the rationalization stopped working. I knew what the blood could mean. Slumped in my dark office during my planning period, I called my doctor.
The nurse that answered told me that bleeding and cramping could indicate miscarriage, and at this early in the pregnancy there was nothing they could do to stop it. Another pregnancy test would still read positive even if I was miscarrying, but a quantitative hCG blood test would show if my body was maintaining the pregnancy. I would need two tests, two days apart, for comparison.
I hung up the phone and stared at the blank wall behind my desk. That's it? It's that simple? I replayed the conversation in my mind, but the only words I could remember were "miscarriage" and "nothing we can do." Everything that had happened in the last few weeks-- the elation, the awe, the new love between Tom and me-- it was all being taken away. I gripped the arms of my chair. I had the strange sensation of falling down a deep hole and watching the circle of sky get smaller and smaller. I felt like I was breathing underwater. Hot tears started pouring out; I wasn't crying, but my face was soaked with sudden devastation. I couldn't think about what to do next. I called my mom. When she answered, I dissolved into sobs. I couldn't form sentences to tell her what was happening. I choked out a few words, and she understood. She told me that I needed to go to the hospital for the test, and that everything was going to be okay, but we weren't going to talk about it right now because it would just make things worse. "Get the test, okay? Then call me when you get home."
I drove numbly to the hospital, face still smeared with tears. They called me from the waiting room into the registration office so I could give them my insurance information, and from behind her desk the clerk asked me for my name and street address. I spelled out my name for her... but I drew a complete blank on the address. I had only lived there a few weeks, and didn't get mail there, and had never written down the house number. In my mind, there was just nothing. I tried to explain my living situation to her and offer her my mailing address instead, but the words "I think I'm having a miscarriage" stumbled out instead. I put my face in my hands and sobbed, crushed and humiliated.
After the blood draw I went home and spent the next two days in a thick fog. Tom offered to come down and stay with me, but I couldn't bring myself to see him. I told him flatly that I was fine. I could hardly speak, to him or to anyone. I just laid in bed and stared, studying the texture of the wall. I had tried so hard to temper my excitement about the pregnancy, just in case... but it was happening anyway, this wrenching sense of loss, this grief. A whole lifetime of possibility, gone. Someone I loved terribly already, gone. My dream of a family, a happy life with Tom, motherhood, gone. I refused to eat, disgusted at the thought of food, and then wolfed down food in the middle of the night like a ravenous animal. I kept my bedroom door shut and told my roommates I was just tired so I wouldn't have to see them pitying me. Myself, gone.
The second night, my roommate Elizabeth had finally had enough of my dodging and came into my room and sat down. I was sitting crosslegged on the bed, struggling to compose an email to my boss telling her that I wouldn't be in the next morning. I was surrounded my tissues and my face was swollen with tears that refused to stop.
"What's going on?" she asked, gently. I covered my face with my hands and told her everything, and she held me while I cried with renewed pain. She helped me write the email and then we sat together, in silence, for a long time. Neither one of us knew what to do next, or what to say, so we just sat there wrapped up together in my bed. I knew her long arms were still around me, but I was too far away to feel them.
I returned to work the day after the second blood draw. I could finally speak when spoken to without dissolving into sobs; I figured that was reasonable progress. I went through the motions of my job like an automaton, afraid that if I felt anything at all it would be too much.
That Friday afternoon, after work, I got a call from the clinic; it was a nurse with a stern voice, calling to give me the results of my test. I braced myself against the doorway of my room. She rattled off the numbers and I struggled to make sense of them. The last number was higher than the first, by a lot. My heart fluttered, my skin flushed.
"These numbers are right where they should be for a healthy early pregnancy," she said. I pressed my head against the wall and tried to thank her for calling, but I choked on new tears.
"Sarah, are you okay? Does this mean you're excited?"
Yes. God, yes.
Back in the ER, the doctor finally stepped behind the drawn curtain. He never looked at me when he spoke, and his hands were about as calloused as his demeanor. His shirt was greasy, his hair slicked in a deep combover. I needed to hear his diagnosis, but I just wanted to run from the stifling tension in the room. While I waited to be discharged, I texted a friend and begged him to distract me from tears with a story. It worked, for a while. When I was finally released into the cold night air I limped to my car, leaned my face onto the steering wheel and cried: for her, for this night, for everything she stood to lose. I cried grateful tears, too, for everything I could have lost, and didn't.