Baby loss awareness week 2020 runs from Friday 9 October to Thursday 15 October in a bid to raise awareness of the one in four women in the UK who will lose a baby during pregnancy or birth. This article was originally published in June 2020.
Our neighbours brought their newborn baby home 17 days after my miscarriage. After more than two years of trying to conceive, I didn’t believe we could be so unlucky as to then lose the baby.
I had checked for blood every morning and avoided blue cheese, caffeine and alcohol. I was so worried about miscarriage that I stopped all exercise, used a thermometer to measure my bath temperature, begged the midwife to reassure me I couldn’t catch toxoplasmosis from stroking a cat, and wore a jumper at all times. I even avoided any sudden noises that could cause my uterus to cramp by turning down the TV volume.
But at a 14-week scan the radiographer was eerily quiet. Eventually she said the baby had hydrops, an innocent-sounding name that made me think of eye drops, not endemic swelling. I’d caught a cold on the plane back from our babymoon so when she said it could be a virus, I felt reassured. But a second scan, a couple of days later, showed the baby actually had a heart defect and that its organs were growing outside its abdomen.
The next week - at another scan - it took just a few minutes for them to confirm the baby’s heart had stopped. In my mind I had killed it by contracting a cold on holiday, but doctors said it was a fatal condition (symptoms pointed to a chromosomal abnormality) and that few babies with it would survive to birth. What they don’t tell you about miscarriage is how the baby gets out. No one warns you of the dissonance between giving birth and having nothing to hold at the end.
The months following the miscarriage in 2019 were a test for my marriage. Divorce came up fleetingly (over incidents with a bottle of red wine and a laptop charger). We had another IVF appointment booked but I cancelled it, it was too soon.
Eventually an appointment was arranged for 18 March 2020 but two days before we were called to say it had been cancelled due to Covid-19 and the new social distancing rules. Luckily, we didn’t need it. In early April I found out I was pregnant again.
“It looks as though we may be doing our bit to repopulate after coronavirus,” I texted the family WhatsApp. I brought out the baby on board badge and people started giving me a little more space in the Sainsbury’s queue. Then I started spotting [light bleeding].
I rang 111 but as I wasn’t calling about coronavirus, I was instructed to hang up. I rang three hospitals, only one picked up. The doctor listened to my concerns about it being an ectopic pregnancy, where the embryo implants outside the womb. I’d heard bleeding and stitch-like pain were symptoms. But I had none of the risk factors. No coil, IUD, history of pelvic inflammatory disease or major abdominal surgery.
A scan confirmed it. “I’m sorry Jessica, you have an ectopic pregnancy in your right fallopian tube,” the doctor said. With knees in the air and my feet still in stirrups, I watched one of the nurses shake her head. "That shadow above your uterus is internal bleeding," the doctor explained. I needed surgery.
I cried to my mum over the phone from a side room about having the worst luck in the world. My husband had been waiting outside as visitors weren’t allowed in the building because of Covid. The nurse let him in to say goodbye. “Tell my mum and sister and brother that I love them,” I pleaded as we stood in the corridor. “These annoying masks,” he said as he tried to kiss me.
The nurse escorted me through the maternity ward. Surgery had to wait until I’d fasted for six or seven hours. Bleeding to death wouldn’t be so bad, I thought, on an empty ward with a choice of window seat. The nurse said she would give me a hug if it weren’t for social distancing. I still think of that moment when I hear about compassionate doctors holding the hands of dying patients in intensive care.
Before examining me, the consultant asked for my "coronavirus status" – all non-emergency surgery had been cancelled since the pandemic. I told her: “I don’t mind the pain, as long as you don’t think I’m going to bleed to death.” Instead she gave me the option to go home and come back for treatment later, which was hard to believe. I got in an Uber and left.
I spent the rest of the night curled in a ball wondering if I would bleed to death. When shoulder pain set in, I considered dialling 999 but imagined what it would be like to return to hospital after being discharged. “Me again. I know you tried to get rid of me, but I couldn’t wait to come back.”
Because I hadn’t undergone surgery, I now faced a dose of chemotherapy to halt the growth of the embryo in my fallopian tube. The chemo ward was full when I arrived. Four doctors in full personal protective equipment rushed by in the corridor with a patient hooked up to oxygen. One of them ran back to wipe the door handle.
A man in the waiting room asked what my problem was. I felt embarrassed to tell him (he had a rare form of blood cancer). “Patients are only here if they really need to be,” a nurse reassured me. I had one dose of methotrexate, then a second (two is the maximum given for an ectopic pregnancy). Now it’s a waiting game to see if my hormone levels fall to zero.
This week the hospital rang to book a telephone consultation for IVF as services have been reinstated. But the clock is ticking – next September I’ll be too old to qualify for NHS-funded services. So as the urgency of the virus settles and the small window of eligibility shrinks, I can’t help but feel nature will have the last laugh.
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can contact stillbirth and neonatal death charity Sands on 0808 164 3332 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The helpline is open from 9.30am to 5.30pm Monday to Friday, and until 9.30pm on Tuesday and Thursday evenings.
Jessica Davies, 38, is a journalist, currently writing a novel based on the true story of Rosalind Franklin, the invisible woman behind DNA’s double helix.