Doctors Missed My Ectopic Pregnancy -- & It Nearly Killed Me

pregnant woman getting checkup
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"I wouldn't wait a week," my GP advised when I asked about having a second child at 36. "Old eggs." I pictured yolks turning gray. So we tried. Days later, implantation spotting. I calculated due dates, imagined onesies, planned new life, buzzy and warm.

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My mother was a depressed hoarder. I'd fled her mess to become a hyper-organized, militant minimalist, afraid to have children. With a history of abdominal surgery for colitis, I wasn't sure I could. To my shock, at 33, I'd gotten pregnant. Another surprise: Motherhood was gloriously grounding as I created the ordered, happy house I'd craved.

My brother had been my childhood ally; once I had one kid, I wanted two. But now I was surprised to find a negative test result, a single line resembling a stern frown. Then, a long, unusual period. "Early miscarriage," my GP noted, cocking his head in sympathy. "Very common." 

Unsettled, I called my obstetrician, who checked my hormone levels. "You are pregnant," the nurse muttered.

"Early bleeding can be normal," my doctor said, estimating I was four weeks along. There could be abnormal reasons too, like a prolonged miscarriage, or worst case, an ectopic pregnancy, where the embryo implanted outside the uterus -- usually in a fallopian tube -- and risked rupturing the organ. "Good news," he said. "No tubal pain and I can't see a growth."

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He monitored me every 48 hours, my stomach flittering as I waited for calls with numbers reported like the Dow Jones. My bleeding worsened but my levels rose, my hope ballooning.

Until one afternoon when I fainted and landed in the ER. "We're still not sure," the on-call physician said. I held back tears. Despite advanced imaging technology and invasive exams, no one knew what was happening inside my body. I was sent home and told to continue monitoring every second day.

Two months in, I keeled over, feeling like a shard of glass spliced my thigh. I shivered on the hospital cot in the emergency room, imagining my 1-year-old daughter who needed me. A stream of experts examined me and guessed my embryo was lodged on the edge of my tube, just millimeters off from implanting in the uterus.

It was ectopic, the leading cause of maternal death in the first trimester, accounting for 10 percent of all pregnancy-related fatalities. The doctors had missed it, which was particularly frightening as misdiagnosis of ectopics is the main reason for morbidity. (Later, I found blogs about the shooting pain, the coffee-grain-like blood -- symptoms I'd have stressed had I known their diagnostic importance.)

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I was admitted for an emergency termination, to be done with a chemotherapy drug, toxins that expunged growing cells. 

"Why did this happen?" I asked my doctor, my mouth a desert. 

My hand shook as I signed the lethal form. 

"Two percent of pregnancies are ectopic -- usually from fallopian damage caused by STDs. It might be due to your surgical adhesions," he said. "Or completely random." I thought of my scars, how the ways we heal come back to haunt us. 

Drugs and the previous weeks of worry made me heavy. Home, on my couch, I flinched in pain, feeling the baby reabsorbing into my abdomen. It felt unfair: When I feared kids, I got one. When I wanted, disaster

A week later, reading to my daughter, my lungs clenched. Then, a burning rash. I was stuffed into CT scans and ice baths, given steroids and Valium. Treatments created their own problems. No physician could determine if these side effects were caused by the pregnancy, the chemo drug, the tests themselves, or the psychological trauma. I felt ambushed. Giving life was tainted with death. And something else had been lost. Innocence, possibility.

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My friends retreated, unsure how to respond. I withdrew and focused on healing. Eventually, symptoms subsided. I still wanted the sibling bond for my girl. We tried again. Feeling an odd tug, I whispered to my husband Jon, "I'm preggers." 

But I wasn't. 

Each month, another single line. 

My hormones askew, I experienced irregular bleeds. A reproductive endocrinologist monitored me, sometimes daily, then X-rayed my cloudy insides. Woozy from pain medication, I detected the bad-news tone. My right tube was occluded. The reason for the disaster, or the result. "Too much history for natural childbirth." 

Which is why, two weeks later, when I saw the flashing "yes" on the stick, my eyes popped wide. I was terrified something would go wrong. But within days I heard a heartbeat, wild and strong. Tears streamed down my face. "Uterus," I texted Jon. "We're in."

Caressing my tummy, I grasped how little I controlled. So much went unexplained, messy; I needed to appreciate the haves. The ultimate parenting lessons. 

After a healthy gestation, Billie arrived. From day one, she vehemently resisted diaper changes. "She's a powerhouse!" friends exclaimed at 10 months, as she battled her way out of my arms and marathoned across the room. 

It took a fighter embryo to meander its way through my tangled interior and survive. When I hold her now, I hug her into my left side, planted on my hip, where she fits perfectly.

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