Obstetrics isn’t always the happy specialty. Tragedy is Death claiming one life during pregnancy. Unspeakable devastation is when both mother and baby are lost.
Linda was one of the receptionists in our OB/GYN office, and a single mother with a young daughter. She had known bad relationships and even worse situations but she rarely let them cloud her demeanor. She would smile even when she was angry, fuming over the latest frustrating phone conversation with a patient who had been unreasonable, irritated or just plain stupid. Being around her would make the worst day of work just a little better.
Linda met and later married Danny, a hard-working shop rat at GM who looked like Chuck Norris and worshiped the ground she walked on. No one had ever treated her so well and her face lit up whenever she talked about him. Maybe “happily ever after” was more than just a fairy tale.
Linda was ecstatic when she became pregnant and we were thrilled. Her ultrasound revealed her six-year-old daughter was going to have a baby brother. All of the providers took care of her during her pregnancy and we were looking forward to the new arrival. Someone arranged a baby shower; it’s what you do for family.
One cold, rainy night in October, two weeks before her due date, Linda dropped off her daughter at a Brownie meeting and headed home. On her way back, a man ran a stop sign at an intersection, slamming into her car and sending it down an embankment. The impact threw Linda out of the car which then rolled over her and her unborn baby.
When the ambulance arrived, the paramedics could feel the baby moving inside Linda’s uterus, even as she lay unconscious, but there was nothing they could do. The hospital was at least twenty minutes away and a baby deprived of oxygen has only a few minutes to live. Even if someone had delivered the baby with a scalpel, a rainy country road is no place to resuscitate a critically ill baby. They could only watch on in horror as the movement slowed and stopped.
The hospital’s obstetrics residents were waiting in the Emergency Department when the ambulance arrived. The paramedics quickly wheeled their gurney into a room which had been set up for an emergency delivery. Tthe chief resident dutifully performed a procedure he knew was futile.
I was at home that night when the resident called.
“I’m in the ER. There is a patient of yours, here. She was in an auto accident about an hour ago. We delivered the baby down here but… I’m sorry. Neither one of them made it.”
I felt sick and more than a little helpless. At first, I didn’t know what to do. I’m used to driving like a bat out of hell to the hospital to deliver a baby that’s coming quickly, but there wasn’t anything I could do that would bring them back. After the initial shock, I called Jenny, one of the nurse practitioners who had cared for Linda throughout her pregnancy. She called Hope, one of the other receptionists and a friend of Danny’s, who in turned called the factory.
An eerie silence met me when I walked into the room. The residents had gone back to the Labor unit and the nurses had moved on to other patients. The gurney was bloody; a scalpel and the placenta lay in a stainless-steel basin. Linda and son lay side by side, as if they were sleeping peacefully after a long labor. Her abdominal incision was still open but the bleeding one would expect from a fresh Cesarean was lacking. I covered her with a clean gown and a sheet. Jenny and Hope appeared a few minutes later, their faces pale and grim.
“Someone found Danny; he was working on the line. It will take him about half an hour to get here.”
When Danny arrived someone from the front desk escorted him to the room. I excused myself to make room for him and as I left, I heard the most anguished cry ever to come from a man whose heart had been shattered. The woman he cherished and her baby would never come home.
A few days later, I drove Jenny, Hope and Sarah, another receptionist, out to the funeral in a little town about half an hour away. Linda and Zach—she’d picked out the name a few months before—were in the same casket. I don’t remember anything about the service; how much can one remember after nearly twenty-five years?
After the ceremony we joined the procession out of town to a state highway, then onto one of the many rural back roads, to a small cemetery a several miles north. The cemetery drive was unpaved and rutted; we pulled off into the grass near the fresh gravesite. The afternoon was cool and sunny, not cold and rainy like the night they died. A breeze stirred the few leaves that had fallen; in a few weeks all the trees would be bare.
The minister spoke a few words before we gathered around the casket to say our goodbyes. We drove back to the office in silence, sharing a grief that needed no words.
I sometimes look back and wonder “What if?” Linda would be fifty-two now. Maybe she’d have been a grandmother by now as her daughter is now in her thirties. Perhaps she and Danny would have had more kids.
Zach would be twenty-four. He might have been a good kid, then morphed into a sullen teenager, giving his parents many a tale with which to embarrass him when he finally matured. Maybe he would have done a stint in the military and made his parents proud.
Cherish what you have, because you never know when it may be lost forever.