What its like to suffer a tragedy during a global pandemic?
Life doesn’t stop for a global pandemic. I guess your agreement of that statement would depend on how you define the word “life”. For the purposes of this blog, here are the characteristics of “life” that I want to discuss. A majority of our life occurs internally. It is how we perceive and communicate within. Our experience of giving and receiving love brings us the most life. It propels us into action, fills our hearts, and even injures us. It’s a great adventure. This experience of life does not stop even though external factors change. Perhaps these external factors have the power to change what we experience, but not how we receive and give love. At least, we don’t have to let them.
When times are tough, people show their best and unfortunately their worst. Fear influences a great deal of our life if we give it the power it demands. It tricks us into thinking we can control the outcomes of our life, when in reality, no matter what we do we have very little power. This is when the worst comes out. For the past few weeks, as coronavirus has began spreading the United States we have seen just that. (All you have to do is go to the store and look for toilet paper to figure this out.)
March 15, 2020
On March 15, 2020 my husband and I found out we were expecting our second child. I felt the life of the child. I had so many hopes and dreams for him or her already. I couldn’t wait for Joseph to meet his brother or sister. The child was very much alive and instantly a part of our family. While I was overjoyed by the fact our family was expanding, if I’m being completely honest, I was terrified of the timing. How does COVID-19 effect pregnant women? Will there be enough space in the hospital for my baby to be born? What if my baby catches the virus? These were some of the thoughts passing through my head as I processed the wonderful fact that life was growing within me. Knowing and believing that God wills every life into existence, I knew no matter what we were going to be okay. But I didn’t anticipate anything could further complicate or fuel my anxiety.
As the week progressed, something didn’t feel right. This didn’t feel like my last pregnancy (which was healthy and normal). I kept telling myself “You know what they say-‘every pregnancy is different’” and “your just anxious because everyone else is” but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was very wrong. By Tuesday night I started having physical symptoms that reinforced this feeling. (I’ll spare you the details.)
March 18, 2020
The next morning, my husband and I were being interviewed by hospital staff as we entered our local ER. “Any fever in the past week? Cough? Family with Coronavirus?” No. No. No. Much like all non-essential businesses, the ER waiting room was completely and eerily empty. Not only were we worried about catching the coronavirus by the mere fact we set foot in a hospital, but we had no idea what was going on with me and the baby. While the added safety precautions at the hospital were good and necessary, this didn’t exactly make the experience as peaceful as it could have been.
When we finally got the ultrasound, I could see the baby and the yolk sac in the exact spot where I was experiencing the most amount of pain. Twenty minutes later the doctor came back into our room, sat down, and said, “I’m sorry to tell you guys the pregnancy is ectopic.” In the 30 minutes in took for her to deliver the results, we sat already knowing what was happening. Working for a Catholic health care organization as well as being involved with pro-life activism, we both knew what it meant to have an ectopic pregnancy. The baby had implanted in my fallopian tube instead of my uterus, meaning there was no room for growth. The baby was not going to make it no matter what was done. And if nothing was done, my internal organs would eventually rupture, threatening my life. We also knew that not every treatment given for ectopic pregnancy would recognize the dignity of the child that was growing inside me.
The most common treatment, Methotrexate, is a pill typically given to cancer patients and works similar to chemotherapy as it attacks rapidly dividing cells. This was not an option for us. Although small and attached to an area of my body that was dangerous for both of us, I knew directly targeting the life of my child was still wrong. So what was the solution?
A salpingectomy is a surgery that removes the fallopian tube (or a segment of it.) With an ectopic pregnancy, a salpingectomy removes the fallopian tube the child has implanted in to save the life of the mother, and the death of the child is a secondary consequence. While the child will ultimately die as a result, the child would die if left in the fallopian tube, as it will rupture. This procedure does not directly target the life of the child. The principle of double effect dictates that the life of the mother must be sustained in order for the child to have life. In this procedure the dignity of both are recognized.
In the 30 minutes (which felt like 3 hours) we sat waiting for the doctor I ran through every scenario of what could happen next in my mind. Will I be able to find anyone willing to do surgery in the midst of this pandemic? If the hospital refuses surgery, will I find someone else who can treat me in time? In this scenario I’m taking the chance of rupture, possible death, and leaving my almost one-year old son without a mother. This was my nightmare.
We called trusted mentors and friends who had backgrounds in bioethics. We prepared our response to the doctor if offered methotrexate. We decided that if we were not given any other option than a procedure that directly ended the life of my baby we would find another hospital. By the grace of God, we had the energy and clarity to do this. There were moments in which I was tempted to justify any easy way out. “Well maybe it’s okay to directly kill the baby because the hospital is overwhelmed for preparing for COVID-19? They are going to think I’m crazy. Some argue all methotrexate does is attack the cells of the fallopian tube! Yeah” No Mariah, still wrong. But our mentors and my wonderful husband kept me on track and gave me the courage we needed.
Thankfully the hospital respected our wishes for surgery instead of methotrexate. It was the best possible outcome given the situation, and I will be forever grateful for that. We were not forced to make that nightmare choice. But what would have happened if this occurred two weeks later after COVID-19 spread the entirety of the country? I’m not sure we would have been so lucky.
In the aftermath of last week, I faced the hard realization that we probably wouldn’t have been. After finding out we were having another child, losing that child, and facing my own mortality in the span of four days, I was (and still am) a complete mess. All of this happening in the midst of social distancing has been really hard. There have been instances where I’ve asked for support, was not met with compassion, but fear of COVID-19. I wasn’t expecting people to do anything unsafe, but only to be there for us virtually if possible. I don’t blame anyone for being scared. This whole situation has convicted me to express that life doesn’t stop amidst COVID-19. Things are going to get worse. But we can choose to unite through it, or let our anxiety consume us. (and trust me I know how easy that is, I take pills for it.)
Even before COVID-19 became the only thing in my Facebook feed, having an ectopic pregnancy was terrifying as not everyone in the medical field sees the unborn as persons. If we lose ourselves in this panic, more people will die, particularly the most vulnerable. Fear makes us justify the unjustifiable. People who fight for the unborn will feel a pressure never before seen in the midst of crowded hospitals. People who work in the medical field will undergo the torture of not being able to save everyone. This is a time to pray for courage and perseverance and stand firm in what you believe as the coming days could be really hard. My husband and I faced a horrifying moral dilemma, which we knew the right answer to, in the looming threat of the coronavirus. Are we prepared for when the threat really hits hard?
I ask you to take a step back, turn off the news, and call your friends even if its just for tonight.
Do not let COVID-19 rob us of our shared humanity. While we are still processing everything that’s happened and will be for a while, we have had many moments of pure grace. Sharing with friends who have experienced the same thing and unexpected gestures of love have helped us make sense of it all. And most of this has been done in the proper social distancing fashion! The loneliness of this time has made the love we’ve been given even greater. Our healing process is far from complete but I take consolation in the fact we did everything we could to honor the dignity of the baby we named Claire Francis. And while we won’t get to experience our lives here on this Earth with this precious child, I have no doubt Claire is in the arms of Jesus waiting for us.
In honor of Claire Francis, I ask that you reach out to someone this week whom you haven’t spoken to since social distancing began. Claire taught me that what we should fear most is losing our good will. And what better way to keep that good will than by showing someone you care. COVID-19 cannot keep us from living because it cannot keep us from loving.