As you may already know, I had a baby – a daughter named Layla Sorella Valenti-Golis. That’s the good (nay, wonderful!) news. The bad news is that she was born way too early; I developed severe pre-eclampsia and HELLP syndrome and had to deliver Layla when I was 29 weeks pregnant.
I was hospitalized after a routine exam showed I had dangerously high blood pressure – Andrew and I assumed it was all an overreaction because I didn’t feel sick. Even though the doctors were telling us I wouldn’t leave the hospital until I gave birth and that I might need to deliver in days, we didn’t really buy it. We even pooh-poohed the neonatologist who spoke with us about what we should expect having such a premature baby. We planned as if I would carry Layla to term, bringing DVDs and books to the hospital and starting to create a schedule of visits from family and friends.
But within two days it became clear that I was sick – really sick. All of the pre-eclamptic symptoms I hadn’t had previously were suddenly overwhelming. My doctor told us we had to deliver. So I was given magnesium sulfate for my blood pressure (which basically makes you feel incredibly shitty and confused) and my labor was induced with Pitocin. We tried to stay positive, but after a few hours we were told that my liver was in danger of failing. I was rushed into an emergency c-section, and Layla was born weighing just 2 pounds, 2 ounces.
The next 24 hours were as close to hell as I could imagine. We waited hours to find out if Layla was going to be okay, and even once we knew she was stable I was too sick to visit her. The magnesium drip made me so confused that I kept asking Andrew what our daughter’s name was, I could hardly move because of the pain, and I was swollen with almost twenty pounds of water weight. The swelling was so bad, in fact, that when a nurse tried to take blood her finger left an indent in my arm more than an inch deep. It took hours and two anesthesiologists to find a vein. I thought I was going to die; then almost 24 hours after delivering when I saw how little Layla was, I thought she was going to die too.
Eight weeks later, amazingly, the fog is starting to lift. The road has been a slow one littered with setbacks, but today Layla is doing incredibly well; she weighs over 4 pounds and we’re hoping she’ll be home from the hospital soon.
It’s difficult to write about what happened – the severity of my sickness, what Andrew and I have been through, and what Layla is going through now. I want to protect my family’s privacy (which is why I’m not writing about the details surrounding Layla’s health), but it also feels strange not to write about something so life changing. Because truly, I am not the same person that I was before Layla was born. Not because I’m a parent – though I’m sure that’s part of it – but I think there’s something about trauma that just shifts your consciousness. It honestly feels like Andrew and I are operating in a different reality.
I haven’t really been able to articulate how I feel about all of this, but I read this article in The New York Times about emergency response – “On Not Returning to Normal” – and it resonated:
“Resilience” suggests that the preferred aftermath of an emergency is quickly regaining one’s former shape, bouncing back. Presumably it is possible to bounce back with a few permanent bumps or scars, but at the limit we might speak of an invisible mending ideal of emergency response: when the response is genuinely successful, the effects of the emergency entirely disappear: before and after are indistinguishable.
… A determination to go on exactly as before —just to spite an enemy or attacker or simply a critic — is a recognizable human response to attack, enmity or criticism. Perhaps it also displays a kind of resilience. But unless continuity has a significant value of its own, the determination to go on exactly as before may have little to be said for it. Emergencies may better be seen as occasions for fresh starts and rethinking. Because they take life and make death vivid for those who survive emergencies, they properly prompt people to appraise lives that are nearly cut short.
It took a while to realize that my family and I will never really be the same again – and that that’s okay. I experienced something terrible, but I also got to experience some amazing things as a result.
Andrew and I received an incredible outpouring of love from family and friends who sent flowers, cards, brownies and knitted hats. They offered to drive us to the hospital, walk our dog, clean our house, and make us food. Knowing we have that kind of love in our life is a tremendous gift.
I got to be on the receiving end of incredible caretaking by the most amazing nurses I could imagine (talk about an underappreciated profession). I experienced the selflessness of my family – my husband and mother, especially – as they slept on hospital floors, fearlessly advocated for me with medical staff, brought me news of Layla and stayed by my side. Our relationships have deepened and I have a new appreciation for community and family.
Though I’m still mourning for a pregnancy cut short and longing for a birth experience that isn’t mired in urgency and fear, I learned to be humble about having good health. And while it breaks my heart to see Layla in the hospital, as she grows up Andrew and I will be able to tell her how strong she was despite her small size and early age.
This isn’t to say there’s a silver lining to all we’ve been through – life isn’t that fair. Layla had to experience suffering before she could even be held or comforted. I’ll never be able to have a natural birth, and given the increased risk that I could develop pre-eclampsia and/or HELLP again, it’s likely I won’t have any more children.
But that’s just our new normal. And we’re lucky enough that this new normal includes a healthy mom and baby – we had access to wonderful maternal and neonatal care and to great health insurance that paid for it. Many others aren’t so lucky. One thousand women die every day from pregnancy-related issues; one of the four major causes is hypertensive disorders like pre-eclampsia. Going through this at a top-notch hospital was a nightmare – I can’t even imagine what it’s like for women who don’t have access to adequate care. So if you would like to do something nice for me and Layla – please consider donating money or taking action at Women Deliver or another organization that fights for maternal health. I know I’ll never look at the issue the same way again, and fighting for it will definitely be part of my new, different-but-wonderful, normal.