I met Gerty during my second year of residency. She sat across from me in the exam room, her wig slightly off center. Words poured from her mouth. From the bits of rambling speech I gathered that she was pregnant and here for her first prenatal exam. She was 44 years old, she said and this baby was her last chance.
Over time I learned that Gerty had five children all which were removed by CPS years ago, one was grown and lived in Austin, she had spoken to her on the phone a few months ago. Previous to this pregnancy she had been on and off some pretty hefty anti-psychotics which she balanced out with occasional street drugs. Now she was clean and she could prove it.
Gerty was alone in the world except for the women who shared her room at the shelter. But she had enrolled herself in parenting and breastfeeding classes at the pregnancy support center and by attending she earned points to buy baby supplies. She worked closely with her case worker, often bringing me papers to sign as she tried to get into a program that would give her a space where she could raise her baby.
Gerty was always in a rush, and usually late after catching three different buses to arrive at the clinic. Invariably she came with a story and the whole staff lit up when we saw her leaning on her elbow at the check-in window, rambling about her latest escapade. She was a high risk pregnancy and she knew it so we saw her often. I grew to love her with an affection that I rarely developed with my patients.
. . .
She was 38 weeks along, her C section was scheduled for one week from that day. She came in because she felt like something was wrong. I asked my nurse to set her up on the monitor (you know one of those miserable contraptions with giant elastic belts strapped across your stomach) while I finished up with my patient.
After a few minutes I walked into the room and startled to see the monitor beeping and flashing saying no heart beat was detected, Gerty’s wig was sitting even more crooked and her words spilled out faster than usual. I was certain it was a problem with our machine, we had just seen her for a check up last week and she was doing fine. So I removed the monitor and started listening myself. I pressed my doppler probe into every corner of her swollen abdomen and tried to keep up some reassuring small talk.
Still no heartbeat. I was sure the error was mine so I walked her to our ultra sound room where we could get a better look. I left her in the hands of our radiology tech so I could check in with my waiting patients while they began her exam. The reality of what was coming hadn’t settled in.
After a few minutes they called me out of the room.
There was no heartbeat.
I was a young doctor, still early in my training. I had been through this with other patients, but never alone, and never with one that I held so dear. And I was pregnant, for the first time, due just a few weeks after Gerty. In her I saw my nightmares coming true.
Trembling I entered the room.
I told her she had lost the baby.
I watched her world collapse.
Then I held her, literally held her in one place as she as she flailed hysterically, begging me to say it wasn’t true.
She was still wailing when they strapped her to the stretcher and she went screaming down the hall to the ambulance. There was no one to call.
I finished seeing my patients and rushed to the hospital. Gerty had already undergone her C-Section by the time I arrived. I found her in the recovery room holding her baby boy, dressed in a little blue outfit. He was limp and cold but he was beautiful. She didn’t have a wig on and her soft curls made her look younger. She held him, cried and kissed him. “I had so many nice things ready for you,” she said.
And I sat with her and I held him too.
She bore her loss with the grace of someone who has come to expect nothing of the world. She loved her baby and told his story over and over. She had no visitors, but the hospital staff gladly took turns sitting at her bedside. Gerty said how grateful she was to know we cared.
She stayed in the hospital 3 days. The hospital chaplain conducted a service.
. . .
This week we are finishing up The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris in the Liturgy of Life Reading Group.
In it she recounts a story of a monk who founded a hospice for AIDS patients. She quotes him talking of one of his patients,
“But I was in awe of how he functioned, how he never lost his sense of humor, his capacity to enjoy things. I couldn’t imagine myself functioning that way with what he had to bear. You can’t pity someone you’re in awe of.”
And when I read that I thought of Gerty and wanted to share her story with you.
Gerty gave me courage to face my own pregnancy. The kind of courage that is found only in those who live through what for most of us exists only in nightmares.
I am still proud of Gerty. I am proud of how brave she had been for her baby, of how hard she had worked to be the mom she knew she could be, of how honestly she grieved, of how confidently she held her little baby’s body. I could never hope to do better.
She never came for her follow up. I imagine Gerty, alone once more, returned to her cycles of drugs and psychosis, to life on the streets.
Norris ends her book with a chapter called Night.
“The night will come with its great equalizers, sleep and death. It will pass over us, and bring us forth again to light. . .
She talks of how we face this reality, the despair of death and the hope of eternal life,
“between shedding our self-consciousness and taking on a new awareness, between the awesome fears that shrink us and the capacity for love that enlarges us beyond measure, between the need for vigilance in the face of danger, and the trust that allows us to sleep. Night comes . . and we turn our lives over to God.”
Thanks to those of you that have been part of The Liturgy of Life Reading Group. This week we finish The Cloister Walk and in another week we will start Edith Schaeffer’s, The Hidden Art of Homemaking. We would love to hear from you or have you join our group and read and ponder along with us. Thanks for being here.
Just a note, whenever I share stories of patients, details are always changed to protect their privacy.