I deleted this post three times before I let this one stick, largely because pain takes on strange and contradictory meanings when you’re suffering through infertility. It’s hard to describe.
You become numb to the pricks of needles as they start to represent life-giving hope getting you closer to some invisible finish line, the side effects of the hormones all par for the course. Discomfort is a sign that your eggs are growing. Cramps could mean implantation. The more the extreme the nausea, the better the news.
When the treatments don’t work – or, worse, they DO work and then things start to go wrong – pain serves up savage new shades. Your chest tightens as the world suddenly conspires to present in your pathway nothing but pregnant women, newborns and mothers with toddlers in tow. The muscles twist till they feel they might snap, and breathing becomes laborious, painful. You actually feel physically ill.
After our 7-week scan showed up my empty uterus and we did a course of methotrexate (MTX) to try and stop the rapidly-dividing pregnancy cells in my left fallopian tube, I was angry, and sadder than I had ever been. I cried as I imagined this drug slowly killing my baby. I felt its pain. Soon, I unknowingly graduated into another special kind of hell. The drug served up its side effects even as the cells continued to divide in my left fallopian tube, sending my HCG (pregnancy hormone) levels skyrocketing. They played out a dangerous game of tug-of-war on my insides.
Seven days after my shot, the doctors conceded that the MTX had lost and suggested surgery, to get both my reproductive system and life out of danger. I think my head and heart had both already gone into shutdown. I was numb to the idea of surgical pain adding another layer. I went through the motions of another scan, identifying the exact location of my cheeky misplaced fetus, and then got through the paperwork of admissions.
The only pinch I felt was as I contemplated my quickly diminishing bank balance (infertility snuffs out your savings as fast as it destroys your spirit), mentally calculating the cost of this spectacular cycle failure and then sensibly opted for the lower-priced double room. I was vaguely aware that the couple next to me was being discharged after a D&C (Dilation and Curettage, the overly elegant-sounding name for a surgery in which the cervix is dilated and the uterine lining is scraped following a miscarriage). I wondered how far along she was, and how she was coping. I felt her pain more acutely than my own.
Once in the ward, as I waited for my husband and sister to get there, I craved a coffee and something to eat, even though I knew I was being fasted for surgery. I played with percentages in my head, googling IVF ectopics and reading about the risks of having a salpingostomy. I wondered if they might have to remove my fallopian tube (I had been warned this was a possibility).
And then out of nowhere, pain gripped my insides with the force of a 238lb fullback charging. Having read so much about ectopic pregnancies and ruptured tubes already, I told the nurse, knowing that, medically, I was suddenly in a much worse place than before.
The nurses were slow to respond, and I was left to crumple in agony. I texted my husband and sister (who were on their way) in desperation: Pain. Bad pain. Something is wrong. It was only with their arrival and at their insistence that the doctor was paged and the gears quickly set in motion. My ectopic had indeed ruptured and surgery was brought forward. I was actually very lucky I happened to be in a hospital at the time, the anesthesiologist and surgeon already ready to come, though lucky is not how I felt.
With the end of this pregnancy taking on a new finality, the fact that nursery sat at the same end of the hall as the elevator to the operating theatre felt even more cruel. The nurses in the OT wore masks and caps in fun prints that seemed wrong for the occasion. The cheery anesthesiologist who said everything was going to be ok didn’t know what she was talking about.
For a while, the world was black. Then the newly unpregnant me came to in much discomfort. The anesthesia had worn off before the painkillers had kicked in. It allowed me to feel the full extend of my pain.
And then it got worse.
In the early hours of the morning, they brought a woman who had just delivered into the bed next to me (yes, they did). She sounded weepy, in a happy kind of way. I listened to her try and settle down.
Shall we bring the baby in for a feed, an invisible nurse asked. My neighbour had had problems of her own. She was a Hep B carrier. The baby needed to be vaccinated. Could they quickly do that? The baby was hungry, she needed to choose a formula so she could have a feed first. The nurse rattled off six different kinds. I’ll check with my husband, she said? Here’s your baby, came the next cheery declaration. You could hear the tension on the other side of the curtain.
I was stunned at first. I have no idea if the hospital was full, or if the nurses knew they were putting two women going through such vastly different experiences in the same room, underlining my grief with her joy. In a kinder, alternate reality, medical practitioners and hospital workers have the presence of mind to realise. In my reality, it struck a very raw nerve.
My torture lasted only several hours, after which I changed, packed up my stuff, and prepared to leave. Throughout, their curtain remained tightly drawn, protecting for the newborn and new parenthood from the world around them. – closing out a painful world in which not everyone got to go home with their baby. That reality was quite possibly the most excruciating pain of all.