Thursday, March 30, 2017

Baptizing Daughters (Hope for Heather)

This post conforms to the blog rules.I waited a long time to tell this story because I didn't want to change many details. What follows is an accurate but anonymized version of my two encounters with "Heather."

The other day I was in clinic and a young teenager (think junior high or early high school) came in for her new OB visit. She was there with her "mother," but the mother was probably fifty years older than the patient, and she was of a different race. I don't know why that was--perhaps this was a grandmother or a foster-mother--but I didn't ask. This is how I met "Heather" and her mom.

Heather was in her late first trimester and pregnant with twins. When I saw her in our MFM clinic, she had just had been told from an ultrasound that she had two daughters and that they were monochorionic/diamniotic, meaning that they were at risk for twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome. They were at risk for a lot else, but TTTS is what most of our initial conversation was about. Heather had not planned this pregnancy and she had thought about abortion, but her mom talked her out of it. Heather herself really wanted the babies now. Her boyfriend was not in the picture. Heather told me in the presence of her mom that she had experimented with cocaine. But she was obviously tough. She had accepted the fact that she would be pregnant at school and finish a year late. She was clear on her new policy about drugs and sex: "One giant nope." This made me hopeful for her.

Heather's mom was suffering, but it was almost imperceptible. She was clearly not the type that engaged in drugs or sex at such a young age. Her hair was grey, she was plump, she wore grandma shoes and pastel pants, and she had perfect grammar. (In fact, she was eerily like one of my apartment neighbors, who is a nun.) I could tell that Heather's mom was working hard to accept Heather and her choices, but that those choices were very far from what she wanted for her daughter. She was never openly disappointed with Heather during our visit, and asked many helpful questions to support her daughter during the beginning of pregnancy. This made me even more hopeful for Heather.

I tried to cover basic obstetrics and adjusted it for an adolescent, mentioning by requirement that Heather was legally the one to make the decisions about her pregnancy, any birth control, and her daughters' care. I closed my visit with Heather cordially, planning ahead for six months of careful TTTS screening in addition to routine prenatal care. Our MFM clinic is not a continuity clinic (super bummer), so I did not expect to see her again.

A few weeks later, I was working labor and delivery and the upper level resident was in a C-section with the L&D intern. I was sitting at the L&D desk in her stead. The details of this next part of the story are fuzzy because there were about eight phone calls/conversations about how Heather should come to L&D and how she was asking for me by name.

The charge nurse called me over and simultaneously, my zone phone rang. On the phone was the triage intern. "The ER is sending up are seventeen-week twins, apparently super uncomfortable." The charge nurse, meanwhile, wanted to ask me whether the seventeen-week twins in the ER should come right to L&D. I said to start them in triage. Then the triage RN called the charge nurse and asked that I come to triage. The charge nurse was in the middle of asking me to go over, explaining that they knew me by name, when the intern called me again. "I'm sending this seventeen-weeker over, she's five centimeters. She's also...asking for you?"

Readers probably know that a woman in labor near term has to dilate to 10 centimeters. You might not know that tinier babies don't need 10 centimeters of dilation. Seventeen week twins would certainly and easily fall out of a five centimeter cervix.

Heather was given the room next to the statue of Mary. Mary is at the end of the L&D hall and those rooms are the quietest and frequently used for women losing children.

Heather was having a very difficult time due to pain and  She didn't know what to do! She had texted friends to come visit her because she was having her babies. They were all excited. She asked for some pain medicine.

When I heard this, I started her pain control and then explained to her that her daughters would die today after they were born, unless they had already died in her womb. She was in shock and this did not appear to faze her, but she at least registered it. Now she was on emotional overload, with confusion, mixed sadness and relief (now she would be able to finish high school without maternity leave).

I prayed that her daughters could be born alive for baptism. I delivered her first daughter alive. I asked her if she would like the baby to be baptized before she died. "I don't know," she said, "I've been thinking about that. But my mom's Catholic, and she wanted it."

I knew this little daughter had very little time on earth, but I also knew about the validity of sacramental baptism. "Heather, this is your daughter. You must ask for baptism."

After a small pause, Heather said, "all right then. Can we baptize her?"

The nurse had called the chaplain, but sometimes they take forever to come. They don't realize the urgency of the matter and come after reviewing the mother's chart. Often, I think they don't see the difference between baptism and blessing the baby's body. Frequently, they see their job as more of a crisis emotional counselor. So I called for sterile water (and yes, I did say the word "stat").

I asked Heather what the little girl's name was. She had already picked out first and middle names for both daughters. The nurse handed me a bottle of sterile water. I poured a little water into the bottle cap, mentally making sure I knew the words to say for a conditional baptism, in the case that the baby showed no signs of life by the time I turned around. I touched the baby and noticed that she recoiled, so I baptized her with the formula for living people. Shortly thereafter, the second daughter was born, and I baptized her as well. (Between baptisms, Heather's high school friends came to visit and I sent them packing to the waiting room.)

The chaplain arrived after everything was over. I pronounced Heather's daughters dead that day and filled out two birth certificates and two death certificates. But I know there were two saints praying for their young mother. I prayed to them immediately after their deaths, and I still pray to them every once in a while. I have not seen or heard from Heather since I discharged her postpartum day two. But in a tiny way, these are my spiritual daughters, so I talk with them to keep in touch with their other mother.

There are two saints praying for Heather. Strangely, I am very hopeful for her now.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017


I post these when something gets through peer review. This is primarily to celebrate that I'm happy and secondarily to explain to readers why there might have been a dearth of recent quality posts. :)