She stared up at the ceiling, eyes welled with tears, while I stared at the screen, searching, looking for anything that would give me better news. Moments before we were in another exam room chatting cheerfully about the latest developments in her pregnancy. She had just started feeling movement and her fundus was a few fingerbreadths below her bellybutton, just where it should be for 17 weeks. I searched with the doptone for the classic “thud-thud-thud” of her baby’s heartbeat but all I hear was static and artifact.
“Baby’s being stubborn,” I said, a sinking feeling already settling in my gut. “Let’s go take a look instead.”
I looked and looked, feeling helpless- the machine was old; I’m not a trained sonographer- but I couldn’t see the telltale flicker that told me everything was alright. Everything was not alright.
“I’m having trouble finding a heartbeat. “ I put down the probe as tears filled my eyes. I didn’t hide them- they were no match for hers as she let out a panicked and woeful “No, no, no!”
I sat her up and hugged her hard. I told her I couldn’t tell for sure- old machine, needing a formal ultrasound- but I was worried. I had to send her to the hospital. She called her husband, forty minutes away and I repeated my uncertainty- it seemed what she wanted to hear, what would get her through that endless wait for her husband and then the drive to the hospital. I sat with her for a bit and then had to go see more patients. Between each one I checked back in with her, not having any words to say to would ease the pain, because there are none.
Husband arrived, off to the hospital they hurried and everything was confirmed. Her baby had died.
Here I am, a babyloss mom myself and I was still at a loss. I thought of all the awful experiences people have had with their providers (and remembered the good ones too). But I had a sudden empathy for the bumbling providers. Some behavior is inexcusable, but there are many other clumsy caregivers who just wish they could take away the pain, but know they can’t. Stupid words fall from their mouths, medical processes are focused on- all because they were helpless. Their pain is nothing compared to the patients, but I had a little more insight. It had been a long time since I had to say the words and it was my first time since my own loss. It sucked. It was terribly heart wrenching for me and even more so for my patient.
So much sadness.
What was your experience hearing bad news? What was done well? What do you wish could have been done differently?