“…and god willing, everything will be fine.” At 38 weeks pregnant, that phrase ranks pretty high on the list of things you don’t want to hear your doctor say. I know this now, yet a mere eight weeks before, I thought the worst thing that would come out of my doctor’s mouth would be “episiotomy”. Of course, we are all buried in worries now, which we would have never thought before.
One Sunday, at the end of February, I came home and suddenly felt crushed with exhaustion. Fever, chills and body aches were followed by a sore throat. I saw my doctor the next day. In retrospect I feel like there were subtle signs of concern, but perhaps that’s just 20/20 hindsight. I swear now in my mind’s eye that after my flu and strep tests both came back negative, that there was a look between the doctor and nurse. They certainly put masks on after this and requested that I do the same. No one said the word. I hadn’t been to China or Italy in the past 30 days and I knew no one who had tested positive. It was an upper respiratory infection, “there are many different kinds, it could really be anything. Give it a few days: water, rest, and tylenol.”
Over the next two weeks I was admitted to the ER twice. My feet and hands broke out into painful lesions:
“Could be Hand Foot and Mouth”
“Maybe an allergic reaction”
“Sometimes your body just does weird things when you’re pregnant.”
I was tachycardia. Then my sense of taste and smell disappeared. I felt like I had swam to the bottom of a deep pool and attempted to sharply inhale. I had lost my breath and the tremendous pressure across my whole body, but especially my head, made me ache to grab pliers and rip my teeth from my skull. Each night I sat with my hands and feet in bowls of ice water and my head under a towel over a bowl of boiling water. One night I dreamed my daughter asked me if I was going to heaven, I told her I didn’t know yet.
After my last ER visit, I followed up with my doctor. He came in wearing a mask, and unlike other visits, he didn’t shake my hand. I’ve never seen a man so eager to get out of a room with me. This was the first time a doctor said Covid to me. I was actually shocked. This rare disease, seemed still at this point, like something only Tom Hanks could get. He told me he wanted me tested. I waited alone for 30 minutes. When he returned, he was visibly frustrated, even through his mask I could tell. I didn’t qualify for testing, no one could unless they were in a “vulnerable” group. So, at 8 months pregnant, I was told to quarantine myself. I have to wonder what that must be like for a doctor: to have to send a patient home when you fear they are critically ill, with the only advice you can give them summing up to “Make sure to come back if you are actually dying.”
For the next month I bounced between certainty that I was fine, and fear I might die. I stayed inside and watched as the world began to shut down simultaneously around me. All the while, this little human I was growing continued to squirm and punch, completely oblivious to world which he would be delivered. The doctors told me to “Have a low threshold for going to the ER”, and that respiratory failure was “a real thing”. It was around that time I threw on the holy medal along with the crucifix.
This unrelenting illness became an elusive enemy. There were days I woke up and felt I had turned a corner. I would relax only to find the next day I’d lose my breath while trying to brush my teeth. Just like that, I’d be on the nebulizer again. Fear did a funny thing to the people around me. Suddenly my mother and husband were medieval witch doctors trolling the internet for any promising tincture: Gatorade, red reishi mushroom, vitamin D, green tea, honey, bone broth…everything short of drinking bleach. In the end, time served as the best antidote. Slowly, my taste came back, my mind cleared, and my lungs began to breathe again, only the cough remained.
Things change quickly. With the persistent cough, the doctor told me now, without a negative Covid test, I would not be able to deliver in the Maternity Ward, I would have to deliver in the ER and I would be alone. It had been over two months since the start of my symptoms, my doctor assured me that it was highly unlikely that I could test positive at this point. This test was just my ticket to the birthing center. I drove to the the test site and waited in the parking lot for an hour. Apparently the test wasn’t secured and the doctors and the county spent time deciding if I should be swabbed. Finally I was called up to the back door of the Urgent Care clinic, where a doctor and nurse emerged in full ET gear. “Don’t get out of the car”, the doctor told me before plunging a q-tip into parts of my nasal cavity only god knew about before. I would have my results in four days. I waited. In the mean time I was barred from all in-person doctor’s visits, which are typically once a week when approaching your due date. A week passed with no word and I began to question how long I could go through this without red wine. I discovered that though California finally had swab kits, results were bottlenecked with over 50,000 unprocessed tests. I was two weeks away from my due date and beginning to accept that the test would not be returned in time. I reminded myself that my grandmothers delivered their babies alone. The place didn’t matter, I insisted to my static brain, the baby would come one way or another.
11 days, another rainy Sunday, the phone rang and the clouds parted. The test was back, it was negative. The rush of sudden relief of stress so deep I didn’t even realize I had until it was gone. For the first time in over two months I thought about what the baby’s name might be. I delighted in realizing how uncomfortably pregnant I was. Knowing where, how and with whom I would deliver was bliss.
…”We just need to have the doctor follow up with you by phone today.” The nurse called to tell me the very next day. I was confused. My test was negative, I should be allowed back to my regular, in-person appointment, but now, I was being told that the doctor needed to speak with me first. The relief of the previous day was swiftly swatted by the reality of the times we are in. Yes, the test was negative, but they still “just didn’t know”. I may have had the virus and if I had, there was too much unknown. “Information is changing every day”. Because of the persistent cough, I may need to be in the ER, “We wouldn’t want something to happen and not have what we need.” The doctor explained in that voice that’s so calm it immediately induces intense anxiety. He said, in essence, that nothing was certain. “God willing,” he said “everything will be fine.” I hung up. A mix of numb resignation and futility floated around me. But even as I sat there, pushed again into ambiguity, the baby kicked. Strong kicks and wriggles.
In truth, this is the reality of every mother, in every time. The insisting unknown is the mother’s constant companion. Women bravely bear the burden of their unprotected love and the endless litany of “what if’s”. In the end, that’s all we can hold on to, that we will all be alright, “god willing.”