My posts here, so far, have been focused on my books and my writing life; and while anyone who knows an author will also know that he or she can usually speak quite fluently about their work and interests, sometimes it’s worth taking a step back for a bit. That’s what I’m going to do this week, and to be honest I’m having a tough time deciding where to start, because the subject I’m about to tackle is so bittersweet for me. Before I dive in, though, I want to warn anyone who is sensitive to issues of pregnancy loss to proceed with caution, as you may find the rest of this post emotionally upsetting.
I’ve made a point, over the past few years, of not speaking publicly about my children, and to a lesser degree about my husband—not because I fancy myself some sort of celebrity, because I’m not, and certainly not because I don’t find them interesting—my friends will bear testament to how voluble I can be on the subject of my family. It’s just that I’ve always felt that talking about my family, no matter how warmly, leads to my opening a door that, once opened, can’t be closed. As my kids get older, they may decide they’re okay with my posting pictures or telling stories about them, but for the moment I’m keeping a closed-door policy—and that’s why my Facebook page and Instagram feed are awash in pictures of my cat and dog, who tell me (!) they just love to see their misdeeds reported on social media.
Today I’m going to side-step my rule, but I think—I hope—you’ll understand by the time I’m done.
On March 13, 2003, my husband and I found out that the baby we were expecting, our first, had Down Syndrome, as well as a host of other health problems. I was in the 19th week of my pregnancy and, apart from some trouble with hypertension, had been feeling fine. We were further devastated when our doctors told us, carefully and kindly and oh-so-gently, that our baby would die in utero in a matter of days. In the meantime, I would have to be monitored very carefully, as my blood pressure had become dangerously high.
Baby Nathaniel surprised us all by living for nearly another month, and, after a scan revealed that his heart had stopped beating in early April, labor was induced and he was born a day later. He was tiny and perfect and we will always, always love him. Perhaps my most treasured possession is his footprint, which I keep in a little frame on my bedside table.
Later that year we tried again, and were heartbroken when I had an early miscarriage. Our doctors told us not to give up, however, and by early 2004 I was pregnant. My son was born at the end of the summer, and then, in early 2007 we had a beautiful little girl.
In all four of my pregnancies I experienced serious problems because of high blood pressure. I was a patient at the high-risk unit at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, and the arrivals of both my son and daughter were induced early because I developed pre-eclampsia. Were it not for the specialist care I received from the wonderful clinicians at Mount Sinai, it is no exaggeration to say that I would not be alive today.
Access to safe and relatively affordable perinatal care is something we tend to take for granted in North America and western Europe. By virtue of living in Toronto, with its abundance of world-class hospitals, I was confident that I would receive the best possible care during and after my pregnancies. I simply accepted that I would be safe, or as safe as modern medicine could ensure.
Women in the developing world, however, have no such assurances during their pregnancies and deliveries. They often receive little or no medical care while pregnant, and are forced to give birth in unsanitary and frankly dangerous conditions. If they give birth early, they and their babies are at particularly high risk of developing complications or dying in the postpartum period.
Now, one family member I do talk about publicly, because she herself speaks openly about her experiences, is my sister Kate Robson. Both of Kate’s daughters were born early—at 25 weeks and 33 weeks respectively—and in the course of her work at Sunnybrook Hospital’s NICU she daily sees the sort of miracles that can be wrought by modern medicine. At the same time, she has become increasingly troubled by the lack of such perinatal care in the developing world.
Kate being Kate, she has decided to do something about it. Here, in her words, is the message she sent out a few days ago:
“Have any of you read the ‘Born Too Soon’ report by the World Health Organization? The picture it paints of which babies in the world get a reasonable shot at life is pretty sobering. For example, in Canada the vast majority of babies who are born at 25 weeks live and thrive. In many other countries, being born early at all is a death sentence. So instead of feeling guilty and terrible about it, I (and some lovely friends) have decided to follow the wise advice of Fred Rogers and “look for the helpers.” We didn’t have to look too far—the fabulous folks at MSF (Doctors Without Borders) have built an obstetrical facility and NICU in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and they could use our help.”
I hope you will consider clicking through on the link above to read more about Kate’s campaign to “Share the Love” this Valentine’s Day, and I would be exceedingly grateful if you are able to make a donation—even a few dollars can make a real difference in the lives of mothers and babies in Haiti.
Thank you so much for reading this far, and I promise I will keep things light in my next blog post—I’ll be getting ready for my trip to British Columbia, and I may (fingers crossed) have some good news about bestseller lists, ahem, as well as some updates on my work-in-progress. I may even have some new pictures of Sam and Ellie to share (with their permission of course). Until then, have a wonderful week!