Image by DeviantArt
You know what’s worse than the day your mother dies? The day after your mother dies.
No one broke the news to me. There were no messengers in scrubs to say, “We did all we could.” Some disease infiltrated her body then completely swallowed her up, refusing to spit her out for months. Eventually it did and I had a front row seat when it happened.
I was in some kind of dreamlike state for the rest of the day. As if my conscience couldn’t fully allow me to believe she was gone. But the following day, when you have no one to call mum, it hurts so much worse.
Her death was the one that earned my five siblings and I the title of orphans — my father having died several years earlier.
My uncle — dad’s brother — took us in, inevitably increasing his family size from 5 to 11 children. Looking back I don’t know how we survived that period. It was fun at first. A never ending slumber party; until my uncle couldn’t take it anymore and left. Yes. He just up and walked out on his family and ours, leaving us in the hands of his wife. That’s when the tide changed. My aunt, seemingly overwhelmed, took out her frustration on us. There was a lot of name calling but if you have a roof over your head and food in your belly, you take whatever is thrown at you.
With such a past, I believed I had the visceral quality of stone. That adversity had hardened me. Nothing could be worse than this!
I got married in November 2015 and two months later conceived. Mine was a painstaking first trimester. A day would not pass without my insides turning themselves inside out.
By the time I was 9 weeks pregnant, I was a shadow of myself. A dehydrated mess. So I started Antenatal Care at a hospital near where we lived in Athi River. A bad decision I didn’t know I was making. The staff, all the way from the gate, to the reception, to various departments showed no concern. You could read the disinterest on their faces. No one looked up when we spoke to them and when they did, it was as if they had tasted something unpleasant.
I remember I needed to give a urine sample for one of the tests but I was as dry as bone after all the vomiting I had been having for weeks. I held the transparent sample collector in one hand and a cup of water in the other. I sipped the water as if it was hot porridge, mentally willing myself not to throw up. At one end of the reception, a door jerked open and a burly lady charged into the reception,
“Isabelle?” she looked at the paper she was holding, “Isabelle Omolo?”
“Yes,” I said weakly.
She pointed at me, her hands in gloves, and shouted across the room, “Wewe hujatoa mkojo bado?”
I vowed never to go back.
Eventually, the vomiting ceased. But it was quickly replaced by another symptom — abdominal pain. Pain that pursued me relentlessly. Pain that my doctor described as usual. Tests done would not reveal anything. The ultrasound showed that the baby was growing normally. So I was medicated to quieten the discomfort. It didn’t work. So I made a point to carry painkillers everywhere I went.
Weeks later, my husband and I were running errands when like thunder the pain descended on me with great force. We were in the car, stuck in traffic when it started. “Aaah,” I doubled over in the co-driver’s seat while clutching the dashboard with one hand. The pain was a living thing; moving through me, growing. It felt like I was sitting on an ant hill as I twisted my body, angling this way and that — nothing. I was able to swallow some pain meds I had, but it felt like applying make up over a wound.
We got home because I needed to use the bathroom and on passing urine, I saw some spots of blood. Nameless dread came over me. We rushed to the nearest hospital — the one I had sworn never to go back to.
By the time we got there, I was holding myself up by the bootstraps. I told the medic I met, “I am 20 weeks pregnant and in a lot of pain. I think I might also be bleeding.” He carried out a speculum exam and said as if reading from a script,
“Your membranes are bulging. This is an inevitable abortion.”
These words ripped my heart open. Everything stopped. Inside my body, every cell deflated. A thick cloak of sorrow embraced me, squeezing me, squeezing tears from my eyes. I wept in that examination room as the words inevitable replayed in my head.
Soon after, I was transferred to labor ward where the real horror began. Imagine labouring with other women at term who at the end, have something to show for their pain. The unmistakable cry of a newborn baby. Here I was fully aware that the end of my pain would result in more pain. I did not want to share a space with them. But I had no choice.
I stood transfixed, as the nurses prepared my bed. The raised voices of the other women created a cacophony of noise so to drown them out, I scanned the room. The paint was crawling away from the walls and the place had a faint musty smell. The curtain separating my bed from that of the next patient had fresh blood stains on it. I gazed at the floor and hoped what I was stepping on was water.
It was 7pm when I finally settled in. That is when I met Fidel*. A stout, mahogany coloured nurse who was assigned to me. He walked to my bedside and told me,
“Haiya, kaa vizuri nikupime.” I only knew what he meant because I am a medic — information I did not reveal. Sometimes when medics know they are treating one of their own, objectivity is lost. Your carer will walk on egg shells and some even assume you might be difficult. So for that night, I was a housewife.
No sooner had I positioned myself than his fingers were invading me. No cleaning, no draping, no KY jelly, no explanation of the procedure. Being my first pregnancy, I was not ready — medic or not. My legs instinctively came together and he said,
“Ala! Ona huyu,” and used his elbows to pry my legs open forcefully. When it became a struggle, he clicked and stormed off and I heard him tell my husband, “ Ebu ongea na bibi yako!” His voice was tight like a rubber band about to snap.
My husband soothed me and talked me off the ledge. Fidel came back but he was scowling like a child whose candy had been snatched. He remained rough with me. Rude. Unkind. Everytime the curtain swooshed open and I saw his face, I would turn into a block of ice.
At some point in the night Fidel, and other male nurses congregated at a corner making fun. I think they thought we were all in so much pain, we were deaf. “Ebu sikia huyo, hiyo ni kilio ya wapi?” One of them said and the rest snickered and made snide remarks about us.
Five hours later, I expelled a male fetus. Adrian. He weighed 400 grams. I had a sense of relief because the physical agony was over, but it was immediately replaced by a deep guttural ache in a place no one could reach even if they rubbed my back for eternity. Fidel took the fetus and came back with the file telling us to sign to allow the hospital to dispose the body. Then he said to me,
“Haiya kaa square nikupime.” I have never prayed for a shift to end the way I did that night. Of all the times he examined me, this time was the worst. He needed to clean me up and make sure I had no clots so he kept pushing his fingers in, coming out, back in,
the way you would forcefully pass a key through a key hole. All the while I moved about on the bed unable to keep still.
“Utakufa wewe!” he told me severally. “Wewe,” he turned to my husband, “Tell your wife to cooperate or she will bleed to death.”
They kept me for 24 hours after that for ‘observation’ but no one really observed me for anything. When they were releasing me the nurse gave me my paperwork and said, “Na usijaribu kushika mimba in 3 months.” That was the sum total of my post abortal care and family planning counselling. Not even one person said, “I am sorry for your loss.”
We left that hospital saying good riddance to everything I had experienced there. But you soon discover that geographical distance counts for little in the world of grief. Some things are not so easily left behind.
With every passing day after that, I stuttered and came to a halt like a broken car. I would spend my days in bed, one horrible thought punching me after another. I cried so much my tears began to sting my eyes. I was sleepwalking my way through life. Alive but not living.
I got to a place where I felt that the only thing that would heal my pain was to get another baby. I became obsessed and wanted to conceive immediately. But the more we tried, the more it didn’t happen. When it eventually did, the emotions that hit me were not the ones I expected. I got severe anxiety. At 6 weeks I was at my gynecologists office looking for help. I did not want a repeat loss. After I explained my feelings to him he said, “You really need to get coping mechanisms.”
I felt unheard. Misunderstood. I didn’t go back.
I finally found reprieve from an organisation called “Still A Mom” that a friend told me about. I sent them an email and immediately got a response. It is through this organisation that I got counselling to deal with my previous loss and my present pregnancy. I joined a support group of mom’s carrying rainbow pregnancies and it is with them that I was able to cope.
When praying for people going to deliver, I don’t just focus on the outcome, I pray for a positive pregnancy experience. I pray for the people they will find on shift whatever hospital they go to. From the watchman, to the cooks, nurses, receptionists.
Going through this loss has informed my practise. Who knows? I may have never understood what it means to have an early pregnancy loss and be there for my patients who go through the same.
I checked and saw WHO has guidelines for a positive pregnancy experience and that is what I have strived to give my patients whenever I meet them.
This is Dr Isabelle Omollo’s story who got three children after the loss of Adrian.
I am still doing the series on healthcare workers who have gone through pregnancy and child loss.
A positive pregnancy experience is defined as:
. maintaining physical and sociocultural normalcy
. a healthy pregnancy for mother and baby (including preventing and treating risks, illness and death)
. having an effective transition to positive labour and birth, and
. achieving positive motherhood (including maternal self-esteem, competence and autonomy (WHO).