Percy had a rough day yesterday. I’ve barely gotten familiar with her personality, but as soon as I peeked into the incubator I could tell that she wasn’t herself. She wouldn’t open her eyes at the sound of my voice, and she barely fought when the nurse pushed a feeding tube into her stomach. She was listless, not making any of those little squeaks that I’ve gotten used to ever since they replaced her breathing tube with a less invasive nasal oxygen setup.
Her lab work makes it look like despite all my hand-washing, she’s getting an infection. Also, she keeps forgetting to breathe, a condition that the nurses refer to as “apnea.” I had a hand on her tiny foot when her alarms sounded. I watched her heart rate fall from where it should be—about 150 beats per minute—down to 90, 80, 70. It’s paralyzing to watch, and it just keeps happening. When her oxygen-saturation falls, she starts to turn a little blue, and we have to rub her tiny chest with two fingers to get her heart going again. It’s a struggle not to lose hope every time she crashes. The nurses say she’ll outgrow it, so I try to trust them.
Even just getting to this scary, premature point of parenthood has been a struggle. The first miscarriage was easy. After you have one you learn that everyone else has had one too. You hear “my sister had one, and little Jenny’s 6 now” and “Nicole Kidman had one, so at least you’re in good company.” Miscarriage No. 2 was disappointing, but still within the realm of random misfortune. No. 3 was sickening, but No. 4 was by the far the worst, the realization that it wasn’t bad luck, that we were marked by something awful and mysterious that we wouldn’t be able to overcome. Miscarriages Nos. 5 and 6 were sad, but not surprising, like incomplete Hail Mary passes from a backup quarterback.
A year ago we were at our most despondent, and we decided to try using a surrogate. We guessed that our embryos were good—we’d made it to the second trimester twice—but that there was something immunological or structural that made it impossible to carry a baby to term. I felt like we’d been thrown a lifeline when we finally found Jessaca, a strong, friendly, well-grounded woman who had two healthy deliveries to her credit. So, Shona’s egg and my sperm did their thing in a Petri dish, the doctor implanted little 8-celled Percy into Jessaca’s womb, and we were on our way.
After six months of surrogacy I felt like we were actually going to have our baby. But just when it seemed safe to let the guys at work in on my big secret, Jessaca came down with HELLP syndrome, a debilitating and unforeseeable form of pre-eclampsia. They call it “maternal-fetal incompatibility”: My baby was very literally killing Jessaca. Her blood pressure skyrocketed, her liver shut down, her kidneys started to fail. Sick as she was, she struggled to hold on and give our baby every golden hour she possibly could. But finally, in order to save our surrogate’s life, our baby had to come out three long months before she was due. Approximately 5 percent of pregnant women will get pre-eclampsia. Of those, 5 percent will progress to HELLP, and only a small percentage of those will deliver earlier than the relative safety point of 30 weeks gestation. I don’t even know what the odds are of having six unexplained miscarriages, but it feels like we must be bumping along the bottom 1 percent of the bottom 1 percent of bad luck. When I learned that even our surrogate pregnancy was drifting toward disaster, I felt like we’d never see daylight again.
Within 48 hours of delivering Percy, Jessaca lost 30 pounds of water weight and her blood pressure stabilized. We had dinner with her the other day, and now she’s as healthy as ever, home playing with her own little girl. Having a surrogate is an unavoidably strange experience. I got her pregnant, but she’s not my wife. She carried Percy and felt her kick, but she’s not her mom. What she is is the woman who saved Shona and me from the depths of despair, the woman who gave us our tiny, terrifying, beautiful premature daughter. Surrogacy didn’t work out perfectly, but it’s working.
From her very beginnings until today, Percy’s entrance into the world has been a massive team effort. We’ve had support from so many unlikely places. Yesterday another mother in the NICU offered to share her breast milk with Percy, and that unexpected generosity from a stranger sent Shona and me into tears.
I’m hoping this current blood infection will pass through Percy quickly. I’d harbored a secret hope that she’d be in the 20 percent of preemies her age who don’t get infections, but I should know better than to play the odds. The job is mostly up to her now. Everybody on her team has done their best to give her a good start, and now she has to take over and be strong for herself. She’s lost her fight for a little while, but I’m confident she’ll get it back. That’s why we named her Percy. It’s short for Perseverance.