Medical Examiner

My Miscarriage Sent Me to the Hospital Right as the Pandemic Started

People on their balconies in France.
People applaud on their balconies to support caregivers and medical workers as lockdown continues in France. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Chesnot/Getty Images and Getty Images Plus.

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Each night at 8 p.m. in France, we do what many around the world now do: open our windows or step out on our balconies or into our yards to join in a round of applause, whoops, and cheers. The chorus is in support of the doctors and nurses working nonstop to care for COVID-19 patients. I’m clapping for a different reason: I’m thanking them for helping me get through my miscarriage.

My pregnancy had been progressing normally. I was nauseous, constantly in need of a nap, the usual. I’m an American living in France, and being pregnant increasingly made me miss my family in the States. The ascenseur émotionnel—in French, moods ride elevators not rollercoasters—escalated along with the coronavirus. My biggest concern was whether it was OK to fly to see my boyfriend’s family in Sicily at the beginning of March, during my first trimester. When the coronavirus started surging in Italy, I canceled to safeguard our baby.

Sadly, I learned that I didn’t have the power to protect it from everything. The day we would have returned from Italy, March 12, some light bleeding landed me in stirrups for a checkup. I was experiencing a fausse couche, the doctor told me, a “false birth.” In English, it’s a “miscarriage,” but I felt less at fault en français.

My gynecologist scheduled a surgery to clean out the fetal tissue, known as a dilation and curettage or D&C, for early the following week; I went to an appointment with the anesthesiologist at the hospital to prepare. Then, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe shut down cafés, restaurants, and other businesses that weren’t “indispensable to daily life,” to slow the spread of the coronavirus. This decree also forbade nonessential hospital procedures, which I learned included mine when the hospital called to cancel it the day before it was scheduled to take place. Problem was, my body didn’t get the message. I had already begun bleeding heavily. The medical assistant on the phone suggested I call the ER gynecologist first thing the next morning.

After a sleepless night of searing back pain, I did. The ER receptionist told me to come in, so I took an Uber through Marseille’s deserted streets. Just three days before, the hospital had seemed normal. Now, it resembled the set of Contagion: red-and-white security tape blocked off the registration desk, the doctors had swapped lab coats for green scrubs, and every staff member sported gloves and masks.

The OB-GYN on call was calm. She proposed a medical abortion, a pill-based method that would avoid taking doctors and an operating room away from the COVID-19 fight. It would probably be longer and more arduous than a curetage, with increased bleeding and cramps. But a medical abortion would be faster than having my uterus clear itself out at home. I would be admitted to the hospital the next day for an overnight stay. The doctor offered me an opium-based painkiller to help with my ever-increasing cramping. I declined, scarred by the opioid crisis in the United States. I should’ve realized that her prescription for the strong stuff was because of how brutal the pain would be.

A medical abortion consists of two medications taken in timed intervals to clean out the uterus. At the hospital, the midwife gave me mifepristone first. All I could do was wait, just like everyone else in France. President Emmanuel Macron had put the country on lockdown the day of my hospitalization. Sharing the confinement with 66 million people made me feel less lonely. My version of isolation in the hospital in fact wasn’t so bad. I had a steady stream of doctors and nurses checking in, taking my temperature, even bringing me the virus’s main meme: toilet paper. People living alone didn’t have someone popping by with verbena tea. My blossoming breasts and belly—joyful signs of my future baby—were now harsh reminders that my uterus was vacant. Outside, the world was upside down too.

The next day, with no side effects from the mifepristone, I went for a walk in the courtyard. I breathed in the scent of rosemary, so welcome after the stench of blood. I was touched by how friendly and patient the hospital staff was in spite of the pandemic. Back in my room, the daytime midwife drew me a uterus to explain how the drugs worked, pulling down her mask (at a safe distance) to soothe me with her smile. Her nighttime replacement shared that her labradorite necklace was the stone of healers when she saw the crystal heart I kept by my bedside.

On Day 2, I took the second drug. “Misoprostol can cause severe cramping and bleeding,” warned the midwife, inserting a catheter into my arm in case a pain-relieving epidural was needed. Nervous, I wished my beau were by my side. By then, all partners were forbidden from hospitals. This meant mothers were giving birth without their loved ones, that my friend’s mom was on her deathbed in a hospice alone.

In spite of the midwife’s alert, the misoprostol was like a placebo. I had no reaction whatsoever. On Day 3, of my hospital stay, the doctor gave me a choice: take another round of medication at home, or finally have a D&C. Since I had already tried once with the meds, the D&C would now count as an essential surgery.

My uterus had other plans. When I went to pee before the surgery, a golf-ball sized mass dropped out of my body. It felt like I had pooped from my vagina. The doc did an ultrasound to confirm that the unidentified object was the gestational sac. It was a small victory for both me and the staff who were scheduled for the operation, and now free to do other things. “Congratulations,” she gushed.

Miscarriages are the body’s defense mechanism against a fetus that isn’t developing properly. Some 1 in 5 pregnancies end in miscarriages. Often they are triggered by a chromosomal abnormality, a malfunction that lies within the embryo or fetus. A virus, on the other hand, comes from the outside. It hijacks healthy cells by binding to them and then orders these hostages to spread the virus throughout the body. Miscarriages and viruses find common ground in how they are cared for. There are no cures for many viral infections, only medications to alleviate symptoms while the immune system fights it off. Likewise, the malfunction that leads to a miscarriage can’t be repaired. All we have are ways to handle the fallout.

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