This is Bruno’s story. This is also the story of how I became a mother.
On Thanksgiving day this year, I was on my third day of full bed rest in the hospital. They had compression devices on my legs to keep blood clots away, the bed was tipped back so my head was a foot lower than my feet, I was allowed to shower once every three days and allowed up only to use the restroom. When I woke up that morning, my sweet boy was kicking me so I grabbed Mariel’s hand and told her “Babe, he’s still alive. He’s kicking me – feel him.” She felt him and we smiled. We were so happy he was still alive despite my membranes (water bag) having fully prolapsed out of my body and ruptured three days prior. The day I was initially admitted after my water broke, the admitting doctor told us we could abort him or we could fight. We had opened up our lives to bring our son home and his heart was still beating so we fought.
Doctors told us we needed to make it to “viability” which was at least 23 weeks. If he was born after 23 weeks they’d be able to intervene and do whatever they could to save him. At 20 weeks 6 days, I just needed a couple more weeks on full bed rest which I was more than happy to do. I’d have let them amputate my feet if they told me it would help. The one thing about Bruno, despite my multiple bleeds (subchorionic hematomas where I bled at 6, 9 and 13 weeks) and extreme morning sickness that lasted a full 14 weeks with no relief, is that he kept growing bigger. He was perfectly developed and his heartbeat was always strong and never faltered. His continued growth every time I saw him kept us going. It kept me going. I thought babies were only lost if their hearts stopped beating so we were fine right?
But even though he was moving, that morning I knew something was wrong. I felt him really low, way down in my pelvis where he lived in the early stages of pregnancy. But at 5 months pregnant, way into my second trimester, he normally lived much higher in my belly above my belly button. When your water bag breaks, your body releases a hormone that tells it to go into labor but the doctors said that with no movement (hence my full bed rest) labor could be kept at bay. Just like when my membranes ruptured, I experienced no pain or cramping so even though I was scared, I felt very safe that labor was far away. That’s the scariest part really, there was no indication that anything was wrong. All the times I bled, there was no pain. When my water bag prolapsed, there was no pain. What happened to me was nothing like in the movies or on TV. I’m embarrassed that I had no real education on the types of things that can happen in a pregnancy other than utter perfection. I was only educated on the normal pregnancies I’d seen all around me. Never had I met or heard of anyone experience what happened to me.
A little bit later, I needed to pee so I asked Mariel to help me get up. Because my membranes were ruptured, they had me on an IV antibiotic course that consisted of three bags of antibiotics three times a day. Their hope was to keep me and the baby from getting infected since my womb was no longer a sterile environment. They’d also regularly take my temperature and every chance I had, I’d ask the nurse to check his heart tones. For those three days, everything was perfect. I had hope. Because of the IV, I had a hard time using my right arm as that’s where the port was placed and the meds were so strong they burned really bad. By the third day my arm burned so terribly, I couldn’t use it. I’d later find out I had something called infiltration. My veins had burst and the meds were going into my tissue.
Once on the toilet, I immediately felt like something had fallen out. Or maybe it was in my head? Once again, I had no pain or bleeding. My membranes having visibly fallen out a few days ago, I was traumatized and always thought something was falling out. This is something I struggle with even now – one month later.
I put a piece of toilet paper in my hand and held it near the opening then called for Mariel to come check. I wasn’t panicked because I felt no pain. She came in, bent down to look then turned and sprinted for the front door of our hospital room. “Help! Help! We need a nurse in here!”
The remainder of our story is told to the best of my knowledge as it was a mix of emptiness, shock and heartbreaking love and loss.
A team of nurses and doctors came swarming in. Next thing I know I was laying on my back on the bed with one of the nurses shoving what felt like her entire arm up inside of me. Bruno’s cord had fallen out. She was trying to save him. Another doctor came in and kept saying loudly to the room as if to stop any intervention, “The baby isn’t viable. He’s not viable. He’s not viable.” The nurse took her arm out, looked at me with deep sadness in her eyes and patted my leg with sympathy. The next thing I remember is somebody saying I’d have to deliver him. I would have to aggressively participate in something that went against everything I wanted.
From that moment everything happened so quickly. They moved me from our room in Ante Partum and took us to a room in Labor and Delivery. I just remember laying there soaking up every last second pregnant with Bruno safe inside of me. Mariel was frantic in the background packing our things and making sure nothing was left in our old room. Once in L&D, I told her “call my Mom. Let her know he’s coming today.” She left my side and went over to the window in our new room to share the news barely able to get the words out between sobs. We all believed with every fiber of our beings that we’d be in the hospital for the long haul. Bruno was going to make it and we would bring him home so this call to my Mom was really hard.
My Mom lives 3 hours away in Dallas and it was Thanksgiving day. Every year my Mom makes the turkey and almost single handedly coordinates the entire meal. I wasn’t sure how long it would take her to arrive or how long it would be before we saw Bruno but hoped she would be there to meet him. I’ve never felt such sadness and emptiness in all my life. I laid there and cried for myself, cried for my wife and cried for my family. Not only were we losing our son, our parents were losing a grandchild, our siblings were losing a nephew and our donor’s son was losing a little brother. We all loved him and we were all losing him. My body had failed my son and all of us so cruelly and I felt, and still feel, so wholly responsible.
Because my body was not in labor, they started me on Pitocin to induce it and told me that I would soon dilate. The nurse said for me to let her know when I started feeling contractions so she could time them and put the monitor on my belly. Being that it was Thanksgiving, my OBGYN was on vacation so they’d paged another doctor from my practice and they were waiting for her to arrive. The contractions started up pretty quickly so the nurse started going over my pain management options. There were two different epidurals I could accept but both had the side effect of grogginess. I asked the nurse if he would be born alive. She checked my cord that was still outside of my body and said, “Yes. His cord is still pulsing. He’ll be alive when he’s born. I don’t expect him to live very long but be prepared that his chest may move and he may even cry.” Once I knew he’d be alive I declined an epidural because I wanted to have a clear head for every last second we’d have with him. My pain was second to his life.
Bruno Israel Baluja was born feet first that morning at 11:51am weighing 13 ounces and 10.5 inches long. We chose Bruno because it means brown – just like the color of my wifes beautiful skin and we chose Israel after my Dad.
I was in labor for roughly 3 hours and will never forget the moment they placed him on my chest. Mariel and I were both in shock, me more than her, and she quickly scooped him up and held him to her chest. I had just given birth to our firstborn. The joy I felt in that moment overwhelmed everything else.
He was perfect. I opened the little blanket they had wrapped him in and looked at every part of him. I couldn’t believe I had made him and how beautiful he was. His eyes couldn’t open yet but they were large like mine, his head had the beginnings of blonde hair and he looked so strong. The nurse would check him from time to time to see if his heart had stopped beating. Mariel climbed into the bed with me and we cuddled him close as I whispered in his ear how much we loved him, how much we wanted him, how perfect he was and how it was okay for him to leave us when he needed to. I didn’t want him to be scared but did want him to know how much his moms loved him.
A bit later I felt him leave. I told Mariel he was gone and she told the nurse. The nurse quietly checked and told me, “You’re right Mama.” Bruno passed away at 12:48pm. My world turned black.
We didn’t have much time with him before they began fretting over my placenta. I was bleeding a lot yet my cervix had closed back up. There was no way for the doctor to manually remove the placenta so they said I’d have to have surgery (a D&C) to remove it. Mariel held our son as another doctor came in and went over my anesthesia options. I could either have something placed in my spine or a tube down my throat. I despise anything down my throat but opted for that option as it sounded safer than something in my spine.
I was terrified. I remember clutching at Mariel like a scared little child so she held me in one arm as she held our boy in the other. I had just given birth and wanted to be with Bruno. I did not want to be taken away from him and into surgery. Just like many other women I’d read millions of birth stories and researched everything from what I should put in my hospital bag to how to breathe during labor. I had not read a single story of loss or what happens when you have a D&C. I was not prepared yet I’m sure no amount of reading could have prepared me for that moment.
Once in the operating room, I was laid on a table, fully lucid mind you, bright lights over my head and it felt like a dozen people were in the room poking me with needles and checking me down there. I was shaking from fear and so cold. This is when a doctor realized I had infiltration in my arm and they started a new port on the other arm then put a mask over my face.
I woke up in the recovery room. I was on a hospital bed with curtains around me. I could hear other people in the room, notably another woman with a living baby fretting over the baby latching. I guess she must have been recovering from a c-section and I could hear her baby crying. Her husband was on the phone sharing the good news that Mom and baby were both well. I silently cried listening to them wishing I could leave that room, leave the hospital and leave the planet.
Mariel was by my side, then my Mother, then my donor and his wife, and then my best friend. I’m not sure how long I was in that room but was soon moved back into the labor and delivery room to recover. The rest of that day was a blur. We had a lot of visitors who came to support us and we got to spend as much time as we wanted with Bruno. I remember he was cold…it bothered me so much that he was cold so I kept trying to bundle him up with the blankets as best I could. They didn’t have a hat or any clothes that fit him so I didn’t have much to work with. One of the nurses was so kind and put heating pads under his body in the bassinet before she brought him to us. He was gone but babies should always be warm. Thank God for the kindness of the nurses.
The social worker who had visited us since we were initially admitted came by and went over next steps. She let us know we’d need to decide if we wanted to bury him or cremate him. Did we have a name for him? Did we want to register him with a social security number? Registration would need our full maiden names for the birth certificate. Mariel would be listed as a parent. Did we want them to perform an autopsy? Did we want him blessed or baptized? The hospital chaplain would come by shortly. The nurse would take photos of him for us. She was really sorry. She handed us her card and told us how to call her if we needed her for anything. She was really so sorry for our loss.
That night Mariel had the most fitful sleep ever. My Mom slept in the room with us and both her and I looked over at Mariel as her entire body twitched and she let out intermittent moans. She had the blanket Bruno was initially wrapped with in her hand near her face.
I’ll never forget when I was 13 weeks we were in the hospital because I’d had the largest bleed yet. That day a tech told us she couldn’t be quoted but our baby was a boy. I will never forget the look of pride on Mariel’s face when she heard those words. She beamed and kept saying she knew he was a boy all along even though everyone else thought it was a girl. She told me that Bruno was her boy and she had so many plans for him. The day we lost our boy, a part of her was gone along with him.
That night a nurse gave me a pill to put me to sleep. I needed to be knocked out. For the first time in months, I physically felt ok. While pregnant I felt sick every single night but that night I didn’t. I felt so guilty feeling well. I’d have traded anything to have had him back. In that moment I wished they could have taken me out permanently. I just wanted to be with him.
The next morning everything moved slowly. All of our phones were ringing and beeping off the hook but I didn’t have the energy or interest in writing anyone back. What could I say? Our son was gone. He was dead and there was no real explanation. He was chromosomally perfect. My body had failed him. How could I wrap that up into a pretty little text reply? I was too hurt to do anything yet there were so many things to do. A woman’s work is never done is it? It’s both a blessing and a curse. Our nurse told us to let her know when we wanted to see him for the last time and she’d bring him right in. We decided we wanted to see him right before we were discharged because we knew we wouldn’t want to leave him if he was brought to us any sooner. That time came and we held him and loved him and kissed him and cried so many tears. I’m not sure how long we were with him before it was time and the nurse asked if it was ok to take him away. How could we say goodbye? I couldn’t. Mariel put him down into the bassinet and we held each other as we sobbed while they wheeled him away. It told the nurse it was not goodbye, it was a “see you later.”
They put me in a wheelchair and my warrior wife and mother walked right behind me as I kept my head down as they wheeled me out of the hospital. The sight of another mother or a newborn was more than I could handle so I kept my eyes on my feet. Soon we were outside and I was at the curb with the nurse while Mariel and my Mom went to get the car. It was a very chilly and rainy Friday. I remember thinking it was perfect weather for the occasion. I wanted to freeze, I wanted to suffer. I wanted to feel pain somewhere else so it could distract me from the pain in my soul.
The drive home was miserable as I clutched the memory box the hospital had given us. Inside were his photos, a measuring tape cut exactly to 10.5 inches, the little blue booties the nurse placed on him for the photos, a heart pendant and the blanket they’d wrapped him in. Also on my lap was a folder filled with resources for counselors, support groups for mothers dealing with infant loss, and instructions on how to care for myself after birth and a D&C. I’m not sure how Mariel was able to drive home, she was visibly in a painful daze. It would be weeks before I felt confident enough to drive my car.
Once home we walked into the house and it’s hard to put into words the emotions we felt. We were home. I had given birth. Our son was not with us and we would never spend time with him in his nursery or his bassinet that Mariel had placed on her side of the bed. We went to his room, sat on the floor in front of the crib and looked at the contents of his memory box. This was all we had of him. My Mom came in and held us.
We haven’t removed anything from his room since that day. The dozens of sympathy cards have been placed on top of his changing table and the contents of his closet and dresser are untouched. If you know us, you know the strength of our character would never allow us to give up.
Recently I’ve gone to see a Maternal Fetal Medicine doctor who is confident he can help us carry our next pregnancy to term, or close to it. There’s a 90% chance we’ll bring home Bruno’s little brother or sister with only a 10% chance we won’t. I’m holding onto that 90% and know all the signs to look for the next time around. As it was explained to us, the bleeding from the hematoma caused my membranes to weaken dramatically which caused them to rupture which caused my body to dilate which led to the cord falling out. There is no known cause why hematomas are formed and no way to cure them. The only thing anyone can do is hope and wait for them to resolve. If this happens to us in the future, I’ll move mountains to ensure I’m on full bed rest until the baby is as close to term as possible. Luckily our new doctor is on the same page. One day our rainbow baby will wear his or her older brother’s clothes and sleep in the crib that was passed down from our donor’s son to Bruno and eventually to them.
Some days it’s hard to get out of bed. It’s hard to look forward towards the future when my heart brings me back to the past when I had life inside of me and innocent hope in my heart for a family. Nothing will ever go back to the way it was. We’re slowly figuring out our new normal by getting back into the swing of things and every day I ask the Lord to give me strength. To bring me peace. To bring us a miracle. And to help me understand that there is no going back, only forward.
Until that season in my life comes, I remind myself of the blessings I do have and remember to just keep living, until I feel alive again.
Viviana, Bruno’s mama