A journey of hope and healing after a decade of infertility and two maternal near-misses.

Purpose Beyond The Pain

Life forever changed on a cold, blustery day in February 2015.  That morning, I was shocked to discover that my husband and I were expecting our first child after a decade long battle with infertility.  And yet, my son’s conception wouldn’t be the only miracle we saw during our journey to parenthood.  The beginning of my pregnancy was like a dream those first few months but then my elation turned into the fight of our lives.  At 24 weeks, I arrived at the hospital by ambulance where an ER doctor was instrumental in recognizing the signs and symptoms of bilateral pulmonary emboli so my unborn son and I could live.  From then on, our lives were hanging in the balance between life and death by a thread known as blood thinner therapy.  I was considered very high risk thereafter and I was monitored very closely for the duration of my pregnancy.  When I delivered our son that autumn, I felt like I could finally breathe a sigh of relief.  We made it!  All of the challenges to becoming a family were behind us now, or so I thought.   

Then, one week after our son’s birth, another nightmare began that was a razor's edge away from tearing our new little family apart.  I didn't know what was wrong but I knew it was bad.  My body was dying and it was time to go for help but what hurt the most was when my heart broke into one million pieces as I kissed my week-old baby goodbye just in case I never made it home again.  What we didn’t know at the time was that I had been bleeding internally for close to 48 hours.  I’ll never forget the look on my husband’s face in the ER that day.  As the doctors and nurses frantically worked to stabilize me in the trauma unit, he stood at the end of my stretcher, firmly holding onto my feet as if his grasp could keep me on this side of death.  His expression spoke volumes about the mountain of fear and heartbreak he was feeling without uttering a single word.  We later learned how close to death I had been when my doctor told us she pulled five liters of blood from my abdomen during surgery.  I don't even remember how many units I received, but I know I made a significant dent in a hospital's blood supply that morning and I will never look at blood donation the same way ever again. 

I am one of the many faces of the rising rate of maternal mortality and near misses in the United States.   It’s a growing community of women that I never hoped to be a part of but one that I can say I am glad to be among because it means I lived to tell about it.  I am a maternal bilateral pulmonary emboli survivor.  I am a stage 3 postpartum hemorrhage survivor and multiple blood transfusion recipient.  It wasn’t supposed to be this way, of course.  I planned on a smooth and uneventful pregnancy.  I used to be blissfully unaware.  I used to be someone just like you.  I used to think catastrophic things happened to other people but it turns out that they happen to ordinary people like you and me and usually when we least expect it.  I am grateful to live in an area of the world where excellent medical care is the norm and it is literally a few miles from my home.  I’m thankful that during the most challenging time of my life, there were ample resources to help me survive.  I am well aware this is a luxury, even in some parts of the United States.

It has been over a year since these events unfolded and I still wish there was a way for me to personally thank my donors.  I imagine myself ringing their doorbells, grasping their hands with both of mine and tearfully thanking them for the tremendous gift they have given to me.  I want them to see our faces.  I want them to hear our names.  I want them to know that a little family is alive and well, in part, because of them.  The people who took the time to give a portion of themselves by donating blood, platelets and cells played an important role in saving my life that day and the ones that followed.  They gave me so much more than blood!  Together with my surgeons and the staff that cared for me, they gave us a fighting chance to be a family again.  By God’s grace and mercy, my son will not wander through life asking his Daddy questions about a woman he calls Momma but doesn’t know. 

As I continue to grieve and heal from the far-reaching consequences of those days, it is my hope that a greater purpose will emerge from our pain over time.  I am among the very few women to survive the two leading causes of maternal mortality in the world!   I cannot stay silent when there is work to be done to help the others that will come along behind me.  And sadly, there will be others.  The first step is to bravely tell my story and then advocate so others can be survivors too.  Last year, I began what I call "survival traditions", which are annual acts of service on my trauma anniversaries to pay the incredible blessing of survival forward.  In June, I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge with the National Blood Clot Alliance to raise funds and awareness for blood clots and pulmonary embolism.  Then in October, I was eligible to donate blood for the first time since my hemorrhage emergency.  I rolled up my sleeve knowing that this small act of kindness isn't small at all when you consider that it allows families to go on and maybe even thrive again when their crisis is far enough behind them.  Walking and donating blood meant I was helping other families in the middle of their own nightmare and in turn it began to mend the utter brokenness left in the wake of my own.  There were tears in my eyes as I remembered but also because we had come so far during these harsh three hundred and sixty-five days.  I am battered but I survived.  Twice!  And I am confident that God will give beauty for these ashes. 

This January is National Blood Donor Month and I recently learned that the Red Cross issued an emergency call for blood and platelets.  I have seen their pleas for public assistance on social media during this blood shortage crisis and I can’t help but put my own experiences into it.  If there was a blood shortage during my hemorrhage emergency, I very likely may not be standing here typing.  If you have never donated blood before or haven’t done so in a while, I hope my story inspires you to start this month!  I understand there are many who wish to give blood but cannot due to medical conditions but the fact remains that most eligible donors do not give!  If you cannot give, please encourage your friends and family to give.  There is such a critical need for blood and as my experience indicates, you never know when you might need blood yourself.  To the active donors, I hope you think about the lasting impact you have on families just like mine.  Keep giving every 56 days!  While your recipients may never get the opportunity to thank you, I have no doubt that they would express their deepest gratitude if they could.  They are so grateful for your kindness and generosity because they know all too well that the blood running through their veins is not entirely their own anymore.  You are forever a part of them. 

#GiveNow  #GiveBloodSaveLives

*Excerpts contained in this essay were used in a blood drive speech, November 2016.

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Images used with permission from the American Red Cross.  

About the Author: Casey Cattell struggled with infertility for more than a decade before giving birth to her son, Nathan, in 2015. She is a two time Maternal Near Miss Survivor writing to give hope to women in the midst of hardships that challenge their faith. She also enjoys sharing her latest creative exploits. Casey and her husband live in the Northeast, USA and in their downtime like to explore new places and hike with their young son. If you liked this post or were encouraged by it, please consider passing it on. Find Casey on Instagram and Twitter.

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