By Christine Carpenter
PROMPT—During Covid-19 ...
I am in one of the final prenatal appointments of my pregnancy and because I have something called marginal cord insertion, I need to be seen a couple of weeks earlier than normal for a non-stress test. The irony of the name of this test is not lost on me: I am beyond stressed. It is May 20th, 2020 and we are roughly two months into the Covid-19 worldwide health crisis. This is an appointment I must attend masked, frightened, and alone.
My husband had been accompanying me to every single prenatal appointment for moral support. I have lived with medical anxieties my whole life and pregnancy has indisputably heightened these fears. I almost didn’t have a baby in avoidance of all of the testing, exams, and ultimately to evade one of my lifelong major fears: childbirth. These anxieties are akin to a prisoner’s ankle bracelet, weighing me down while every other expectant mother in the doctor’s office waiting room seems to have an easy stride in anticipation of her appointment. Covid has taken that sense of security away from me, as my husband is no longer permitted in my doctor visits. This is a major added stressor to an already anxiety-provoking situation.
It’s true—there is nothing invasive about today’s appointment, aside from my own thoughts. And yet I find myself laying on a hard exam chair, naked from the waist down, modestly attempting to cover myself with the thin lap drape as my ass sticks to the crunchy paper beneath me. All the while, I attempt to lie perfectly still so that the doctor can monitor my baby’s heartbeat over a twenty to thirty-minute window, depending on how the baby “cooperates.”
Once situated with the jelly smeared across my swollen belly, elastic belt tightened across stretched, irritated skin, I am alone in the room with a fabric leopard face mask obstructing my breathing, and the volume of my son’s rapid heartbeat echoing at an uncomfortably loud decibel. My heart begins to race to match his speed, my throat commences its tightening ritual when I feel triggered, and I can feel the tears welling beneath my charcoal winged-lined eyes. I press the nurse-call button and she appears likely a few minutes later, but it feels much longer. I am growing increasingly distraught as the seconds sluggishly pass, sweat pooling beneath me. When she does arrive, I hastily explain to her, my voice cracking with each word, that I am having a panic attack. I request that the office bends their rules, and grants my husband permission to sit beside me for this appointment.
I can see that while the nurse attempts to be understanding and empathetic, she is visibly perplexed; unable to truly relate to my anxiety. Sadly, we live in a world where most people in the medical field have a difficult time either understanding or having patience for the painful reality that is anxiety. As wonderful as my doctor is, I am a number on a conveyor belt, one of the dozens of patients she sees daily. I am fully aware that I am disrupting proper procedure, and yet I am desperate for support. I beg the nurse to allow my husband to come in; he was waiting in the parking lot for me to finish, and on the brink of panic, I am mentally tugging my maternity thong and leggings back on to flee the scene. Fleeing as fast as I can at nearly nine months pregnant. Though the nurse attempts to conceal her visible irritation with me, even behind her mask I can feel it, and the shame seeps into me like an ink stain on a shaggy cream carpet; permanent and fully absorbed. I always feel pangs of guilt when I ask for help in these situations as if I am manipulating someone or asking for something against the realm of procedure when all I really need is the face of someone I trust nearby, and a big warm hand to envelop mine. I am ashamed of my basic need for human connection.
I was fortunate that for the majority of my pregnancy, my husband accompanied me on my visits. It was critical to have that support when facing potentially unsettling news, reviewing tests, or digesting the uncomfortableness of it all. I realize that I am lucky in that my pregnancy was physically very “normal,” and aside from a slightly abnormal umbilical cord positioning into my placenta that required some extra monitoring, all is quite typical. Regardless of this fact, I am petrified. Every appointment under my belt is a stride toward facing my ultimate fear, birth.
I also find myself overwhelmed with feelings of regret and concern for other women who might not be on the receiving end of the good news I received on this day. The women whose babies do not make it, or have serious abnormalities; why should they have to be alone? Today, I attempt to take comfort in the words from my doctor; “His heartbeat is strong and he’s moving around a great deal.” Even with that piece of ultimate relieving information, I struggle to remain calm as the pulse oximeter is tightly affixed to my pointer finger, and the belt monitor struggles to stay in place, my legs trembling beneath me.
My hips scream from settling in this position too long, but the pain in my mind is louder. A seemingly non-invasive appointment leaves little understanding for my discomposure. All I hear is the baby’s heartbeat in the room, alternating with mine in my ears.
The nurse returns again, announcing “he can come in,” and though it is a major win and I am grateful, I can tell she is annoyed, so I hardly absorb the triumph through the haze of my whirring mind. It is not until he enters the room, all six feet of him, mouth masked, eyes smiling, that I am instantly calmer.
What most fail to realize is that there is pain even in the most “normal” of circumstances for the person with triggers of trauma in a doctor’s office. And now, almost a year later, as I face some news of a potential procedure I have to undergo, I am informed that my husband cannot accompany me again, due to Covid restrictions. Do I understand the reasoning? Of course. Limiting bodies inside of the hospital is for the safety of its staff and patients to reduce the spread of infection. But I ask myself, and them; “Would you deny someone who is blind, or someone in a wheelchair, the right of a support person?” Of course, we know that the answer is no. Why? Because those needs are outward and obvious. They are accepted, substantiated reasons for the support of a second body in the hospital, together with the patient. No one can see or make tangible the landscape of fires erupting in my mind, and therefore my need for it is not legitimized. Instead, I continue to burn, asking only that they douse one of the flames with water; the permission for my husband to accompany me.
This time, there is a new nurse and the pandemic is more than a year underway. When I explain to her about my documented Anxiety Disorder Diagnosis, she hardly flinches; citing we needed to adhere to “hospital policy.” Quite literally, making me feel like my needs are not warranted, or worse—that I am crazy.
Monumental strides have been made to squelch the taboo stigma that is attached to mental health disorders. Yet, with her insensitive response, no effort made to accommodate my need, I am reminded that in these situations, we still have a long way to go.
That’s just fine. Don’t worry about me! I’ll wait here, alone—my brain ablaze.
* The photo above was taken on the day Christine went to the doctor's appointment mentioned in her essay.
Christine Carpenter is a writer from New York. She is passionate about composing and sharing her journey through her words, with an intent to make women feel less alone in motherhood and creative living. She enjoys knitting, reading and relishes time with her family.