A Terrible Loss, and a Faraway Feeling

By Donna Scaramastra Gorman
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, May 28, 2007

The ambulance ceiling is high -- too high, I think. It gives the whole vehicle a rickety feel, as if it will topple at the first corner. The siren sounds distant, tinny. Surely it isn't coming from my ambulance? I lie on the gurney and watch the view flash by through tiny windows. I recognize nothing. The signs are all in Kazakh. I don't speak Kazakh. How could I? I only moved here 13 days ago as part of a Foreign Service family. I don't know where I am. But I know where I'm going.

The ambulance pulls up at a crumbly-gray Soviet-style block of a building. The doctor and driver help me climb out, supporting my weight as I hobble through the entrance. In the waiting room sit five or six young women in various stages of pregnancy. They turn as I enter, then collectively gasp and cover their bellies, as if to ward off any danger I might represent. For a moment, I am angered. But then I realize what I look like. My shirt is wrinkled, sweat-soaked, smeared with blood. From the waist down I am truly horrifying: soaked red-brown from waist to ankle.

In another dim room, a technician passes an ultrasound wand across my belly. She speaks Russian -- finally, a language I understand -- and faces the doctor, avoiding my gaze. The miscarriage is only about 30 percent complete, she states clinically, without compassion. She says I will need surgery to stanch the bleeding.

I interrupt to ask if the baby is still in there.

The doctor and technician look first at me, then each other. Finally, the doctor asks quietly: You do understand that there is no hope for your baby? I nod. The technician looks at the screen again. The baby has been passed, she says. It isn't there anymore.

I burst into chest-heaving sobs, not because the baby I've been carrying is dead -- I'd somehow known she was dead when I woke up bleeding -- but for the fact that my tiny baby is out there somewhere, floating and bumping along, all alone, in the sewer system of Almaty, Kazakhstan. I'll never find her.

Kazakhstan is a vast country, stretching from China in the east to the oil-rich Caspian Sea in the west and north into Siberia. I flew across the entire country, east to west, bound for a safe surgical procedure in Finland. From the window of a tiny medevac plane, the Kazakh steppe seems a bleak, pitiless, monotonous place, brown in patches, beige in others, miserable in all. It isn't fair, I'm sure, to judge an entire country based on a pain-medicated view from a blood-soaked gurney. But I've never hated any place so much as I hate that vast nothingness over which we're flying.

I look over at my 2-year-old son and my husband, squashed together in the only other seat, and I can't find any happiness in me. Just a sadness pulling me down toward the steppe and an invisible thread tugging at me, trailing all the way back to my dead baby.

We land in a dusty gray city in western Kazakhstan, just long enough to refuel before heading to Finland, where a medical team is awaiting my arrival. The local officials won't let us off the plane -- it seems our passports weren't stamped with visas for this particular patch of Kazakhstani earth. So we wait, me on my gurney, my husband in his seat and our son bouncing crankily between us. From my window I see the steaming tarmac, empty except for a few gun-toting militiamen.

We're airborne once more, escaping the grip of the Kazakh steppe, and the Earth fills with colors again. Fields, villages, winding roads and rivers pass anonymously beneath us. No one else sees that invisible thread connecting our plane to the dead baby I've left all alone.

In Helsinki, an ambulance ferries us to a nearby hospital. The view from the window is still foreign to me, though the ambulance seems more ordinary, less top-heavy. At the hospital, I'm wheeled away by a nurse who doesn't speak English. I ask where she's taking me. "Three o'clock," she bellows, smiling broadly.

The gurney stops in what I imagine is an operating room. A young woman walks in, dressed in surgical scrubs. She's the doctor and tells me in impeccable English that they will do a D&C to stop the bleeding. You'll feel better when we're done, she says.

I think of my baby (a girl, I'm sure of it), no longer growing safely inside me. I think of that sun-hardened steppe, reflecting and magnifying my grief. I think of my husband and son, of the thread that connects me to them, just as it connects me to my lost daughter. Then they put in the IV, and I think of nothing.


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