As the nurses slowly wheeled my bed down the hospital hallway, I felt the anxiety kick in. By the time I entered the operating room my heart was racing, the tears uncontrollable as they streamed down my face.
Six years ago I had been in the same exact room, at the same exact hospital, having the same exact surgery. Six years ago, I had come close to losing my triplets; a risky surgery was our only hope to save them. And on this day, nearly six years later, I once again wondered what might happen to my unborn child. The bright lights and sterile setting brought back so many unwanted memories. It was at this moment I realized: I have post-traumatic stress disorder.
Pregnancy wasn’t easy for us. Years of infertility gave way to in vitro fertilization and eventually the shock of our lives. We were expecting triplets, two identical girls and a boy. It was considered a high-risk pregnancy, so a team of doctors was watching me closely. I loved being pregnant; the glow of nurturing three babies within the womb suffused me as I grew bigger.
But at 18 weeks gestation, complications set in. I came close to delivering my triplets that day. An emergency surgery to stitch my cervix saved my children, but just two weeks later my water broke. As I counted the days on hospital bed rest, my husband and I remained positive. We have always been the type of couple with a “glass half full” attitude. Yet at 22 weeks gestation, our lives came crashing down. I went into labor.
On June 23, 2013, I delivered triplets, each weighing just over one pound. Our first daughter, Abigail, arrived with a kick and a squeak. But her lungs were too weak. She passed away in our arms just two hours later. Peyton and Parker arrived several hours later and were whisked off to the neonatal intensive care unit. Meanwhile, I was raced to surgery, sepsis causing a near-death experience. I woke up in the ICU, unaware whether my two other children were still alive. Days after the shock wore off, we settled into the routine of the NICU, a place where life is measured by minutes and hours, not days.
At five weeks old, our son was diagnosed with a massive brain injury. The stress of a previous surgery proved to be too much for his tiny body. On August 16, after 55 days of life, we held him as he took his final breath.
Our lone survivor defied the odds, eventually arriving home when she was about four months old.
As we found our new normal with our surviving triplet, the emotions of a traumatic birth and child loss would creep up in me at random times. And while many mothers who experience child loss or NICU life face depression and PTSD, I never felt that way. I regularly saw a therapist who helped me work through my feelings. She made me realize that the heartache and pain I felt was part of the grieving process and she reminded me that you never get over the loss of a child. Instead, you learn how to live with those losses. Our two children in heaven are part of our everyday lives and our surviving triplet is quite proud of her brother and sister who watch over us.
Over the years, my husband and I talked about having more children, but I was always hesitant. What if my body failed me? I didn’t think I could endure the possibility of losing another child. Less than a year ago, we decided to end further treatment with our fertility clinic, realizing that even though we only had one child here on earth, our family felt complete.
And then: just six months later, I became pregnant naturally. Instantly, shock and fear overcame me. A surprise pregnancy was the only way we would have more children. I was suddenly forced into facing my fears.
The night before we announced our pregnancy publicly, I found myself wide-awake in bed, my heart racing with anxiety. My mind wandered back to six years ago, when we announced our triplet pregnancy, with so much hope and happiness. This time was different. While we remained cautiously optimistic, my husband and I were realistic. We had faced a parent’s worst nightmare. Now my past pregnancy triggered what I never realized I had: PTSD, tucked deep inside, waiting for the perfect moment to be unleashed.
I always associated the condition with war veterans or those who faced a near-death experience like a car crash. But I met all the criteria. As the American Psychiatric Association describes it: “People with PTSD have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experience that last long after the traumatic event has ended. They may relive the event through flashbacks or nightmares; they may feel sadness, fear or anger; and they may feel detached or estranged from other people.”
Over the weeks other triggers arose: the same surgery I had had with the first pregnancy, reaching the same gestation when my previous pregnancy took a downward turn. My doctors confirmed I was showing signs of PTSD. I returned to my therapist and began sharing my fears and the triggers that kept me up late at night. We worked on exercises that would help my mind, body and soul, simple tricks to give me hope amid the fear.
Now more than halfway through my pregnancy, I find myself feeling a little more confident with each passing week. I’ve begun to allow myself to be optimistic, to think that this baby will be healthy and come home with us as planned. And during those moments when the PTSD asserts itself, I remind myself that what happened in the past doesn’t mean it will happen in the future. I cannot let fear get in the way of living in the present. Being pregnant after loss is one of the most difficult things I’ve experienced, but in the end, I know it will be well worth it.
Skrysak is a local television news anchor in Illinois. Find her on Twitter@StaceySkrysak.