I woke up, turned on the TV and saw people outside of the White House chanting "USA, USA, USA!" It was 2:00 in the morning and some Americans were celebrating the news that Seal Team 6 had killed Osama Bin Laden.
I really enjoy covering breaking news. It was going to be a good day at work and then a fun visit to the doctor. I was 18 weeks and 5 days pregnant. That's the point at which you can find out if it's a boy or a girl. We didn't want to find out but we did relish the opportunity to see the baby through ultrasound. (We now know - it's a girl we named Grace)
I had gotten to know the staff at Unity Hospital that does the ultrasounds. I had preeclampsia with my first daughter so I had an ultrasound or other testing several times a week. It was good to see some familiar faces again with my second baby.
That day the tech doing my ultrasound was a new face: a student about to graduate. She was very professional. I had no idea she was seeing something in my baby that was a big problem and something she'd probably only read about in text books.
In came Dr. Daniel Grace, division chief of Maternal Fetal Medicine. Another face I was happy to see again. He checked out the baby too and then asked me to come to his office.
That's when he told me my baby had a congenital diaphragmatic hernia (CDH). I had no idea what that was. My dad had had surgery for a hernia in his back. I knew it was painful but nothing too major. I wasn't too worried. That soon changed.
Dr. Grace explained that congenital means a condition existing before birth. Diaphragmatic means it has to do with the diaphragm that is the muscle that separates the abdominal cavity from the chest cavity. A hernia is a hole. So, with a hole in my baby's diaphragm, her stomach, intestines and some of her liver had traveled up into her chest cavity. Those organs were squishing her heart out of place and left very little room for her lungs to grow.
No, she wasn't in any pain.
No, I didn't do anything to cause it. The cause of CDH is unknown.
I think I was in shock. I remember him telling me that only half of CDH babies survive. I'm not sure why that didn't shake me. What really hit home was when he said that the babies that do survive are in the hospital for months. I guess that's when I realized I had really been thrown a curve ball. I could either expect intense grief or an intense, long fight in the hospital. Either way - wow. Life had just changed.
This was one of the few doctor's appointments my husband Vinnie did not make. I asked Dr. Grace to stay with me while I called Vinnie in case Vinnie had any questions I could not answer. I explained what was happening and we decided Vinnie should come to the hospital. When I hung up, Dr. Grace said he was surprised how much of the situation I was able to describe. I told him that's my job as a reporter: take in information and then explain it to others. He pointed out, this was my life - not a report. It didn't feel like my life though. It felt like I was talking about someone else.
Vinnie arrived and we found out more. We scheduled more testing and talked about the need to switch to a high risk OB/GYN. Dr. Grace stayed well beyond his normal hours that day. He was very supportive and continued to be.
We walked out of the hospital and decided we'd leave my car there. I was too shaken up to drive. I don't remember much of what we said on the ride home. I do remember thinking I needed to pull it together because when I got home I had a one year old who needed her mom. A healthy one year old. What a miracle she was.
I contacted my boss and told him I wouldn't be in the next day. Too much to process. Too emotionally exhausted which goes hand in hand with being physically exhausted.
We told our parents but that was it. We talked about how, eventually, we would tell others. We didn't want to alarm people by making the situation sound too terrible, but when your best scenario is major surgery and months in the hospital it's hard to sell the situation as rosy.
After missing a day of work my co-anchor Doug texted to see if I was alright. I responded that no, I wasn't. I told him I wasn't read to talk about it and I was planning to be back at work the next day and would appreciate it if he could cover for me if it looked as though I might break down and cry.
I'm glad I asked him that. The next morning, right before the newscast came back on at 5:30 there was a commercial for a hospital. It showed a mom in a hospital bed who was holding the new baby she had just given birth to. She was smiling and soon in bounded her older child. It was the scenario I had hoped to live out. That wasn't going to happen. If my baby survived the delivery she would be whisked to a table and all sorts of tubes and IV would go into her. I walked off the anchor desk and found a quiet place to quickly cry before pulling myself back together and getting back to doing my job.
Through the initial shock of this news, there was one positive thought I held onto. I have an amazing husband. I have an amazing daughter. I have an amazing family and extended family. No one should have to go through this but perhaps we were the best equipped? Perhaps we were chosen for this challenge.
I've started to write several blogs about this experience but it didn't feel right yet. It's now been roughly 5 months since our story went public. Pregnant women who had just been told their babies had CDH have now given birth over the past few weeks. I've never met them in person but they reached out to me after seeing the story of my family's experience and I've been able to help them. It feels good.
Jennifer Johnson, Anchor/Reporter