Motherhood and Mortality: Navigating Miscarriages as a Physician

Sophia Tolliver, MD, MPH


February 01, 2022

One clinic morning in an office visit, I stood next to the door talking, hand on the doorknob ready to exit. My elderly patient was sitting in the chair next to the door, family member in another, as I attempted my exit. Suddenly, as if looking for something, my patient locked her gaze to my abdomen and began to slowly advance herself forward, eyes squinting for a better view. She had found something. Poke, poke, poke. Three pokes in quick succession into my apparently protruding abdomen stoked an internal horror that I dared not release onto my face. How in the hell could she know? My heart sank — the signs were still there. 

"There's something in there," she said with a seasoned certainty.

"No there's not," I said trying hard to hide any emotion. 

"Yes, there is," she said flatly. 

"Grannie, no there isn't," her family member interrupted, unknowingly saving me. I thanked them again and quickly left the room. 

My patient had the ongoings of slowly progressing dementia. Little did she know she was right. Maybe she had known something in another time and space. Either way, I wasn't prepared to tell the story. She wasn't prepared to fully understand. 

I tried to forge on to see the next patient. Tears began welling in both eyes. I tilted my head back slightly to prevent the water from falling. I wanted to feel offended, but she couldn't have known the war my body was fighting at the time. I had not yet shared the pregnancy news with this particular patient, and yet her knowing was telling in a sense. I'm learning that the old folks always know. 

I was at work, actively having yet another miscarriage. This was the second of two. This most recent time, we found out at 9 weeks that our baby had stopped growing about a week or so earlier. Cue the denial. Cue the rage. Cue the devastation. 

Thinking back, with each pregnancy discovery, we did not wait the customary 3 months before telling anyone. Just about everyone knew. We were immediately excited to start sharing with friends, family, coworkers, and even patients early on. We knew the risks in my 40-something age group but were quintessentially optimistic. 

I am a family medicine physician with expert-level knowledge and clinical experiences in women's health counseling, contraception, conception, and pregnancy. In my training, I've delivered babies, been elbow-deep searching for wayward tissue from bleeding uteri, and sutured gaping vaginal lacerations. I've cried with new mothers at the end of long labors. I've been bear-hugged by doting new fathers. I have an abundance of medical knowledge, and yet the pain and struggle of miscarriage over the past 2.5 years has twice reduced me to absolute pieces. There was no course to teach me how to navigate loss within my own body, no textbook to study so that I could test out of the experience. Life hit us dead-on, and I was broken.

I can say that the experience of a miscarriage does not get easier with each subsequent loss. At least for me, the emotions were always raw and tender. Each one was a new gash to my emotional and physical health. My sanity bled out. I was physically exhausted. The struggles of being a healthcare worker in the midst of a global pandemic I'm sure did not help the situation. My first miscarriage was just before the start of the pandemic. I was in New York visiting family and after dinner at Tavern on the Green, of all places, when I began showing signs. Two days later, I was at the coffee station in our clinic cafeteria adding my cream and sugar when my ob/gyn's office called. The hCG levels were probably too low; a miscarriage was likely. I kept my composure, walked out of the cafeteria, got my car keys, went to my car, and proceeded to scream at the top of my lungs for a few minutes. Afterward, I went back to finish up my work and canceled my clinic for the rest of the day. 

For my second miscarriage, I was laying in my doctor's office getting an ultrasound. I had started bleeding the previous day but thought that the subchorionic hemorrhage noted on the last ultrasound might be the culprit. The bleeding was light. That's the thing about being a pregnant physician: We know too much. The image on the screen looked abnormal, the remnants a ghost of its former self. I knew something was wrong but held out some hope. She searched and turned and pressed the transducer into my belly for a seemingly better view. She apologized for not finding the heartbeat. How is this happening again?

So how does one get through the loss of multiple pregnancies? I know my husband and I worked hard to get through each loss. We did all the right things a good therapist would recommend: be present in the moment, go with your feelings, allow yourself to feel everything. There were no wrong emotions. Little by little we grieved and healed, grieved and healed. Having a successful pregnancy did help. Miracles are not promised but I believe we were sent one, and her name is Giavonna Barbara. Bookended by miscarriages, she has made me realize just how precious and delicate life really is. She is our absolute world and joy. 

I've learned twice now that men mourn differently than women. Not any less, just in a different way. There is a pain in the silence that often goes unvocalized, but it is of no less value. My husband and I allowed each other to heal in our own unique ways, and that has made all of the difference. I think I knew I was doing okay when one day I found something funny and I let out the heartiest laugh my belly could muster. A different purpose was renewed. Tears were harder to come by. Hope for the future again sprung eternal. Life went on and so did we. 

Looking back, I realize that having a miscarriage and working as a physician in the middle of a global pandemic pushed me to my emotional and physical limits. There is a second-guessing of sorts that occurs. Did the miscarriage happen because I was under so much stress at work? It had happened in the past, was this going to continue to happen? 

I can say that I was great at compartmentalizing emotions. I'd try and box them away until I got off of work and then turn them on like a switch once I hit the driver's seat. It's easy as a busy physician with so many patients to see, messages to return, notes to write, students and residents to teach, and programs to run to completely tune out the thought of mourning. Temporarily anyway. Work was actually a welcome distraction at times. A purpose. The journey to healing is individualized and can't be rushed. I like to think that I heal a little bit more every day thinking about the losses and gains that I've had. I'm grateful for the experience and growth. 

In 2022, I'm looking forward to continuing my healing journey among the twists and turns of the pandemic. I now bring a different level of understanding and empathy to my patients who are undergoing or who have undergone a miscarriage. There will always be a piece of me that viscerally mourns with them. We have a hidden shared experience. I believe I am a better physician because of those lessons learned from my own personal tragedy. Now, I look forward to sharing big belly laughs with my family and friends and savoring the small, quiet moments with my husband and daughter. 


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