Smiles abound throughout the pre-op room, but the eyes betray everyone present. They reveal the hesitation and dread of this fateful day. My patient has come to the day of the probable death of her son, Brenden. It has been a long and emotionally difficult pregnancy for the parents. Chrissi and Scott have known since the 19th week that their beloved son would eventually die because of anencephaly.
Abortion was an option presented by their first round of medical caregivers, but Brenden's parents decided on life for their son. They set out to commemorate his short life so that he would not be forgotten. They opted for our clinic's perinatal hospice program.
A Very Special Case
I think back to the first day I saw Chrissi and Scott as patients in our crisis pregnancy medical clinic. The nurse told me, "Your next patient is abortion-vulnerable and has been told that her unborn child has anencephaly." I was scared as I considered what little support I could offer this young mother and her fiancé.
But my course was set: My stance of pro-life means I promote life in all situations, even in cases of lethal congenital anomaly. I stopped and prayed, asking the Lord to give me the wisdom and ability to assist this couple to choose life for their unborn son.
Upon being introduced to Chrissi and Scott, I could see the discomfort behind the superficial smiles they wore. What could I offer them for comfort? What answers could I give that would satisfy?
I listened for a time and heard that another medical consultant had already discussed abortion as the most reasonable option for them. But they weren't satisfied with that course. We discussed the fears and reality of what lay ahead and together concluded that they would carry Brenden to term and that my staff and I would support them in every way possible.
The clinic's first complete case for perinatal hospice had begun.
Who Is the Giver?
There were many ultrasounds performed, allowing family and friends to see Brenden jump in the womb. Gathering memories was important for them, as well as for us, the clinic staff. It would appear that we were the ones giving to Brenden's family, but we received so much more than we anticipated. This brave couple allowed us to share their sorrow and impending loss and join with them in their journey toward death. It was a rare privilege: When as physicians do we see parents who know the probable day of their child's death?
Chrissi had chosen a Caesarean section because it offered her the best chance at being able to hold her son alive. However, we met resistance on many fronts as we arranged for Brenden's delivery. At the beginning of this pregnancy it was her "right to choose." But now, when she has chosen life and a surgical delivery for her son, people questioned her judgment and mine. After all, they reasoned, why go through the cost and rigors of a surgical delivery when the baby was going to die anyway?
Then the miraculous occurred: Hearts began to soften. As those involved in approving the procedure became more acquainted with Chrissi and Scott and their case, their perspective changed. Resistance faded and was replaced by curiosity about this extraordinary new family.
We now wheel her to the operating room with entourage in tow: family and friends to chronicle the events of the day and to provide support and encouragement. But Chrissi is the one doling out the courage.
The parents are finally ready to meet their son face to face, knowing that the meeting may be short-lived and very painful.
As a parent myself, I weep as I think of my children.
Brenden is delivered, and he cries his first sounds as if to tell his mom and dad that he is here. Medical knowledge says he can't sense much, lacking the upper parts of his brain. But I see him respond to his mommy and daddy with squeals. What do the experts know? God allowed him to be born this way, and his mother rejoices with tears as her wish to see him alive is granted. God has been gracious to all involved.
Following lots of photos and tears, I realize that we are so much richer for having been involved in Brenden's birth.
Later, while walking to my car for the drive home, I consider something my mentor told me years ago: "Scott, only live fish swim against the current. Dead fish float downstream with the flow." Brenden's parents, my staff and I had swam hard these past 18 weeks against the current of a culture of death. Brenden also had been swimming. Although he died 14 hours after his arrival, his parents rejoiced in the short but special time they spent with him here on earth.
Dr. Scott Stringfield, MD, AAFP, is the Medical Director of Choices Medical Clinic and the Recipient of the Outstanding Family Practice Teacher Award of 2004 from the Via Christi Family Practice Residents. This article was first published in May/June 2004 issue of Physician Magazine
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