Earlier this month, the rise in cases of the birth defect microcephaly -- linked to the Zika virus -- was declared a public health emergency. I didn't need anyone to tell me what it was. I was too familiar with something much like it.
"Hi Daddy!" That was the subject line of the email to my husband, Jason; the only explanation needed was the attached picture of my pregnancy ultrasound, 12 triumphant weeks in. There was our baby, looking cute and wise. You could even see a little nose.
"Sweeeeeeeeeeet!" Jason wrote back. "Printed and fastened to cubicle wall."
I wrapped I Love My Grandma and I Love My Grandpa books and delivered them to my parents to announce the impending arrival of their first grandchild. We had already confided our news to Jason's sister, who was also pregnant and would be due within weeks of me. We were on the hunt for a house. I'd had a miscarriage six months before, but this time -- this pregnancy -- it was going to stick. My sister was crossing her fingers for a nephew, but we wanted a girl.
Five weeks later, at 17 weeks, everything changed.
Before anyone had heard much about microcephaly at all, I knew exactly what it was. Because I'd heard a word very similar to it before.
This was six years ago, but lately I've found myself thinking about that time a lot. In December, Brazil declared a state of emergency after fears that the mosquito-borne Zika virus was related to a surge in birth defects, chiefly microcephaly -- a condition in which babies have smaller-than-average heads and underdeveloped brains.
Since then, the link between Zika and microcephaly has been proven, the World Health Organization has declared Zika a public health emergency, the virus has spread to over 40 countries and pregnant women are being told to avoid travelling to areas where Zika is present. (As for the women who actually live in those countries, some governments are flat-out advising them to just not get pregnant.)
But as soon as the first reports started trickling out, before anyone had heard much about microcephaly at all, I knew exactly what it was. Because I'd heard a word very similar to it before.
"Wow," I said, gazing at the ultrasound screen. "The head is so big." I watched as the long needle plunged into my uterus and withdrew amniotic fluid. Jason gritted his teeth as the baby arched away from the needle. After my routine blood work had come back with some mysterious results, my doctor's office called asking if I could please come in to discuss something, right away, like, today? My doctor recommended an amniocentesis. She assured me, "It's probably nothing."
Jason hadn't wanted me to have the amnio, because of the slight chance it could cause a miscarriage. He tried to talk me out of it, even in the waiting room. But I needed to know.
After a few more moments, the doctor muttered something to a nurse, who hurried out of the room. "The procedure is done," the doctor said. "But I'm sorry to tell you -- there is an abnormality."
"But it's probably nothing, right?" I said, brightly.
The next few minutes are blurry. Within moments, what felt like an entire medical SWAT team swooped in. The machines were all shut off.
"Can you get them a room?" the doctor said to someone. "A private room?"
It was a girl.
We were ushered through the waiting area full of other couples, tears streaming down our faces, into a small room. The doctor -- I don't remember his name -- came in with a medical textbook and started pointing at diagrams. It was the first time we heard the term hydrocephalus, which derives from the Greek words for water (hydro) and head (cephalus). It means water on the brain. But it's not really water -- it's spinal fluid. Hydrocephalus means the fluid isn't draining properly, making the brain and skull bulge. Our baby's head wasn't just big -- it was seriously malformed. We were booked for a detailed ultrasound the following day. They took 15 vials of blood, some from each of us.
We drove home in shock. I took the dog to the park and sat on a bench and cried and cried and cried.
It was a girl.
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