“We want autonomy for ourselves and safety for those we love.” —Atul Gawande
I’ve had a lot of bad outcomes lately. I guess things tend to run in spurts…bad things come in threes, or multiple patients come in with the same diagnosis after months of not seeing that diagnosis at all. Lately, I’ve been thinking about multiparity, or really, grand-multiparity. For the non medical folks, “parity” refers to the number of times a woman has given birth. When that number reaches 5, she falls into the category of “grand.” When I was doing my training in residency, it often seemed that the first pregnancy was “the worst." Meaning, if you were going to get a complication, it would more often happen with the first one. Walking in to Labor and Delivery and seeing a whole unit full of “nullips” (first time delivery) meant a long day and/or night of unknowns while we watched and managed and hoped that a C-section wouldn’t be necessary. A unit full of women who were on their second or third deliveries was much more upbeat, fast paced, certain. Of course, it wasn’t very common to have a unit full of women on their 5th, 6th, or 7th deliveries.
Burundi is very fertile country, in more ways than one! The average woman will have 6 babies in her lifetime. My clinic is flooded with women who can’t conceive, so it stands to reason that for every one of those women, there’s another on her 10th pregnancy. And, soberingly, a woman stands around a 1:30 chance of dying due to a pregnancy complication during her lifetime (UNICEF statistics from 2010). It also stands to reason that the MORE pregnancies you have, the more risk you expose yourself to. I had an attending who liked to say that getting pregnant was the most dangerous thing a woman could do with her life. OK, I think that’s a bit extreme. But oftentimes, especially in the US with a well developed medical system, we forget about the potential risks of pregnancy and childbirth, especially because the risks seem so minimum in comparison to what you get out of the deal. Even with all my training and knowledge of the complications of pregnancy, Eric and I decided to go through the process three times! (And let me tell you, I do NOT take the fact that we had three uncomplicated deliveries and three healthy kids for granted).
So, back to my bad outcomes. I had two maternal deaths in March with almost identical stories, women who should have had a straightforward delivery. Two previously healthy women, both on their 7th pregnancies, both with 6 living children, who presented to another hospital after prolonged labor. Both had a ruptured uterus (where the uterus basically tears open because it’s been working so hard to get the baby out) and a dead baby. Both received surgery to attempt repair, which failed, and were transferred to me for “better management”. Both arrived in shock. Both received hysterectomies to try and stop the bleeding. Both died within 12 hours of arrival due to coagulopathy.
I felt very powerless in the process. I felt like my best efforts were not good enough. And I felt regret for a system that tries but isn’t good enough to save these women and ensure their children grow up with a mother. And finally…I felt myself wishing these ladies had just stopped having babies. If only they had decided 5, or even 6, was the perfect number of children. If only.
These are not the first two women who have died after similar circumstances. In fact, after doing some research I found that it’s shockingly common in the developing world to develop a ruptured uterus because of long labors or limited access to care. And experiences like this color my opinions and decision making. If it can happen to those two women, why not others?
So I keep advocating for better care, and better birth control. I perform a C-section for a woman…it’s actually her 5th, and she has two living children. The surgery is a mess and takes forever, due to layers upon layers of scar tissue. At the end I tell her that we should tie her tubes because this is getting too dangerous for her. She refuses. Multiple times. I take one tube, and then the other, in my gloved fingers and think about how easy it would be to tie her tubes right now, even without her knowing. Even without her consent. Surely, she doesn’t have enough knowledge or experience to know how dangerous another pregnancy could be for her. I could probably be saving her life if I tied those tubes. Or at least, saving her from terrible complications in the hands of the next, possibly unexperienced doctor who tries to perform another C-section on her in the future. I am the one who spent years and sweat and tears and money to receive my medical training, to be able to advise and treat…my knowledge base is far superior to her own.
And then I think about why I am here in Burundi. About how much I care for these women, all of whom have suffered so much at the hands of family, husbands, an incompetent medical system, life. About how they are all fighters, and how I want what’s best for them, to empower them. And I realize that taking away one of the only choices she has, to make a decision for her, is exactly what I’m fighting against. And I slip the uterus back into her pelvis and close up the layers, and hope that she never gets pregnant again….but if she does, I hope, I hope, I hope that she lives through it.