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Published in: JOURNAL, pregnancy

On Trauma, Red Flags, and Bodily Autonomy During Pregnancy

Jaclyn DeVore is a writer, editor, and former psychotherapist who now proudly spends her days immersed in motherhood. 

Today, Jaclyn shares her story of medical incompetence during pregnancy. 

Trigger warning: sexual violence

After our third visit to the midwife, my husband said, “You’re never going back there.”

I was 10 weeks pregnant with our first child and so shaken that I could hardly walk.

At our first visit, we’d brushed off the odd “I wouldn’t even be talking to you right now if you weren’t pregnant” from the nurse practitioner we met.

We’d given grace to the ultrasound tech who, during our second visit, maneuvered her transducer like she was trying to land a spiraling jumbo jet inside my vagina as I struggled to breathe in the moments when I should’ve been celebrating the sight of our baby’s heartbeat.

Despite these red flags, we kept on in the name of optimism (and our insurance plan).

This time, we’d followed the midwife through the fluorescent maze to her office, where she told us all the medical requirements of pregnancy: a flu shot, booster shots, a glucose screening that involved me drinking a chemical-laden liquid made by a laboratory supply company.

Was I pregnant or was I some sort of medical test subject?

I felt my whole being begin to constrict.

After years of medical mistreatment, including a dangerous misdiagnosis in my twenties, I would not blindly consent to anything. I’d learned by now, after three decades, that I knew my body best. So I’d asked the midwife about other options—especially alternatives to drinking Glucola for the glucose challenge.

She’d asked, with growing adversarial zeal, why I needed other options. I explained that I don’t consume artificial flavors or colors, or anything with soy, because my body doesn’t react well to those. Without trying to hide her impatience or irritation, she told me Glucola didn’t have soy (it does, confirmable by a quick internet search) and that there’s “a version without dyes.”

If I didn’t drink it and complete the test I’d have to be treated as if I had gestational diabetes, which required pricking my finger daily to test my blood sugar.

My husband and I exchanged concerned looks—not just about the Glucola but about this so-called care feeling more like a battle—as we’d walked into the exam room, where I had to don the classic humiliating hospital gown and press my feet into the cold stirrups.

The midwife then proceeded to execute the single most painful pelvic exam of my life. I began to cry and wondered if her fingers were abnormally large, maybe the size of telephone poles, before the stark and sterile room dissolved and the grip of my husband’s hand faded to a ghostly tingle.

I’d entered a different dimension then, one without any words or language or orientation—just sensations and the blurry imprints of a child’s fear.

“Did someone hurt you; how old were you; did you know them?” the midwife asked me. Despite having put a checkmark in the uncomfortable History of Sexual Abuse box on my paperwork, my tears flustered her and she reacted with a rapid-fire interrogation.

I could hardly remember my name in that moment (and it was naïve of her to believe I’d had only one perpetrator, as her questioning suggested), so I mumbled incoherencies and apologies as her assistant handed me tissues. They both looked at me as if I were some sort of exotic zoo animal. But I wasn’t.

I’m a trained trauma therapist, so I know trauma-competent care when I see it. This wasn’t it.

The midwife proceeded with yet another pelvic exam, marginally gentler this time but still against my wishes. “Please don’t,” the only thing I’d managed to say clearly.

“I have to,” she’d said. “It’s required.” I guess we all have boxes to check. She then offered to “write in big letters” on my chart about my “condition” so that the whole office would know right away that I’d “been raped” (thank you?), and then questioned my ability to “handle labor” before sending me for a blood draw, where the phlebotomist had me sniff an alcohol pad to stay conscious.

I wish that were the end of the story, that I’d heeded my husband’s desire to never return to that place. And I wish that it hadn’t taken such a (re-)traumatizing situation to discover that we had other, better care options.

But after finding a birth center where shots, cervical checks, and pelvic exams weren’t mandatory, and that offered organic grape juice instead of Glucola, we choose to go back to that office one last time for the anatomy scan—because we (and our insurance) had already paid for it.

This was a mistake. After the ultrasound, we called family to tell them “It’s a boy!” as we waited to see the doctor, who we’d never met before. She walked in on one of our excited conversations, bringing a palpable mood shift.

After telling us her name, she shamed us for declining the genetic testing at 10 weeks and told us that she had to refer us to her affiliated (and extremely expensive) high-risk specialist because there was a cyst on our baby’s brain and they didn’t get full views of his heart, “so structures may be missing.”

We asked what that meant. “He could very well have a genetic disorder called Trisomy 18,” she’d said. And that really was our last visit.

I’d like to believe that what seemed to us fearmongering was just compassionate caution on her part, but I’m not convinced. As it turns out, Trisomy 18 is incredibly rare; choroid plexus cysts are not.

I called a good, no-nonsense friend of mine, who happens to be an OB/GYN, after the appointment and asked her opinion. “Oh, don’t worry about any of that. They took the scan at 18 weeks, which is still early. The research says cysts like that are probably a normal part of early brain development, so just get another scan later. And,” she added, “they really shouldn’t have jumped to Trisomy 18.”

Yet the seed of fear had been planted, and I spent weeks off-and-on crying, feeling anxious about this seemingly ominous cyst and its potential indications.

Our new care providers had a gentler way of talking about the need for another scan: “We’d like to make sure there are no risks because you’re having an out-of-hospital birth, but we don’t expect to find anything wrong.” That simple qualifier relieved the fear for us.

At the scan, our reviewing doctor said she was elated to tell us that our baby looked incredibly healthy. Our birth turned out to be a beautiful, swift, and unmedicated one. It wasn’t perfect, but it was close.

Our son—who is now two-and-a-half and patiently awaiting his baby brother’s arrival—is indeed incredibly healthy. And now this mama knows to trust that red flags are not a sign to stick around and see if a provider might become a better match; the flags will only turn a deeper crimson. Providers who respect bodily autonomy, trauma histories, and medical freedom will do so from the start.

image: mary beth edelson

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