By Kathryn “Katie” Hurst Clay
When James and I got married, I was 22-years-old, and I had just graduated with my bachelor’s degree with the intention of moving immediately into my master’s program. I knew that having a baby would complicate and prolong that process, so I did not feel like I was ready for a baby. James understood, and he never once pressured me for a baby. He knew that I had things that I wanted to accomplish, and he has always been supportive.
I’d like to take a moment to say that I have had reproductive system issues since I was an early teenager. I have had ovarian cysts for as long as I can remember. Some of them have ruptured, which is horrific and dangerous. My skin has been terrible since I was 14, which is terribly embarrassing for a teenager. I also started gaining weight when I was 17, and I have continued to gain weight since.
We decided to start trying for a baby at the end of March 2015 because I would be graduating in May. We thought that it would take a while because we knew it wasn’t easy for everyone, but we were wrong! We got pregnant immediately, and we were thrilled. We were so excited that, following the advice of our OB/GYN at the time, we announced that we were pregnant at 6 weeks when we got a heartbeat. Unfortunately, this would be the beginning of our fertility issues. I lost that baby at 8 weeks, and I had to tell the world. We were devastated. My body did not realize that I was having a miscarriage, so I had to have a D&C. When you are already devastated, the last thing you want is an invasive medical procedure, but that’s just what I had the day after we found out that our baby no longer had a heartbeat.
I cannot describe what it feels like to lose a child, but I can tell you from experience that it hurts just as much at 8 weeks as it does at or after birth. I have always had anxiety, but this was the first time that I was genuinely depressed. I was a shell of a person. I had outbursts of anger, which was completely unlike me. I was numb, or I was angry. Fortunately, I was self-aware enough to realize that I needed help. I knew that my emotions were taking a toll on my marriage. James was grieving with me, but whereas he wanted to work with me, I withdrew into myself. I saw a doctor and got medication to help. It got better, but I would struggle with depression for the next several years of our journey.
After a few months, we decided to keep trying. We did this for a year, and I never got pregnant again. We switched to another OB/GYN and tried round after round of Clomid, which made me gain weight, stay hot, and kept me bloated. Needless to say, it was unpleasant, and it wasn’t working. At this point, we discussed seeing a fertility specialist. We initially saw a fertility specialist in Savannah, and we were unsatisfied with the experience. The doctor we saw basically said, “Well, you have PCOS. That’s going to cause you to continue to gain weight and make it hard to lose. The only way you will have a baby is to lose weight. Do that and see me again when you want to have a baby.” Well, we were there because we wanted to have a baby! We didn’t feel heard. I was discouraged, and James was angry. We decided that it was best to press pause on the fertility doctor, and we did a few more rounds of Clomid. We had two chemical pregnancies, which just led to more disappointment. Then we had a whole lot of nothing for a year.
This is where our story really takes off. Throughout this journey, the medications and my PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) diagnosis contributed to slow and steady weight gain that wouldn’t come off, no matter how hard I tried. We were both discouraged, so we decided to see a doctor that came highly recommended for fertility treatments. Dr. Edourd Servy in Augusta was a blessing for us—not because he had magic answers, but because he listened to us both. He listened to our concerns and fears. He listened when I said I was doing everything to lose weight and couldn’t. He heard us, and his response was, in a very thick French accent, “We will do whatever it takes to get you a baby.” The tears of relief were numerous. We finally had someone who was beyond giving excuses and was solution-focused.
Dr. Servy ran tests on both me and James, and we started getting pieces of the puzzle that is my infertility. We found out that James and I both have the MTHFR gene mutation, which causes my body to think a pregnancy is an open wound. Essentially, my body clots off the blood supply to the fetus because it thinks the baby is actually an injury. We also found out that there was no physical issue with me beyond the PCOS and numerous ovarian cysts that would prevent me from having a baby. During one ultrasound, I had an estimate of over 50 cysts on each ovary. We did a round of medication to shrink those, then we did a round of Clomid followed by an HCG trigger shot that I was supposed to give myself. I did not get pregnant after this, so we went to the next step.
The next step was and IUI. Now, this experience was traumatic for me. I had to do another Clomid round with another HCG trigger shot, then I went in for the procedure. We had three mature eggs and one 3.5” ovarian cyst. We were told that this wouldn’t affect anything regarding the procedure, and we moved forward. While on the table having the procedure done, that cyst ruptured, and I was in intense pain I went home in pain. I couldn’t stand up straight. I couldn’t get out of the bed. Worst of all, I was afraid to take any medications for pain because I did not want anything to jeopardize the procedure. Spoiler alert, I still didn’t get pregnant.
This was October 2017. After more disappointment and the stress on my body, we took a break over the holidays. I was not in the best headspace again, and James and I were both discouraged and scared. We took a step back to make some decisions about how we would move forward. Neither of us felt comfortable with all of the gray area questions that came up regarding IVF, so we decided that would be our stopping point. We would have a full life with our animals and any nieces and nephews. We could make peace with that. We were still going to go back to Dr. Servy in January, but we had a line that we weren’t prepared to cross. James and I felt, and still feel, that IVF was a financial risk as well as an even bigger risk to my body, which was struggling with these treatments.
January 2018 came around, and James asked me if I was ready to make the appointment with Dr. Servy. I said no. He asked me again in February, and I still said no. In March, he said that we needed to make an appointment for the summer because I did not want to miss a bunch of work. I agreed, and I made an appointment for June 12 of that year. Throughout this time, we weren’t preventing pregnancy because we didn’t think that we could get pregnant on our own again. We were so wrong! I found out that I was pregnant May 8, 2018, Mother’s Day. In fact, my mama was upset that I felt so bad during Mother’s Day dinner. I thought I had the flu. James encouraged me to take a test, so I did. I remember saying, “Listen, don’t get your hopes up again. You know it’s going to be negative.” When it was positive I said, “Don’t get your hopes up because it isn’t going to stick.”
The thing about a positive pregnancy test when you are dealing with infertility is that you always have hope even if you think you shouldn’t. I went to the OB/GYN immediately. I started progesterone and blood thinners to keep from clotting off the pregnancy. I went every other day to check my HCG levels, and they tripled each time instead of doubling. We finally let ourselves get a little excited. During this time, James fell off of a tractor and injured his ankle. He was out of work and able to attend all of my appointments, and he was there for all of the ultrasounds. This is where the ride gets wild.
For our first ultrasound at 6 weeks, we found out that we were having triplets! I laughed like an idiot, and I think James almost fainted. The ultrasound tech immediately saw twins, and she thought that I had a hemorrhage. Then she said, “Oops! That’s not a hemorrhage! That’s another baby!” We were stunned! We didn’t have words for each other. We would just look at each other and shrug. I mean, we weren’t unhappy, we were thrilled. No more fertility treatments and a complete family in one pregnancy! Still, we decided that we were going to hide my pregnancy as long as possible. We didn’t want to announce and retract again. It was too painful. I even had to lie a few times to people who asked why I had so many appointments all of the sudden, and I hated it. I wanted to be excited, but I couldn’t let myself be open about it.
I was immediately referred to a maternal fetal medicine doctor in Augusta at Augusta University because being pregnant with triplets makes you automatically high-risk. Dr. Paul Browne was an absolute saint. He is the best doctor I’ve ever had. He gave me his cell number, and he answered every single time I called. He advocated for me. He diagnosed me with hyperemesis gravidarum. I’ve never been so sick and so happy about it because we were finally going to have the family we prayed for. We found out at 12 weeks that we had a set of identical girls and a fraternal girl. I told James, and we didn’t share the videos. I didn’t go out into public because I already looked very pregnant. Dr. Browne suggested we wait until 14 weeks, and I waited until 13 weeks, 5 days to announce at 10:30 PM the night before I went back to work. I knew it would be obvious when I went back. James and I finally felt like we could be excited.
I was allowed to work as long as I sat down. I couldn’t be on my feet all day per Dr. Browne’s orders. I taught from behind my desk with my feet propped up. I freaked myself out and went to the ER for nothing a few times, but we had no complications. It felt like our prayers had been answered. We were starting to relax. We were buying triplet strollers, outfits, a new car for 3 car seats, looking at house plans for a bigger house, freaking out over childcare. These were normal things all parents dealt with, and we loved it. We had to get everything done by October 1st because I was to go out on maternity leave at that point. Dr. Browne refused to let me work after that because of the risk of complications and pre-term labor after that point.
Then it changed. September 19, I went into pre-term labor. I was put on magnesium sulfate to stop contractions, which is absolutely awful. It made me feel like my bones were on fire. I was running the air at full blast with several fans. My body felt like lead. I dealt with it, and I was pleasant because it worked, but working ended abruptly for me. I wouldn’t be back for the foreseeable future. I was released to go home for mandatory bedrest for the remainder of my pregnancy.
September 21st, I went into pre-term labor at home alone. My daddy rushed me back to Augusta while James left his route at Coca-Cola to meet us there. This time, I was admitted for the remainder of my pregnancy. Every single day, I dealt with hospital life with a smile on my face. I was having three beautiful girls. I didn’t care how uncomfortable I was. I didn’t care that I had 23 IV sites from September 21 to November 4. I laid there twice a day while a team of four or more nurses held TOCO monitors at weird angles on my belly and left bruises to get heartbeats and contraction readings for 30 minutes twice a day. I didn’t care that I had to give myself blood thinner shots. I didn’t care that I had to be hooked to an IV because I physically could not stay as hydrated as I needed to be to stay pregnant. I didn’t care that my blood pressure was dangerously low because my heart was working so hard. I was glad to see them in the middle of the night when they woke me up because those nurses are saints that were doing everything they could to get my babies here. I made friends with those nurses and doctors. I still thank god for them and keep them in my prayers. They were amazing.
Throughout this time, our community was also rallying to help us with fundraisers of all kinds. I never expected people to be that generous and good to us, but it made me appreciate our community in an entirely different light. I’ll never have the right words to thank everyone for what they did. I can only tell everyone that they made the time I spent with my girls possible because we didn’t have to worry about finances during the best and worst times of our lives. We didn’t have the medical bills we would have had because we paid them off immediately with those funds. Our community allowed me and James to be with our girls. That’s something that can never be repaid.
On October 19, I was released to the Ronald McDonald House of Augusta because insurance would no longer allow me to stay at the hospital. I was out for a total of 12 hours before Elsie Ruth’s water broke. I spent 10 days in the hospital again before I delivered our precious girls at 27 weeks, 5 days on October 29. Elsie Ruth weighed 2 lbs, 4 oz.; Jamie Kathryn weighed 2 lbs., 6.8 oz., and Alice Suzette weighed 2 lbs., 6 oz. I didn’t get to see them in the delivery room like most mothers because they were being stabilized and whisked to the NICU. I got to see Jamie Kate for a peek, then she was gone. All I could think was that they were so tiny that it was scary. While on that operating table, I passed out because my blood pressure dropped. James had to watch this, and he is forever scarred by it. He freaks out whenever surgery is mentioned now. I needed 11 units of blood in the operating room. There were over 40 people in there with my team and the teams for each baby. For the first time, I was genuinely scared.
Even though we knew our girls were going to need NICU time, we weren’t prepared for the NICU, and we weren’t prepared to lose any of our children. We heard the success stories, but the women who lose a multiple don’t talk about it. We expected to do our stint to have them grow and leave with 3 healthy, beautiful girls. That was not God’s plan for us.
I was not allowed into the NICU because I developed a uterine infection from having ruptured membranes for 10 days. I was running a fever, and the NICU doesn’t bend the rules on temperatures even if you aren’t contagious. I cried constantly because I couldn’t see my babies. James refused to touch them because he said that I was going to be the first one to do that. I wish now that he hadn’t waited on me. He spent most of his time in the NICU, and I spent my time getting more blood transfusions and begging to be allowed in.
On October 30, they bent the rules and rushed me to the NICU. When I got there, there were so many alarms and medical staff around my Elsie Ruth. They were doing chest compressions on her tiny body, but I just knew by the devastated look on James’s face that she was gone. I remember screaming. To hold that tiny baby and never see her take a breath in person, to see her perfect little face and her 10 tiny fingers and toes that don’t move is one of the worst things I’ve ever experienced. I’ll never fully recover from her loss. I’ll never completely forgive my body for failing her. It’s a grief that I wear as I wear my own skin. It’s part of me. It’s more permanent than any tattoo. For the first time in my life, I wanted to die. The only thing that kept me from laying down and never getting up again was the fact that I still had two babies to pump for who needed me.
So I pumped. I cried. I was released from the hospital. I saw other babies come and go, and I stood vigil over my Allie Sue and Jamie Kate day and night. The nurses begged me to go get sleep. They begged me to eat. They reached out to me and talked to me. I scared a lot of people. To make it all worse, my incision from my c-section opened back up twice. That’s when I lost it. I was in the labor and delivery ER when my mama pulled the doctor aside and told him I needed more help than I was getting because she was afraid for my life. To be honest, that fear was justified, but I was trying so hard.
Allie Sue had some issues from birth. She had trouble breathing and never breathed on her own. She continually got worse, and I had to leave her for Elsie Ruth’s funeral. My best friend, Jodi Ogden, drove all the way down from Atlanta to sit with my babies to give me live text updates while we went to Elsie Ruth’s funeral.
Allie Sue kept having blood pressure and kidney function issues. We prayed over that baby. I begged God not to take her from me. She got better, then she had a stomach perforation, which is common for babies on longterm breathing support. I was by myself and had to make the decision to allow emergency surgery to fix her stomach. They did the surgery, and she rapidly deteriorated. She developed NEC (don’t Google this—there are some things you never need to see), and she coded. They brought her back, but we were forced to make a decision: do we continue to do this to her when we know the outcome, and we did know the outcome, or do we let her go and be at peace. James and I made the decision to remove life support on November 21, 2018. She passed away in James’s arms after we held her and loved her. I’ve never shared pictures of Allie Sue from this time, and I never will. She was so sick, and she didn’t even look like a baby. I’m thankful for the time I got with her because she taught me to fight and to advocate, but her loss is another that has forever altered me. It’s another part of my skin. At this point, I gave up.
I went back to Ronald McDonald House, got in the bed, and I never intended to move. I never woke up. I didn’t move to eat or drink. I didn’t talk to anyone. I watched cheesy Hallmark Christmas movies like a robot and didn’t move. I wouldn’t have moved if James hadn’t been there. He forced me to get up even when I fought it. He made me go to the NICU to see Jamie Kate even though I felt like I let her down in the biggest way possible. I pumped because he brought me the parts when I couldn’t move to get them myself. He was there when I needed him most. He was there for Jamie Kate. I knew I loved him unconditionally before we ever decided to have children, but our relationship is so much stronger now because of these experiences. It wasn’t always, but it is now.
Jamie Kate has been a sassy rockstar since Day 1. She was off invasive breathing support her first day out of the womb. She made faces and entertained everyone. She fussed and cried and grunted. She is a miracle. If you ever need a reason to believe in God, look no further than my daughter. We were told she might have all kinds of problems, but she doesn’t. No breathing problems. No eye problems. No hearing problems. She came home on a feeding tube, and, with therapy, that was gone within the first year. She’s strong-willed now, and she always has been. I’ve never been more proud of anything or anyone in my life. She is fearless, and I hope that her spirit is strong enough to withstand this world we live in. I thank God for her every single day. She is the person who really saved me because I’m not sure I would have listened to anyone if it hadn’t been for her.
There isn’t one single day that I don’t think about my girls and wonder what it would be like to have them all here. I can tell you that it would be chaotic, but I would love every minute of it. I look at how wonderful Jamie Kate is and I’m thankful while I also feel overwhelming sadness because she’s an only child when she should have had sisters for life. I worry that she will feel some sort of guilt when she is older or if she feels their absence the way I do. I just have to trust that God has a plan even if I don’t understand. If I can’t do that, I will drive myself insane. I do know what question I’m asking when I see him: “Why give me my girls to take them away?” If that’s the only one I get to ask, I will be satisfied.
As far as my fertility journey goes, I think it’s over. James and I are too traumatized from our experiences to go through the process again, and the risks associated with another pregnancy after a very complicated c-section are just too high. I have to be here for Jamie Kate and James and our wonderful supportive family that was there throughout this entire process. I could write an entire novel over just the involvement of our parents in our journey because they are an amazing support system. If God wants to give us another baby, we will gladly have another baby, but we aren’t asking. I also think it’s time for me to focus on my health. I have not been the same in many ways physically and emotionally since my pregnancy and the loss of my girls. I left my job teaching at Swainsboro High School that I genuinely loved because I couldn’t stomach going back to it. I now work from home. I still have some work to do on myself so that I’m the best version of myself for my daughter. I don’t think our family will ever feel complete because we still feel the absence of Elsie Ruth and Allie Sue daily, but we have found happiness in the life that we have been given, and we are thankful. We don’t take it for granted the way we did before. We are kinder, gentler people. We are forever changed.
My advice to those walking the path of infertility is to find someone willing to listen. Keep asking the hard questions. Keep pushing. Be prepared that things will never go according to your plans, but keep the faith. Trust God even if you don’t always agree with his decisions. There is a reason even if we can’t see it. Don’t let the intrusive questions of, “When are you going to have a baby?” get you down. Stand up for yourself and tell people it’s private. Do what is best for you, and don’t apologize. There is no shame in infertility. There is no shame in loss or grief. Anyone that tells you otherwise is ignorant of what it means to lose something so precious and personal. Most of all, know that it isn’t your fault. I’m rooting for you!