by Kenna Barrett
There’s a British sketch comedy in which hypnotist Kenny Craig plies his trade by entreating people to “Look into my eyes, not around the eyes, into the eyes, into the eyes…” Kenny is impatient. He waves his hands in your face to lure you into a trance. He stares with beady eyes. Once he thinks you’re under his spell, he tries to get one over—take your sandwich, palm a few bucks. The joke is that Kenny never really hypnotizes anyone.
Nine months ago, I lay on a hospital table, about to undergo amniocentesis. I’d had an ultrasound that suggested increased risk of Down Syndrome. My husband Ron and I chose to learn whether our little Savannah would have DS, to prepare to be the best parents we could be. I turned to Ron and said that my coping strategy would be self-hypnosis.
“You mean like this?” Ron said, doing his best Kenny Craig. Ron’s way of coping with his nerves was a cup of joe, and it was kicking in.
Around the perimeter, four doctors hovered. One was clearly the trainee, who would perform the procedure. Another was the senior doc, who would observe, and then there was the ultrasound probe-holder tech.
“I’m going to get her to sign this here,” said the fourth doctor, Study-signup Doc.
Lucky me: for the mere cost of n ounces of additional amniotic fluid, I could participate in a study on premature labor.
“The baby won’t even miss it,” said Study Doc.
Then, New Doc set up needles and some tube contraption on a tray. Immediately, things went awry.
“You hold the tube this way to get the air bubbles out,” barked Senior Doc. “Lay your needles out in a row…”
Has this new guy ever done an amnio before? Doesn’t my consent have to be informed? But this was supposed to be THE best ob/gyn practice in the country, so…may the force be with him…
New Doc spread iodine on my stomach. I gripped my ponytail and Ron placed his hand over mine. The lights went off, the ultrasound monitor glowed with Savannah’s image. I closed my eyes, and the Mexican Riviera emerged. The hammock, the sand, the aquamarine sea, Eduardo the bartender, the red cockroach invading my beach bag…
The needle’s pinch. I’m in Mexico, I’m in Mexico, I’m in…
And then, Senior Doc’s piercing voice, “To the right. To the right. The mother’s right. Not the left, the mother’s right. Mother’s RIGHT.”
The needle was not getting to my right and I thought to point my thumb in the correct direction. But I was too petrified. Is little Savannah in trouble? Is my uterus ruptured? Hey, this hurts! What’s so hard about going to my right?
“Do you want me to finish it?” said Senior Doc.
The lights in the room went back up in answer.
“Gloves are in the cupboard,” the ultrasound tech said.
Mexico vanished, replaced by the image of this still-painful needle in my abdomen. I wanted to scream and struggle free. Then the opposite reaction overtook me: everything started to fade away. Blood pressure was dropping. They better finish soon…
After an eternity of prep, Senior Doc stood over me. “You look like you’re smiling,” he said, incredibly.
“Is that how it looks?” my voice wafted.
In seconds, he had extracted out enough amniotic fluid for the karyotype—and the study—and I was done. Everyone buzzed back to their hive.
As I recovered, the ultrasound tech explained that New Doc had the needle too close to the uterine wall, not into the amniotic sac far enough, thus extracting no fluid. Oh, no, he assured me—the baby was never in any harm.
Looking back, my amnio was one step on the path to finding Savannah, a path that began with an earlier miscarriage, resulted in an emergency C-section, and began anew when Savannah arrived. The paradox of preventive medicine is that, while better than the disease, it is worse than good health.
In the end, though, I wish it had been easier. I can see why Kenny Craig was a bad hypnotist, and why this was a bad procedure. Frenetic commands don’t inspire. And when you want people to do as you say, you need to edify. Now Kenny was an autodidact. The folks at Yale New Haven Hospital should have known better.