The Alien Baby

Thanks to the cyst's failure to disappear, Dawn has had to get more ultrasounds done than the average pregnant American. It seems that many American women have become fearful of ultrasounds. Judging from the reading I've done of popular sources, more than a few non-doctors have become concerned that ultrasounds might be bad for the baby. Upon hearing of the number of ultrasounds Dawn's had done so far, a number of people have remarked that it seems like a lot and asked us if we were worried about the ill effects of all these ultrasounds on the baby.
  It seems to me that a lot of people have become very paranoid. These paranoid people actually say to me, ``Yeah, the doctors say ultrasounds are safe, but twenty years ago they said''--fill in the blank--``was safe.'' The blank is usually filled with something like ``toxic waste'' or ``nuclear power'' or ``milk'' or some other vile substance. The implication is that doctors reverse their decisions every couple of decades and that people who just assume everything is unsafe are ahead of the curve. I know women who were afraid to stay in the same room as a running microwave during their pregnancies.
  I think this paranoia just boils down to ignorance--although if we're going to be doing any boiling we'd better just use the stove. People don't know how their microwave ovens work, so they fear them. People don't know how ultrasounds work, so they fear them, too.
  Well, I'm different. I don't know how any of this stuff works but I think it's all great. I'm happy to get my dinner in ten seconds flat and I don't mind pressing my belly up against the microwave while it cooks that dinner. And I'm happy that, through the use of the magic ultrasound machine, doctors can more accurately estimate our baby's due date and possibly foresee complications. Which is what ultrasounds really do: After twenty-five years of intensive research into the safety of ultrasounds during pregnancy, the worst doctors can say about ultrasounds is that they should only be done maybe twice during a routine pregnancy, just in case. Of course, as anybody will tell you, there is no such thing as a routine pregnancy. And how do you tell if a pregnancy is going to be as close to routine as possible? Why, with an ultrasound, of course.
  Some people will actually point to a study which seems to indicate a connection between low birthweight babies and ultrasounds. These are probably the same people warning everyone about vitamin A--the same people who read too much of The New York Times and not enough real medical literature. Most studies actually indicate the reverse: Ultrasounds seem to lead to bigger, heavier babies, probably because the better birthdate estimating provided by ultrasounds leads to fewer women being induced early.
  Some people who like to pretend they read journals--but who really only read Prevention and other founts of supermarket medical wisdom--will point to a Canadian study linking ultrasounds to hearing loss. But even the researchers involved in that study will tell you that they used a very small sample of babies and that their data isn't very significant.
  So I don't fear my microwave or the power lines outside my house or alien invaders. Unless it's really late at night. And I don't fear ultrasounds because they allow us to keep an eye on Dawn's ovarian cyst without having to install a camera in her belly.

So, as I said, thanks to the cyst's failure to disappear, Dawn has gotten more ultrasounds than the average woman. About two weeks after the last ultrasound visit, we returned to see how the cyst was doing.
  The cyst was doing fine. It hadn't budged. It hadn't burst, which was good, but it hadn't gone away, either, which was bad. We had really hoped it would have the decency to vanish, but it apparently hadn't.
  While we were there, the ultrasound woman--who is becoming something of a friend--showed us some more pictures of our baby. When she first got a good image of the baby, it wasn't moving.
  ``Oh, the baby's sleeping,'' she said. Then she began to poke Dawn's lower abdomen repeatedly. ``Wake up!'' she shouted. ``Wake up in there!''
  Sure enough, the baby began to wiggle around after that. ``Whoa-ho,'' I wanted to say, ``Let the baby sleep! I'm sure it's sleeping for a reason!'' But it was too late.
  Then the baby turned so it was facing front and I got the shock of my life.
  You see, what no one warned me about was that, at this stage, the baby's skeleton is pretty much formed. And that it shows up very prominently on the ultrasound. So I was shocked to discover a skull looking out at me from the monitor. It looked like an alien baby. I expected at any moment that it would burst through Dawn's stomach, hiss, and run off into the bowels of the ship and we'd have to chase it down. And Sigourney Weaver I ain't.
[The Alien Baby]   Despite my apparent shock the ultrasound woman was sanguine and took this opportunity to measure several key things about the baby: The diameter of the head, the length of the thigh bone, the distance from rump to crown, and so on and so forth. These get entered, I imagine, into some mystical formula which returns the baby's due date. Our due date thus confirmed, we went to meet with the doctor, this one the second one we met.

We were, of course, a little worried. I was very worried because I don't like the idea of surgery. I remembered how awful my surgery had been and didn't want anyone else to go through that. I never thought I would become a neurotic person, but after my last surgical experience it even bothers me to watch surgery on television. It bothers me that it bothers me, but there you go. I didn't want to watch Dawn go through that, even if it wouldn't be quite as bad as it was for me. And if it would be worse, well, then I definitely didn't want to see it.
  The doctor came in and first checked the baby's heartbeat with the Geiger counter Doppler tricorder device. She found the heartbeat fairly quickly and it sounded fine. Then she began to go over the sonograms of the cyst.
  She was very understanding. She explained to us in comfortable tones that Dawn required surgery to have the cyst removed. She was concerned that, as the womb grew with the baby, it would put pressure on the cyst and maybe cause it to pop or twist around, at which point Dawn would need emergency surgery. It would be better, the doctor told us, if we could schedule the surgery now and thereby avoid any later problems. Surgical procedures during pregnancy, she explained, are better done during the second trimester than any other time, as the uterus is less likely to become irritated and go into premature labor in the second trimester. She wanted us to schedule the surgery as soon as possible. In the meantime, the doctor would consult with the other three doctors in the practice and see what they had to say.
  We left somewhat dazed. I am bewildered by the speed with which doctors turn your life around, from one where your body is all in one piece to one where it's going to be opened and have bits removed. There you are, walking down the street, never for a moment thinking that, just a few days hence, you'll be unconscious while someone slices you into neat sections with the best of intentions. The process by which the doctor goes from poking and prodding and taking pictures to telling you they need to get to your innards is one that always leaves me feeling buffeted. ``It's too soon!'' I want to shout. ``This went by too quickly! I need to know more: How did we end up here? What are you talking about? Are there any alternatives?'' But it seems to me that the very process which makes me want to shout also leaves me unable to do so. ``Okay,'' I say instead, and when it's all over I think, ``I sure jumped into that. What was I thinking?''
  And in this case it was even worse, because for once it wasn't me but my wonderful wife--not to mention that little baby in there, who doesn't know a thing about anything except how comfy the world is. But, reservations aside, we went about setting up as much as we could for the surgery, including making plans about getting time off from work and all the other little details.
  I put extra time into deciding what videotapes to rent while Dawn was in the hospital for the three days after the operation. I have a list of videotape titles in my head for just such occasions--not operations, necessarily, but any night when Dawn isn't going to be around. These are ``Movies To See When the Wife Isn't Home'' and they consist of scary movies or weird movies or long boring classic movies or Nude Tennis. Well, not actually Nude Tennis. Dawn's taste in movies, you see, runs along the lines of White Christmas or Miracle on 34th Street or Singin' in the Rain. My taste in movies wanders around a lot but settles near Monty Python movies, science fiction, Marx Brothers films, and cultish stuff. So you might imagine that renting movies can be quite an experience. I therefore save up all the movies I want to see for when she isn't around--which is just about never--and then I rent them.
  You can therefore imagine both our joy and my disappointment when the doctor got back to us a few days later with the news that the general consensus of her colleagues was we should not operate. Instead, they agreed, we should wait and see, watching the cyst carefully and going for ultrasounds once a month to monitor its state. And if Dawn gets a sharp, stabbing pain on her left side--right about where the ovary is--she should call one of our doctors immediately.
  This was relatively good news to the two of us--and good news for the three of us, I think--and made us feel much better. But then I had my heart set on watching at least a couple of those movies. So, to celebrate, I went out and rented one of them anyway and watched it while Dawn kept herself otherwise busy.
  It wasn't very good.

We returned two weeks after our last visit, this time for a check-up and to meet the third doctor in the practice. We had already met the two female doctors and now we were at last meeting one of the male doctors. Since we won't know which one of the four will be on call when Dawn delivers it behooves us to get to know all of the doctors before the due date.
  This doctor was older and more businesslike. He struck me as very competent but afterwards Dawn and I both thought he needed help with his bedside manner. He looked over the sonograms from our previous visits and then discussed his thoughts on the cyst.
  His discussion contained more detail than we had gotten previously. He told us that the cyst had only a single chamber, which was a good sign, and that it appeared to be a simple fluid-filled cyst, which was also a good sign. He thought that both of these facts indicated that it was just a corpus luteum cyst that would eventually go away without necessitating surgery. We'd heard this before. Then he intimated that, should the cyst still be there at our next ultrasound, he would recommend surgery.
  It seemed we were back where we started. We thought Dawn didn't need the surgery, and here he was suggesting it again just when we had stopped worrying about it. We questioned him further but didn't get much more information than that.
  Before we left the doctor wanted to check the baby's heart rate. Dawn got up on the examining table and her belly was again coated with the cold pale blue gel. Then the doctor went tooling around her stomach with the Doppler device. In contrast to the last couple of times we'd had this done, the doctor had a terrible time finding the baby's heartbeat. The doctor squished and slid, pushed and rubbed the device all around Dawn's tummy getting only static and occasional thumps from Dawn's pulse. (Apparently the womb construction workers were on break.) Finally, after several minutes of this, we heard the heartbeat--for all of two seconds, before it faded, as if it were going away from us. The doctor continued, trying to get a better reading. Then we heard the heartbeat again--and in another two seconds it faded again. This happened two more times.
  ``That baby sure is moving around!'' exclaimed the doctor.
  It sounded to me like the baby was swimming laps. But the doctor was persistent and he finally cornered the heartbeat long enough to time the rate against his wristwatch. He declared the rate to be about 140 beats per minute, which was well within the normal range.
  And when we got home and Dawn called the grandmothers to update them, both her mother and mine said the same thing: ``That's a fast heart rate! It's definitely a boy.''
  If they're right--and they do have a fifty-fifty chance of being right on this matter--we will never get them to shut up about it.
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