Friday, August 24, 2007

One woman's difficult road to motherhood

For Cheryl Fink, the road to motherhood was a two-year odyssey of heartbreak and perseverance.

The first hard turn came April 19, 2004.

At 36 weeks pregnant, Cheryl left work early and headed to an afternoon doctor's appointment in Turlock. Her checkups had become so regular and routine, she told her husband, Brian, she would make it alone for the first time.

She lay on a table as a nurse used a Doppler monitor to check for her baby's heartbeat. As the nurse rubbed the gel-covered instrument over Cheryl's stomach, Cheryl asked a series of questions about what to expect with the impending labor and delivery. Then the nurse stopped answering.

"I don't know what's going on," the nurse said. "We should have been able to hear his heartbeat by now. Maybe he's just in an odd position."

The comment didn't scare Cheryl. She watched as the nurse turned on an ultrasound machine, and ran through the first test. Cheryl couldn't see the screen, but the nurse's reaction left no doubt that something was wrong.

The pitch of the nurse's voice rose like she was trying to hide her strain. A pleasant expression left her face, replaced by a look of forlorn confusion. Suddenly, everything she did had a hectic air to it.

"We need to get you to the hospital," said the nurse, seeming more confused. "But I need to finish the exam. No, they can do that at the hospital. I'll call the hospital, but you need to call your husband."

Cheryl called Brian from the waiting room, saying she didn't know what was wrong, but he had to pick her up and take her to the hospital. A while later, the Finks found themselves in a room at Doctors Medical Center in Modesto, surrounded by anxious family members. Now Cheryl was getting scared, and no one had told her why she was there.

Two hours later, specialists entered the room and conducted a series of fetal monitoring tests. A nurse stood blocking Cheryl's view of the screen. "When was the last time you felt him move?" they asked her. She couldn't remember. "Why?" she thought.

The shift came too fast for Cheryl to comprehend. A few nights earlier, she and Brian had finished the nursery; they had just bought a crib. The night before, she and another pregnant friend went for a walk, talking about how their children would share birthdays and sleepovers. In her mind, Cheryl still had not accepted the grim scenario other members of her family were beginning to suspect.

A while later, an ultrasound technician entered the room. He was all business, no eye contact. He ran a quick test and that was it. "OK, I'm done," he said, leaving without saying another word.

Then Cheryl's doctor, Catherine Song, entered the room, looking remorseful. She moved softly and sat beside Cheryl, and slowly started rubbing her fingers over Cheryl's hand.

"This is the part of my job I do not like," Catherine said, "having to deal with this part of life."

Cheryl still hadn't taken it in. "I don't know what you're telling me, I'm having a baby," Cheryl thought to herself. Then, behind her, she heard her husband sobbing. And that's when Cheryl understood her baby was dead.

But there was little time for introspection. Doctors asked if the couple planned on having more children. They said yes, which meant a natural birth was recommended instead of a C-section. And, at 6 p.m. on a Monday, doctors induced labor and Cheryl began giving birth to her son, who had died because of a knot in the umbilical cord.

"When I went into labor and it was time, I looked at my husband and said, 'I can't do this,' " Cheryl said. "That's when I really lost it. If I could hold him in, there was still that tiny part of hope, that human part of you that thinks maybe there could be a miracle. But once the labor started, I knew at that point I had to let him go. And I wasn't ready."

Monday night came and went. So did Tuesday. And Wednesday. In all, Cheryl spent nearly three days in labor, trying to deliver her first child, finally giving birth to Benjamin Fink on a sad Thursday morning.

There are no right or wrong answers to life's toughest decisions. And there was no right or wrong way to deal with what came next; so the Finks followed their hearts and did what felt right. They were given the choice whether to hold their son and spend some time with him that morning, and that's what they did. They took photographs with the child they would never know; family members held him, and they all said their goodbyes.

"I had really gotten into the mothering mode, and it felt like that had all been ripped away from me," she said. "I had no choice or input, nothing. It was just taken away. I never got to see his eyes, or have him hold my hand, or hear him laugh or cry. You feel like you've been cheated.

"The absolute hardest moment was walking out of the hospital without him. And there were other people walking out with their babies. If I had to sum up the worst moment of my life, that was it. It wasn't the doctor's office or the hospital; it was leaving there without my son."

Instead of bringing their child home, the Finks set about making funeral arrangements. It was then a funeral director posed a decidedly unique scenario. Brian's mother, Patti Fink, had died two years earlier. Her greatest wish had been to have a grandchild; years before, when the Finks returned from their honeymoon, the first question Patti asked them was whether Cheryl was pregnant.

It was possible, the funeral director said, to exhume Patti and have her and Benjamin buried together. "On earth as it is in heaven" was the first thought that went through Cheryl's mind. It made sense to other family members as well. And so, in late April, Benjamin was buried in Patty's arms.

Predictably, the tragic experience had a profound affect on Cheryl. She withdrew from her friends, particularly the ones with newborn children. It was simply too hard being around kids; they served as sad reminders of what had been lost. Everywhere she went, everyone seemed to have children. Everyone but her.

Cheryl — a marriage and family counselor who begins teaching psychology at Modesto Junior College this month — began looking for a support group for other women who had endured similar losses, but she found nothing existed in the area. So she and a colleague started a group called Helping Hearts with the aim of helping family members deal with miscarriage, stillbirth or afterbirth death. The group grew to serve more than 20 families during its first year, but slowly disbanded due to its founders' increasing outside work commitments.

But earlier this year, Cheryl got a call from Community Hospice, asking if she'd be interested in helping get the group going again; she agreed. Community Hospice currently is seeking members for the group with plans to begin meeting later this month.

There may be no one better qualified to lead Helping Hearts than Cheryl Fink. For her story does not end with Benjamin's birth and death.

Two months after her first pregnancy ended, she got pregnant again. And three months later, she suffered a miscarriage. The second tragedy, so close to the first, could have plunged her into a deeper depression. But the woman who once thought she didn't want children now could envision no other life for herself; she was determined to become a mother.

So she and Brian started over again. And, two months after the miscarriage, Cheryl got pregnant a third time. And though that pregnancy proved to be a healthy one, she was a nervous wreck for much of it. She bought a Doppler monitor and carried it with her so she could check the baby's heartbeat — "three, four, 80 times a day."

"I was only in labor for 13 hours that time," she said. "When she was born, she didn't cry at first, and it really scared me. It seemed like an eternity. Then I remember seeing her tongue move and I saw her eyes. They were open, and then I knew."

Relaxing in a chair at Starbucks in Turlock on a recent morning, Cheryl talked about her experiences as her 2-year-old daughter, Makayla, entertained herself in the café. All told, Cheryl was pregnant for a nightmarish 88 weeks during a 104-week period. Even though two years have passed, she bristles at the thought of getting pregnant again. But she doesn't say never.

The reason for that crawled into a seat beside her, and mumbled something only a mother understands.

"Oh, you want some lip balm?" Cheryl said.

Makayla nodded. Cheryl reached into her purse and handed Makayla a pink tube of lip balm.

"She's a girly girl," Cheryl said, laughing.

The mother watched as the playful little girl rubbed the lip balm all over her lips and surrounding areas. Then Cheryl looked up and smiled.

"The moment I saw her, I fell absolutely in love with her," Cheryl said. "I looked at her and I thought, 'Oh my God, I am in love with this little girl.' I thought, 'This is what it's all about.' "

Anyone interested in joining Helping Hearts can contact Sue Garcia at Community Hospice at 578-6376. Bee staff writer Ty Phillips can be reached at or 874-5716.


No comments: