Pregnancy Loss Remembrance Day – October 15, 2012
Craig R. Sweet, M.D.
Medical and Practice Director
Specialists in Reproductive Medicine & Surgery, P.A.
Over the Past 27 Years:
Starting my OB/GYN residency in 1985 with completing my fellowship in reproductive endocrinology, infertility & genetics in 1991, I can recall hundreds of pregnancy losses over the past 26 years. There were so many tears, emergency D&Cs, and especially, so many unanswered questions in the tear-filled eyes of my patients.
Nearly all of the women seemed to blame themselves. They felt it was something they did wrong. Perhaps it was the sex they had with their partners. Did they cause the loss by not resting enough? Did they worry the pregnancy into destruction? Was it punishment for a prior pregnancy termination? Was there really a vengeful God? Whose fault was it? What did they do wrong? The questions went on and on. I wanted to find some answers.
The Beginning of my Research:
In 1988-9, the last two years of my OB/GYN residency, I began one of my first real research studies into the causes of pregnancy loss. At that time, we thought that about one-half of all pregnancy losses were genetically abnormal. The method used to provide this estimate was flawed requiring the laboratory to grow miscarriage cells. When the pregnancy didn’t grow well inside a perfect womb, the chances for growth in the laboratory were severely hampered. Not only did the cells frequently fail to grow with no answers provided, the most common reported result was 46,XX (normal female). The 46XX result was was reported twice as often as the 46,XY result (normal male). Understanding that there aren’t twice as many girls born as boys, we suspected that the healthier maternal cells, which are always mixed in with the miscarriage cells, overgrew the poorly growing baby’s cells in culture. Since the two different cell lines didn’t come “color coded,” there was no easy way for the laboratory to tell if the results reflected the mother’s cells (often) or the baby’s true chromosome makeup, termed karyotype. Overall, we found the karyotype truly reliable in only 30%+ of the spontaneous loss cases.
My research goal was to examine recurrent miscarriage tissue directly without growing the cells using a device called a flow cytometer. This research took many months to complete but we learned two extraordinary things:
- Direct analysis worked well and we were able to identify pregnancies with missing or extra chromosomes using the flow cytometer.
- Many of the reported “normal” 46,XX results were actually the mother’s chromosome makeup with the pregnancies themselves found to be severely genetically abnormal.
In reality, we discovered a new method to evaluate miscarriages finding answers where few had previously existed.
Quite unexpectedly, I received an award for the research in my residency and was asked to present my data at the American Fertility Society meeting (now the American Society for Reproductive Medicine) in San Francisco, in 1989, during the first year in my sub-specialty fellowship. It was this research and work performed by many others which helped us to finally understand that 70%+ of all first trimester spontaneous losses were genetically abnormal. Later, during my fellowship, I also complemented my previous work becoming co-author on research examining autoimmune pregnancy loss wherein acquired antibodies attacked the pregnancy resulting in a miscarriage. I was still seeking answers for my patients understanding that we had a very long way to go.
My Motivation: The Parents of the Perfect Imperfect Child
No matter how imperfect the pregnancy was found to be in the laboratory, these were perfect children to the hopeful parents. These innocent and extraordinarily young lives never kept a parent up all night, vomited on their favorite dress or screamed until any sane adult would cry uncle. These pregnancies and children were flawless. They were always beautiful, always bright and always wonderful. These pregnancy losses were perfect beings in the eyes of the parents as they contained every hope and dream they held for their future children. They were potential NFL football players, fishing buddies, best friends and even future Presidents of the United States. They were everything the parents ever dreamed their children might become. It makes perfect sense that they were and, even to this day, often called angels. It was so hard form my patients to loose such a perfect being.
These pregnancy losses were perfect beings in the eyes of the parents as they contained every hope and dream they held for their future children.
In Memory of my Patients and Their Perfect Imperfect Child
We still lose about 25% of all of our pregnancies and it is heartbreaking. While we certainly try their pain, no words seem to do justice for a parent experiencing such grief. For over two decades, though, my practice has been making charitable donations in memory of their pregnancy loss. It was our little way of having something good coming out of such a sorrowful event. While I doubt it made a tremendous difference in the hearts and minds of my patients, I think it gave them some level of comfort. On this 2012 Pregnancy Loss Remembrance Day, I would like to offer a gentle challenge to all of my peers to consider paying it forward by making a similar charitable donation, or performing some other act of kindness, in memory of all of our patient’s pregnancy losses. I believe it would be appreciated by our grieving patients, good for our own souls and would serve the public in a productive and kind manner.
In the Present:
Fast-forward to last year in 2011 where I was involved in a study, now 22 years later following my first flow cytometer study, using newer technology to once again examine the pregnancy tissue directly. This newer technology was called microarray analysis. Using the microarray analysis, we now obtain reliable results 80-90% of the time again providing answers where only guesses existed in the past. I now use the less expensive, rapid and extraordinarily reliable technique on nearly all of our pregnancy losses in the practice. Showing the patients that it wasn’t the food they ate, the swim they took or the short walk they had which caused the miscarriage, but rather, a terrible but uncontrollable flaw in early development of the embryo and fetus, their perfect imperfect child is extraordinarily valuable and does provide some solace.
Sill, We have Only Just Started:
I know we have much more work to do to not only understand why pregnancies are lost but what we can do to change their destiny. Will we someday be able to treat eggs, sperm and early embryos thereby healing the genetic problems before the pregnancy advances to a point of no return? We can only hope for future intervention.
I am fully aware that answering the question of why these perfect imperfect children were lost doesn’t answer all the questions or fully diminish the self-blame that is so commonly felt, but it is a good place to start.
To the memory of all of those we lost and may they keep those of us in the field of reproductive medicine humble and motivated driving us to answer the questions our patients ask of us regarding why they lost their perfect imperfect pregnancies.
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