Fighting For Our Lives
“I am very frustrated. I don’t understand why you can’t just be confident in our care!”
My perinatal specialist yelled these words to me when I was around 24 weeks pregnant with quadruplets. Why? Because I was asking her questions about what my children’s birth might look like. Up to this point, no one had addressed this.
This was not the first time this particular doctor spoke to me like this. Each time, her outburst was the result of me asking questions or worrying about symptoms I was having. Health concerns like being persistently tachycardic (having a resting heart rate in the 130s-140s is not fun) were minimized or pushed off till the next appointment. If I pressed, she pressed harder.
I know I am not a doctor, even though my mom really wanted me to be. My grandma was a midwife in my family’s village in Kenya. She helped deliver so many babies for families with limited access to medical care. I am here because of her and because of a long line of mothers that led to me. Through the generations, they passed on their tenderness and a fierce desire to protect.
But for this doctor, my natural, innate desire to protect my children, and even to protect myself, was somehow seen as a threat. My concerns were not taken seriously. I was not taken seriously. There was no place for my fear or input. I was not someone to be believed. Did I not have good instincts?
After that appointment, I requested to have that doctor removed from my service. I would love to tell you that I never saw her again, but as luck would have it, she ended up being the one who delivered my children. We had tried so hard to get another doctor. But it was the weekend, and she was the one on-call. Her hands were the first ones to hold my children even though she would not hold my hands as I faced so many unknowns.
For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to have babies and be a mother, no matter which profession I chose. Polycystic ovarian syndrome, endometriosis, and miscarriage made this dream seem like maybe it might not be meant for me, but we got the best and biggest surprise of our lives when we found out about the four tiny babies in my belly.
My favorite story to tell about the pregnancy is about the day my husband and I found out that there were four. Because of my previous miscarriage and some sharp ovarian pain, I was truly convinced that this ultrasound would once again bring us bad news. Instead, we saw four little ones and their tiny beating hearts. My husband and I just laughed and laughed, at the absurdity and the wildness of it all. Just pure joy.
I would love to skip to the day the babies were born and wrap the story up in a neat little fairy tale bow right here, but the truth is, the journey to my children’s birthday was harrowing and not at all what I expected—or deserved.
On the day of that joyfully shocking ultrasound, my doctor told us we would have to be referred to a perinatal specialist due to the obvious high-risk nature of a quadruplet pregnancy. He cautioned that the specialists would be talking to us about selective reduction. They definitely did, but for us, this was not an option. We had four precious little ones, and we knew we would do absolutely anything to protect them and keep them safe.
I wish I could go back and warn myself that the anxiety and heaviness I felt before that first perinatal appointment would be present at every appointment I had for the rest of the pregnancy. It got to the point where I could not go to my specialist appointments on my own. I needed someone with me to protect myself against another verbal outburst or to even just be heard.
After they were born, there were many people ready to celebrate my children’s lives as some sort of pro-life triumph, simply because we had chosen the plan for, in my husband’s words, “four healthy babies and one healthy mama.” However, this never sat right with me.
I was treated poorly. By the time my children were born, I felt like I had been at war for months defending the dignity of all five of us. The real triumph for me is overcoming all of that pain in the midst of a system that was never designed to protect me or my children.
The so-called “father of gynecology,” J. Marion Sims, gained his knowledge by experimenting on enslaved Black women without anesthesia. This legacy is still evident today in maternal mortality rates. In the United States, Black women are 3 to 4 times more likely to die as a result of pregnancy and childbirth compared to White women.
Racism and implicit bias are literally killing us.
I can acknowledge that parts of my story could be chalked up to something else, but the fact remains that I will always wonder if my poor treatment was because I am Black.
Every single day, I marvel at the miracle of us. I am grateful we are here. And I am forever grateful for the fierceness within me to fight for our lives.
Justina Kopp lives in the Twin Cities, MN with her husband, Matthew, and their quadruplet six year-olds: Cora, Raphael, Theodore, and Benedict. She is a 2013 graduate of the University of St. Thomas – MN where she studied Catholic Studies and Biology. Currently, Justina is pursuing a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota.