Brittany Sawyer tried to conceive for years before finding out she was pregnant in August of 2017.
“I didn’t know I was pregnant, but my boyfriend knew,” the Southfield mom says. “He’s like, ‘I think you’re pregnant,’ and I’m like ‘No, I’m not. … I’m about to graduate from medical school and I work. I’m probably just tired.'”
Nevertheless, she humored him and took a pregnancy test – and it came back positive. She was ecstatic and quickly made her first appointment to see a doctor.
After some testing, though, she was told that she actually wasn’t pregnant. A few days later, she still felt a bit off, so she went to a different provider for another blood test. They confirmed she was indeed pregnant – but had low numbers and should take it easy.
She took the doctor’s suggestion. But a few weeks later, in October 2017, things took a turn for the worst.
“We were watching TV, I got up and thought, ‘Oh, my stomach hurts.’ I felt like a cramp and (my boyfriend) started screaming,” she says. “I looked back at him and there was blood everywhere, all on the sheets.”
She rushed to the bathroom. Blood spilled into the toilet and she immediately knew that she had lost the baby.
“I felt it and I saw the little baby (in the toilet),” she says. She went back to the provider that had originally told her she wasn’t pregnant and “passed” all that was left of the pregnancy.
Sawyer had suffered a miscarriage and, according to Dr. Zeynep Alpay Savasan – a board-certified OB-GYN, maternal fetal medicine specialist, medical director of outpatient perinatal clinical services and outreach and the clinical director of the reproductive genetics program with Beaumont Hospital – she is far from alone.
In fact, miscarriage – also known as early pregnancy loss or the death of a fetus prior to viability, which is typically around the 20th week of pregnancy – is the most common pregnancy complication Alpay Savasan sees.
“Fifteen percent of clinically diagnosed pregnancies in reproductive-age women end up in being miscarriages,” she explains, adding that 30 to 50 percent of the time, reproductive-aged women will have a miscarriage before they have a confirmed pregnancy.
Despite being such a common occurrence, many of the conditions that lead to pregnancy loss are relatively unknown, Alpay Savasan says. That said, there are a few contributing factors that medical professionals believe cause them.
Causes of pregnancy loss
“Most commonly it is a fetal genetic problem, genetic disease or anomaly,” Alpay Savasan explains. “About 60 percent of the time, this is the reason. (And) with new techniques, we know that number could go up to 70 to 90 percent.”
Kari Alt, who was pregnant with a little girl whom she named Neveah in 2015, fell into this category.
“I had a regular anatomy scan at 21 weeks and that confirmed that I had a two-vessel umbilical cord. They didn’t see any brain in the scan, and they could tell something was going on with her spine,” the New Boston mom explains.
After further testing, Alt found that – in addition to birth defects, including a cleft face, a three-chambered heart and clubbed feet – her daughter’s brain never developed, meaning the pregnancy was not viable.
“My OB-GYN gave us three options,” she says. “I could continue the pregnancy and, when she passed, deliver a stillborn; induce labor and risk her feeling the pain, which would also traumatize me; or have a medical termination.”
Ohio, which is where Alt lived at the time, has time restrictions on medical terminations, so she only had a few days to decide.
“I’m religious but not really religious, and that was probably the first time in years we prayed,” she explains. “I didn’t know what to do. Do I be selfish and go into an early labor, make her feel that pain and be traumatized that my baby doesn’t look like a baby at all, or do I carry her around and deliver her later and risk my life?”
In the end, Alt decided to end her much-wanted pregnancy.
“It felt like it was the right decision. It was mentally and physically challenging, but it was the right decision,” she says. “I remember telling her internally what was going to happen and I didn’t feel like she was fighting that decision. So I was comfortable with it – I didn’t regret it and I still don’t to this day.”
Fetal genetic conditions, like the one Alt’s daughter had, are not the only reason miscarriages happen, either. Maternal uterine or hormone problems, autoimmune diseases, sperm abnormalities and even underlying parental conditions can also play a role, Alpay Savasan says – and some couples never find out what causes their loss.
“There are a lot of things unknown on how we get pregnant and carry a healthy pregnancy, and the things we have discussed can only identify about 50 percent of couples,” the doctor says. “The good thing is that of the 50 percent of couples, 45 percent of them are normal. They just seem to be unlucky to have had a miscarriage.”
Even if doctors can pinpoint the reason behind a miscarriage, an official diagnosis provides little comfort to mom and dad. Many couples who have had a miscarriage go through an emotional roller coaster after the loss, especially if they experience more than one miscarriage.
“Any miscarriage is difficult, because it is losing the pregnancy and … a family member,” Alpay Savasan explains. “When it happens back-to-back, it becomes harder and more difficult. Parents are extremely sad, very disappointed and frustrated because they are losing another pregnancy.”
Alt, whose daughter was officially diagnosed with Edwards syndrome, which is caused by a genetic mutation in the 18th chromosome, blamed herself for the issues she had with the pregnancy, though she did nothing wrong, and went into a sort of autopilot after it ended.
“Our dog peed on the carpet and I used dish soap to clean it because I wasn’t thinking. I was there but I wasn’t. I was a robot,” she says. “I just kept worrying about everyone else and never worried about myself, because I was too afraid to let myself think about it. Work gave me as much time off as I needed, but I went to work that Monday because I couldn’t be home.”
Similarly, Sawyer also went through the motions of day-to-day life after her loss, but instead of worrying about those around her, she withdrew.
“Seeing what I saw in that toilet and knowing that’s what it was – after all these years and then this is what happens – that was the hardest thing to see visually. And then the (medical) process, them doing all of these tests, and the speech – the ‘It’s not you, there’s nothing wrong with you,'” she says. “I did a lot of eating. I kind of started drinking a little bit. I was just angry. I wasn’t nice (and) I shut a lot of people out.”
When she found out she was pregnant with her son, Christopher, in March 2018, just a few months after her miscarriage, that anger turned to fear.
“I was nervous and I went through the process of, ‘Why this one and not the other one?’ I kept going back to the miscarriage. I went into a depression (because) I didn’t want to go through that again,” she says.
Even during her C-section, when Christopher’s heartbeat started to drop, the miscarriage was on her mind.
“It took me back. I started freaking out,” she says. “It took me until I laid my eyes on my baby to come to terms with it.”
Alt, who dove into trying to have another child after experiencing her loss, had a similar experience while pregnant with her son, Chase, who was born just one year and three days after Neveah “got her wings.”
“I was mad. I was really mad and I kind of wanted to prove to the universe that you can’t stop me, that you can’t do this to me again, and that’s why I got pregnant with Chase,” she says. “I was pumped I was pregnant again but I was terrified. I had ultrasounds twice a week at the end of the pregnancy and I knew he was fine – just huge – but the fear of the unknown and ‘is that going to happen again?’ is debilitating.”
In the end, both Sawyer and Alt went on to have healthy pregnancies and healthy “rainbow babies” – a term used to describe children born after a miscarriage.
Alt is currently pregnant with her second son (she’s due Nov. 10) and encourages others to try again – but to not attempt to replace the child they lost.
“When people ask me how many kids I have, I count (Neveah). She was very real, she was very there and she had a very traumatic ending, but she’s still my first baby,” she says. “Every pregnancy is going to be different, regardless of genetic factors. You can’t think each one will mirror the other. It’s challenging and it may be the longest nine months of your life, but you can go on to have 20 (healthy) kids.”
Alpay Savasan agrees.
“There are a lot of things unknown about this part of medicine, but there is help out there,” she says. “If (couples) find the right resources and the best social support for them, most of these patients will very likely have a good outcome.”
Advice From Moms Who Know
Losing a pregnancy is hard. Both Brittany Sawyer and Kari Alt have been there – and they offer this advice to moms in similar situations.
Trust your body.
“Any gut feelings you get, just go with it and fight,” Alt says. “If you think something is wrong, don’t take ‘no’ for an answer – even if it takes a while to find out what’s going on.”
Don’t bottle up your emotions.
“Write it down, talk to God or communicate with your partner,” Sawyer says. “Talk to somebody, because talking to someone else can help.”
But also, don’t force therapy until you’re ready, Alt adds. “When you’re ready for (therapy), you’re ready for it. If you’re not ready for it, you’re just wasting time.”
“Let yourself feel the emotions you’re going to feel, but don’t stop living,” Alt says. “It’s going to suck. It’s going to hurt. But you have to keep moving forward.”
Talk about it.
“Don’t just throw that experience, that pregnancy, away. Speak positively about it, even though the outcome was not,” Sawyer says.
Resources for Miscarriages
If you or someone you know has recently experienced pregnancy loss, find support and resources at one of these southeast Michigan organizations.
- Metro Detroit Share works to provide support resources to families who have lost children during either pregnancy or infancy. Services include memory boxes and keepsakes, twice-monthly support meetings and funeral arrangements in and around the Taylor area.
- Proud Parents of Loss is based in Ann Arbor and offers stigma-free support for grieving parents in the form of a monthly support group the first Thursday of every month.
- Beaumont’s Recurrent Pregnancy Loss Clinic in Beverly Hills works with women who have suffered recurring loss by coordinating programming with reproductive genetic counselors, perinatal social workers, registered dietitians and other professionals to help mom have a successful pregnancy.
- The Riley Katheryn Foundation was founded by a local mom who lost one of her twins back in 2009. Its website keeps track of perinatal loss support groups and grief counseling in the South Lyon and surrounding areas. Watch for charitable events that support pregnancy loss, too.