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Down syndrome scare — what if it's your baby?

As a nearly 41-year-old mother of a child under 2, I was happy to hear Sarah Palin just had a baby at 44. I haven't ruled out having a second one and I told myself, see, women even older than me are having kids.

Then, I found out her baby has Down syndrome.

I felt sad — sad for the baby, his parents, his whole family. Then I heard that voice that whispers, "Yes, you're too old to have another baby.''

I was 38 when I became pregnant and 39 when I delivered my perfectly healthy baby girl. From the start of my pregnancy, I felt like an old lady running a marathon. Every visit included some precaution for "women my age'' and a pat on the back for doing so well thus far. Doctors labeled me as advanced maternal age, a tag put on every pregnant woman 35 and older.

They gave me a few choices. I could skip to the chase and have an amniocentesis — a procedure in which a fine needle is inserted into the amniotic sac and fluid is drawn out for testing — that would definitively test for Down's but also could result in a miscarriage. Or I could do some blood tests and ultrasound screenings, which hopefully would show the risk of Down's to be very slim. I also could do nothing.

I opted for the less, but not least, intrusive option. I didn't want to risk the baby, but I also didn't want a life-changing surprise.

I remember the nurse calling with the results. The tests didn't come back like we would have liked, she said. Your baby has a one in 42 chance of Down's.

What?

One in 42 can play tricks on you. If you throw 42 cards face down on a table with one labeled Down's, you probably won't pick up that Down's card. But tell someone they have a one in 42 chance of winning the lottery, and they might start calling a financial planner.

I hated it.

A few difficult days later, I decided to have an amnio. I trusted my doctor and felt confident the procedure would be safe. I was running out of time before I had to make the decision no parent-to-be ever wants to consider, much less actually have to make.

The test said my baby had the normal number of chromosomes. She didn't have Down's.

We quietly rejoiced God's grace, never uttering aloud the "what if.'' Privately, before pregnancy, we had talked about what we would do if our child had Down's or another serious genetic abnormality. At the time, the answer seemed certain.

Then a new life forms, bringing new hopes, possibilities and expectations. Suddenly, the answer seems anything but certain.

I imagine Palin and her husband, Todd, thought long and hard about having a child with disabilities. They must have worried about how other people would treat him, how even they would treat him.

In the end, she says their choice was absolute. Baby Trig is absolutely perfect in their eyes.

As I watched Palin hold Trig on the stage of the Republican National Convention, I wondered what she must have been feeling the day she found out he had Down's. I wondered about Trig's future and how they'll cope with the challenges.

I wondered what I would have done in their situation and pray it's a choice I'll never have to make.

Susan Thurston can be reached at (813) 225-3110 or sthurston@tampabay.com.

Down syndrome scare — what if it's your baby? 09/09/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 16, 2008 1:28pm]

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