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National Institutes of Health Bethesda, Maryland
As we sat in the stark basement waiting room in of one of the National Institutes of Health buildings, I thought Patti was more anxious than I was. She cuddled one-year-old John Paul on her lap, her left foot jiggling. Sitting next to her, Hunter held her hand. The three of us had the room to ourselves and we seemed to have run out of small talk after the long drive from the Outer Banks.
A dark-haired woman appeared in the doorway. The name on her white coat read S. Barron, RN. “Caroline Sears?” she called. She had a Northern accent, I thought, much stronger than Hunter’s. She’d barely pronounced the r in my last name.
“Yes,” I said, getting to my feet. “Can my sister and brother-in-law come in with me?”
“That would be fine,” she said. “Follow me.”
I walked ahead of Hunter and Patti as we followed the woman down a long bare corridor to a room nearly at the end. Inside the small room were six chairs arranged in a semicircle. The only other furnishings in the room were tall metal file cabinets that filled one wall.
“Have a seat,” the woman said.
I sat next to Patti and John Paul, who was beginning to fuss. He’d been an angel during the long car trip, but I think now we were all getting stir-crazy. Hunter took him from Patti’s arms and began bouncing him gently on his knee.
“I’m Susan Barron,” the woman said, settling into her own seat, a clipboard and file folder on her lap. Her gaze was on me. “I’m one of the designers of the study, though I won’t be the person doing your examination,” she said. “My role is to gather some information from you beforehand, all right?”
She opened the file on her lap and glanced at it. “You’re twenty-six years old, correct?”
“We received the records from your obstetrician, a Dr. Michaels. You’re about twenty-four or -five weeks along at this point?”
“And your pregnancy has been uneventful until your last exam?”
“Well, last two exams,” I said, shifting on the seat. I was tired of sitting. My legs ached. “Dr. Michaels told me a month ago that my baby’s heartbeat was irregular, but he didn’t think much of it. This last examination, though, he was more concerned.”
“Right,” she said. “And I don’t know how much information you were given, but our study is actually full. We have all the patients we need at this time. However, your brother-in-law here”—she looked at Hunter—“is a puller of strings, I see, and he was able to get you in.”
I smiled past Patti at Hunter. He sat there looking modest, but she was right. Hunter was a puller of strings. A fixer. I didn’t think there was anything that he couldn’t make right. Except for Joe. He couldn’t fix what happened to Joe.
“So you need to understand that this study is in its very preliminary stage as we explore the uses and limitations of fetal ultrasound,” she continued. “The technology is years away from being used on any regular basis and the images we can obtain are somewhat primitive. However, our previous study, as well as several recent studies elsewhere, had very good results in terms of accuracy, but not in every case, and I need to be sure you understand the limitations.”
“In other words,” Susan continued, “let’s say the ultrasound results appear to tell us there’s something wrong with your baby’s heart. They might be inaccurate. Conversely, they might give us the impression everything is fine when it isn’t. I want to be sure you—”
“I understand,” I said. Hunter had told me all of this. He’d explained the mechanism of the ultrasound. It was simply incredible to me that it was possible to visualize my baby while he—I felt certain it was a he, a miniature Joe—was still inside of me. Hunter said it wouldn’t hurt at all. He’d read about it. He was the founder of his own company, Poole Technology Consulting, in Research Triangle Park—RTP—where he worked with enormous computers. He had access to all sorts of technology and material the rest of us couldn’t imagine.
“Your baby’s father,” Susan said, looking at the folder on her lap. “Your brother-in-law told us he died recently?”
“Vietnam,” I said. “Right after Thanksgiving.”
“How difficult for you,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
“He didn’t even know about the baby,” I said. “He was only in Vietnam a couple of weeks.”
Patti rested a hand on my arm. It wasn’t a gesture of comfort so much as a warning for me to stop talking. Once I started talking about Joe, it was hard for me to stop. It was so unfair. Joe had been a structural engineer and we thought he’d be safe, away from the action. “I didn’t discover I was pregnant until a few weeks after I learned he was killed,” I said.
“Will you have help with your baby?” Susan asked, attempting to change the subject. I didn’t hear her at first, my mind back on the day the captain and second lieutenant showed up on my doorstep with the news that literally brought me to my knees.
“Yes,” Patti said when I didn’t answer.
“Yes,” Hunter agreed. “She has us.”
“I live with them now,” I said, coming back to the present.
“And where is that?”
“Nags Head,” I said. “The Outer Banks.” After Joe died, I’d moved from Fort Bragg into our old family beach cottage where Patti and Hunter had been living for the past couple of years. I’d expected the move to be temporary—just a few weeks off from my physical therapist job in a Raleigh hospital. But when I found out I was pregnant and my obstetrician told me I needed to take it easy, Patti and Hunter said I could stay with them as long as I wanted. Hunter worked three days a week at his consulting firm in Raleigh and I knew Patti welcomed my company when he was gone.
“Where are the Outer Banks?” Susan asked, confirming her Northern accent. Anyone south of the Mason-Dixon line knew where the Outer Banks were.
“North Carolina,” Hunter said before I could answer. “About six hours from here.”
Copyright © 2018 by Diane Chamberlain, trustee of the Diane Chamberlain Living Trust