Mary Wakefield

The scan said my baby wouldn’t live. It was wrong

A callous sonographer who treated guidelines as facts left me and my husband in mistaken mourning

26 March 2016

9:00 AM

26 March 2016

9:00 AM

When my unborn baby was a five-month-old fetus, twisting about in the internal dark, he was given a death sentence by a man I shall call Anton.

We’d gone, my husband and I, for a 20-week scan at our local hospital. Anton was our designated sonographer; we arrived in his room bright-eyed and anxious, as even elderly first-time parents are. We looked to Anton for reassurance, but Anton looked only at his assistant, a sulky 19-year-old sexpot from Romania.

The sexpot tried seven times to dig into the vein in my right arm, then began on the left. ‘Don’t worry, good practice, try again,’ said Anton to her, kindly. ‘No, don’t worry at all!’ said I, pathetically.

During an ultrasound the sonographer runs a plastic scanner over the mother’s naked belly, and that classic grainy image of the fetus appears on screen. For Anton, this was a romantic opportunity. The hottie held the mouse — ‘She is learning the ropes’ — Anton placed his mitt over hers and together their hands glided over my belly, circling, swooping in the manner of Torvill and Dean. ‘Spine, kidneys…’ Anton whispered lovingly in her right ear, ‘head circumference, abdomen, femur…’ Can we find out the baby’s gender? I asked. Is everything OK? Anton kept schtum. Why do some sonographers stay silent, when every parent they meet looks desperately to them for reassurance?

After half an hour Anton pronounced himself done and told us to take a seat. ‘Well. Baby is quite small,’ he began.

Is that a problem? I said, not panicking just yet. Still inhabiting what was soon to be our old reality, as parents-to-be of a healthy child.

‘In this case, I think yes,’ said Anton. ‘I think either genetic abnormality or more likely placental insufficiency.’ Did he turn to see if the hottie was admiring his confident diagnosis, or is that a spiteful reimagining?

And what does that mean?

‘It means,’ said Anton, ‘placenta is failing. Baby will not grow.’

Anton had three reasons to support his theory. The first was a discrepancy between the baby’s head size (normal) and his stomach (small). The second was a relatively new test, the ‘doppler’ scan of uterine arteries. ‘High resistance,’ said Anton. ‘Baby struggling.’ The third reason was the most surreal: ‘Deep placental legs,’ said Anton. Legs? ‘Yes. Legs.’ Legs? I asked again, pointing to my own.

‘No. Leks. Leks!’ said Anton crossly. ‘Like pools.’ Oh, Lakes, I see, I said, though I didn’t. I’ve been haunted ever since by visions of these mysterious lakes, full of pitchy, murderous water, enticing babies to their doom.

Anton’s eventual diagnosis, written like a death sentence across our scan notes, was: IUGR. Interuterine growth restriction (early onset). He did mention that only the fetal specialist could make a proper diagnosis, but the specialist wasn’t free for five days. Anton also made it plain he thought our child a write-off. ‘Do you still want to know the sex?’ he said as we fumbled silently into our coats. ‘Still’? Why ‘still’? I stared at him blankly. He shrugged. ‘Boy,’ he said and turned away.

As I understand it, sonographers receive no training in how to talk to anxious parents. Most, I’m sure, need none. Some like Anton definitely do. It was quite clear from the way he spoke that he assumed we’d bin this malformed kid and start again. This is basic misunderstanding of parent mentality. For most expectant parents, after five months of pregnancy, that grainy blob is definitely a child; their child. Inevitably, irrevocably, they love it. I remember the terrible moment, at about 18 weeks, when I realised I loved the unborn blob. I quaked at the implications.

This being a real baby, not just a potential one, after Anton’s prognosis, my husband and I began to mourn. We sat for an hour in the hospital corridor, watching the watercooler belch, feeling panic and despair, then in the end, resigned. That night I had two large glasses of red wine. The next morning I visited the church where my husband and I got married and lit a candle for the unborn boy.

Then, as is the way of the middle classes, I booked and went for a private scan with a professor of fetal medicine. £150 seemed a small price to pay to shorten the wait to see a specialist. After this second scan I realised the importance of making sure that Anton and his like have not just empathy training, but a proper understanding of the tests they perform — specifically how unreliable they are.

Same type of machine, same 20-week scan but this time a very different manner and, astonishingly to us, a different result: ‘Lovely spine, lovely abdomen, perfect… hmm. Let me see your diagnosis again,’ said the professor. ‘IUGR? Pah! I’m afraid you have a perfectly ordinary baby.’ He grinned. ‘You have a boring baby!’ Boring baby. Are there two more beautiful words?

Anton’s mistake, the professor explained, was false certainty. He’d doomed my baby on the basis of measurements he should have seen only as guidelines. ‘Your baby was upside down for the first scan. This means all the measurements get squashed,’ he said. ‘They are not to be trusted.’ Even if the baby had been right way up, the measurements and how they’re interpreted are approximate. The parameters for normality used in most NHS hospitals are based on studies from the 1970s.

The clincher for Anton had been the doppler scan measuring the arterial blood flow to the uterus. This is a newish test, the professor told me, and very useful but subject to false positives. What looks like a worrying result at 20 weeks often resolves itself later on. As for the awful placental lakes — they turn out to be as mythical as they sound. ‘40% of your placenta is leks,’ Anton told me. The professor could see none at all.

Antenatal departments are full of wonderful, warm, professional people, though I don’t count Anton among them. The NHS has a duty to them, and to parents, to train them to understand the tests they do: how robust each finding is, what margin for error exists.

As I write this, my son is stretching in the sunlight beside me — a living testament to the unreliability of scans. Two weeks old, small, sometimes cross, miraculously ordinary.

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  • davidshort10

    Shocking story. I am glad it worked out all right. Congratulations.

  • Myfanwy Alexander

    Your story reminded me of events around the birth of my second daughter. After a home birth had gone wrong, it was a horrendous delivery, emergency Cesarian and a major haemmorage for me. As I was recovering, six hours later, I was approached by a young doctor who told me, in a sing-song voice that ‘Baby’ had a swelling on her knee. It was, he told me, at eleven o-clock at night, when I as alone and exhausted, either a broken leg or an inoperable tumour. ‘If it’s the tumour,’ he said, with a jaunty smile, ‘Baby will die in agony in two or three days.’ Sleep eluded me. In the morning, an X-ray revealed that her leg had indeed been broken in the wrench of delivery and she soon recovered completely but I cannot forget the callous fool who dared to speak about my beautiful girl in such a dismissive and cruel tone.

    • Mary Ann

      What a sick doctor.

  • ardenjm

    Well, thank God you didn’t give in to Anton’s scaremongering and kill your baby.
    All the same: you only realised at 18 weeks that your baby was a baby? What? Even though the heart starts to beat at 21 DAYS and the fingernails are formed by 6 WEEKS.
    And what’s this about a ‘potential baby’? I don’t understand. What did you say when you were 4 months pregnant, “We’re expecting an embryo? Could be a dog, could be a cat, has potential to be a baby though.” ? That’s just weird.
    Rather makes you wonder how many babies never make it at all because egregiously indifferent health-care professionals hoodwink ill-informed expectant mothers with their mistaken expertise.
    Come to think of it: why would you ever kill your baby at all?

    • Mary Ann

      Try to think what it must be like to carry a baby for nine months and go through childbirth knowing that the baby is going to die within hours of being born, or carrying a child of a man who has raped you.

      • Germainecousin

        Typical pro choice rubbish, always go for the worst case scenario when the facts are most abortions are due to a baby coming at an inconvenient time.

        • red2black

          Muslims aren’t pro-choice either.

      • samton909

        Actually, do some research about women who were raped and decided to have the baby .It is quite enlightening. A person’s a person, no matter how small.

  • How many millions of babies have been murdered based on false information.

  • MikePage

    Congratulations! And thank-you for this touching piece. Humanity gets lost in all the “scientific” woo-woo. You proved them wrong in the most wonderful way.

  • MC

    The quality of NHS care is variable. We have imported too many practitioners from overseas and not trained well enough of our own.
    However, having travelled to many countries, it is still an institution to be proud of. It can be improved but not with Labour or Tory or LibDem (RIP) governments. A radical shift of decentralisation is required before the patient can be confirmed out of ICU.

    • Mary Ann

      British trained people make mistakes as well.

      • MC

        We all make mistakes but misunderstanding on medication and updated literature are higher with people from subcontinent and similar. Also, the quality of training in India and Pakistan is significantly worse than in the UK.

        • jon03

          I was mis-diagnosed for 5 years. Single practice, three GPS, all Brits. Referred myself to a private doctor, fixed on first visit and I’ve never looked back. And him from somewhere in the sub-continent.

          • MC

            Whilst personal experience can cloud judgement the reality is that the typical British trained doctor and nurse is superior to a Filipino or similar

          • MC

            Whilst personal experience can cloud judgement the reality is that the typical British trained doctor and nurse is superior to a Filipino or similar

  • Bill Thomas

    Mary – I am SO glad that your baby is alive and well. The first 20 years are the worst – then it gets even worse!! But you will love every minute – really.

    BUT – FOETUS is how we spell it in yer England. I know you are sleep-deprived and post-natal and all that, but there is really no need to go down the SAmerican route with your spelling.

    Just ask that blond bloke wo used to edit the magazine.

    And I am so pleased about your baby.

  • wasteman

    they do it to abort european peoples babies

  • JimHHalpert

    Congratulations.

  • Cherry

    Congratulations on your beautiful baby!
    I had a similar experience 25 years ago. I was three months pregnant with my first (and only, as it turned out) baby, and I started to bleed on a Friday afternoon. My GP told me to go home and rest and if I was still bleeding the following morning, I was to call the hospital. I lost a lot of blood over the night so I rang the hospital and was called in that morning. After waiting around for several hours, I was seen by a very young British doctor. As he examined inside me, he said, very cheerfully, “Oh yes, you’ve had a miscarriage. We can’t do anything, so you might as well go home.” So my husband and I assumed we’d lost our baby. Purely because I was still suffering from morning sickness ten days later, I decided to visit my GP. He was appalled that I hadn’t been scanned at the hospital, so arranged for me to have a scan to check what was happening. The scan showed that part of my placenta had pulled away from the side of my womb (thus causing the bleeding) but our daughter was clinging onto the side that was still intact! It was going to be touch and go, but the baby was still alive and looked healthy. And yes, six months later, Charlotte was born, very much normal and healthy. She’s now a lovely 25 year old. So don’t always believe the doctors, even the British ones.

    • stickytape

      I know this is a late reply… but I am so glad I’m not a woman. My wife is a hero (ine) like yourself, I thank God every day that she was looking after our children rather than me.
      Best wishes.

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