How An NT Scan Taught Me About Parenting

When a dad-to-be is faced with a devastating outcome, he learns to become a father

Note: None of this article contains medical advice or scientifically proven medical information. It is only meant to relate my narrative associated with an NT Scan.

At week 12 of our pregnancy, my wife and I were headed to the medical center to have standard genetic screening tests of the baby. These tests are used to determine the likelihood of the baby being born with a genetic abnormality. Neither of us had any history of genetic disorders or heart conditions in our family, and we felt confident enough to consider this visit nothing other than routine.

Within moments of beginning the ultrasound, the ultrasound technician honed in on an area behind the baby’s neck known as the Nuchal sac. This is standard operating procedure for the Nuchal Translucency scan, a key part of early genetic screening. A high measurement in this area could indicate a risk in the pregnancy, usually Down’s syndrome, Trisomy 18, Trisomy 13, or an open neural tube defect.

This was our first child and all of these ultrasounds and tests and probing doctors was completely new to us. 

Call it instinct, maybe, but the moment I saw our baby’s Nuchal sac I just knew something looked off. So when the technician took several screen captures of our little nugget before a stern and squat looking doctor came in, I was worried. 

The doctor speedily took even more screenshots. He remained calm and professional while he whipped the scanning tool around my wife’s belly trying to get multiple reads on the fetus. I waited patiently but nervously as the doctor continued to measure the NT from different angles. It was clear to my wife and I that he was looking for something.

Clutching tightly to the squeaky vinyl of my armchair, I held my breath and listened to the doctor’s diagnosis. I knew that bad news was coming, and I certainly hadn’t prepared for it. 

Our baby had an NT measuring in at 4.0 cm, which was higher than what the doctor would “like to have seen”. My clammy hands and tight face fell numb. I tried desperately to focus on all the options this doctor was tossing at us. I didn’t understand why at the time, but I could tell that he was delivering us unsettling news.

He abruptly left the room, and my wife and I found ourselves staring at each other in shock.  Suddenly we were alone to make a call regarding our baby. We were no longer children navigating through life, experimenting with our futures and testing the waters. We were now two adults dishing out futures and destinies with no instruction manual. 

Do we take the invasive amniocentesis? Or the non-invasive blood test? Or do we do nothing if this doesn’t affect our desire to have the child? We couldn’t lean on anyone to help us make this decision—this was our baby and we’re the parents now.

We opted for the non-invasive blood screening.

Next thing I knew, my wife and I were whisked away to another room to fill out more paperwork before being sent through a hall down an elevator up a flight of steps and around a corridor to another section of the medical center to give blood. I sat dizzily in a waiting room trying to catch my breath while my wife was submitted to more poking and prodding. I wanted to laugh the whole thing off like I would have a year ago, but I couldn’t—this was real.

We had a six hour drive to Virginia directly after our appointment, regrettably providing ourselves plenty of time to concentrate on this terrible news. My wife and I used to spend these road trips cranking bad music and having sing-alongs. Instead, we sat in silence and let our minds follow the horizon. We used to talk about our future and play stupid cow-counting games.  Not this time.

We read every research article on NT scans that we could find.  We talked gravely and talked seriously.  We tried to keep each other positive. We dealt with the fact that we wouldn’t know anything for at least two very long gut-wrenching weeks. We talked about losing the baby. We stopped playing the Name Game. We stopped any means of giving this baby an identity for fear of having to face the worst possible outcomes. We tried our best to not worry and to take it all in strides, but we couldn’t stop marinating on it. 

Those two weeks were wrought with all sorts of emotional ups and downs. Utter terror set in at the thought of never getting to know this nugget. Hopelessness followed because genetic makeup is decided in the first few moments of conception, and there was nothing we could do about this. 

I even allowed myself to feel the boundless joy that would spill over me if/when I learned that our baby would be okay. I garnished all of that with optimism, convincing myself that everything would work out. My wife is tough, I’m tough, and our unborn baby is tougher. These are just doctors being doctors. As my father would tell me, “If you look long enough, you’ll find something that doesn’t look right. It’s probably nothing.” I know he was scared, but he still said it.  He said it to his kid.  And that’s what being a parent is about.

After trying to hold it together for what felt like forever, my wife called me one morning at work. The results were in.

I could feel the relief wash over me: the results came back negative. 

After a screening of the heart and a few thousand more ultrasound snapshots, the doctor seemed confident. I know I kept my composure in that tiny exam room, but I could feel my soul slipping to its knees and raising its hands in exuberant triumph. Before even leaving the womb, my child has shown me infinite, tear-inducing joy. In the same vein, my child has already introduced me to the fear that would reach through my chest and grip my heart for a beat or two. And with more screenings and tests to come, my child has riddled my mind with an anxiety that cannot be unwound. I may have yet to hold this baby in my arms, but I am officially a parent.

“Try not to worry.” That was the biggest piece of advice I received from the medical professionals, including the genetic counselors, that my wife and I dealt with during this ordeal. Not fully understanding all of the details or getting concrete answers made it difficult. It’s frightening being told not to worry when you’re not sure if you should be worried in the first place. We were left to figure it out on our own.

Our OBGYN gave us the only professional advice that I would ever be confident passing on:

“Just try and breathe.”

Now that I’m a parent, I follow this advice every day. 

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