Editor’s note: Elizabeth Cohen is the award-winning senior medical correspondent for CNN’s health, wellness and medical unit, and author of “The Empowered Patient.”
PALO ALTO, Calif. — Last week, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg bravely shared his and his wife’s experience with repeated miscarriages and, in doing so, helped countless people.
“The pain is so intense and the sense of grief is real,” a user named Jennifer shared. “Thank you for letting other couples know that they are not alone.”
Personally, Zuckerberg’s post brought me back to a moment in 2003 when I lay on our couch in the aftermath of my own lost pregnancy.
I was 11 weeks pregnant with our third child, but unlike with those textbook-perfect pregnancies, this time, I’d started to bleed. An ultrasound showed a profile of a beautiful and perfect baby but without a beating heart. It was hard to let go, because except for the heart that didn’t move, this baby’s image looked just like the early ultrasounds of our first two beautiful daughters.
After the miscarriage, crying was one coping strategy, and it certainly helped. Care from my lovely, attentive husband was even better. As I lay on the couch, I thought of a third: to call all my friends who’d ever had miscarriages and talk to them.
And then I realized: That was most of my friends. I was in such good company. One of my best friends from college had a miscarriage. So had my sister. A writer and an editor and a producer at CNN had all lost pregnancies. Calling them, one after another, in rapid succession on that couch made me feel so much better.
Zuckerberg, the creator of the biggest social network on the Internet, knows this truth: There is such strength and comfort in hearing from people who have walked your path before you. They can console you, and they can teach you. I’ve been struck time and again in my reporting by how much people learn from others who are even just a little more experienced than they are with whatever health struggle they’re facing, whether it’s a cancer diagnosis, a child with a serious health problem or a miscarriage.
We were fortunate that my miscarriage was never repeated. Three months after losing that baby, I became pregnant with our third daughter and two years later with our fourth. Whenever we look at our brood, we feel so blessed.
Some women like Zuckerberg’s wife, Priscilla Chan, suffer multiple miscarriages, which is much, much more challenging and heartbreaking, and probably much harder to share with others. As Zuckerberg points out, “You worry your problems will distance you or reflect upon you — as if you’re defective or did something to cause this. So you struggle on your own.”
That’s why it’s so important that people do reach out to each other for help. A few years ago, I wrote an Empowered Patient story about Melissa Arnold, a Texas woman who lost five babies in less than three years. She might have continued losing babies if she hadn’t reached out to a woman she didn’t know: Darci Klein, a mom in Massachusetts who wrote a book, “To Full Term,” about her triumph over pregnancy loss.
Arnold’s doctors had advised that her pregnancy losses were just a fluke — just “nature’s way” — and that she should keep on trying to get pregnant. Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common response from doctors when a woman has multiple miscarriages. Instead, medical professionals should consider that the woman may have an underlying health problem. Klein encouraged Arnold to seek testing, and she learned that she had a genetic mutation. After being treated with baby aspirin to prevent clotting, Arnold went on to have a full-term pregnancy.
I’ve seen it time and time again: the cancer patient who learns of a new treatment not from her doctor but from another patient online; the parents of a baby with a heart defect who find the best surgeon from a Facebook group; the patient with a rare disease who gets the name of a leading expert from another patient. Reaching out isn’t just something to do to make you feel better; it can actually help solve your problem.
Thanks to the networks that Zuckerberg and others have created, there’s no need to struggle on your own. Or as in my case, with a very common problem such as one-time pregnancy loss, your community is immediately apparent. You don’t even need a computer. Either way, there is almost assuredly someone else who’s suffered as you have but is smarter for having already made the journey.