MICHELE NORRIS, host: It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block. Here's a phrase that has made many a pregnant woman flinch: advanced maternal age. That's when a woman is 35 or older at the time of delivery, and doctors start mentioning statistics - statistics that show increased risks of miscarriage, pregnancy complications and birth defects; statistics that prompt closer monitoring and genetic testing. But most likely when you're of advanced maternal age, there is a normal pregnancy between all those numbers. That's what NPR's Melissa Gray expected. Here's her story, as part of our series on women and childbirth.
MELISSA GRAY: I used to think I was a terrible gambler. At the slots, I'll play $20 and cash out when my wager is down to 17 bucks. I just cannot play big - unless it's the baby game. For me, pregnancy was about the numbers. At 38, according to fertility tests, I had a less than 10 percent chance of conception each month; IVF boosted it to 30. I got 100 percent pregnant on my second IVF cycle. I was due before my 40th birthday, which meant I had about a 1-in-66 chance of a chromosomal disorder.
My husband and I opted for early genetic testing. The odds were still good that we'd have a normal, healthy baby. Instead, we were the one in 66. With an abnormality so rare, there were no numbers to predict it: mosaic trisomy 16, or MT16. The geneticist said we probably had a better chance of winning the lottery. MT16 is capricious. Everything could be perfectly fine, or my pregnancy could end with fetal death. More likely, there would be premature delivery, low birth weight or a physical defect - anything from slightly curved fingers to a major heart malformation. We just didn't know.
This pretty much sucked the joy out of my pregnancy. At 26 weeks, our baby's growth lagged, and my blood pressure was up. Still, his chance of survival was at 60 percent. I needed to relax, so we went to the casino. We figured with our fickle luck, we might win big. But that day, we didn't. My water broke the next week, three months early, and I was put on hospitalized bed rest. We needed better odds. If we could make it to 28 weeks, our baby would have an 80 percent chance of survival. We made it. Thomas had no birth defects, but he was so very, very small: one pound, 10 ounces.
The first time I held him, two weeks later, he looked like a fledgling that had fallen from the sky, trailed by a tangling nest of tubes and wires keeping him alive. I wondered then if our luck would hold out. It did. Thomas survived and thrived. A year went by and we got a surprise bonus. I was pregnant again, despite a less than 5 percent chance of natural conception. This time, we had a 1-in-53 risk of a chromosomal abnormality, but Perry was perfectly fine.
I realize now that numbers really can't tell you much about what's actually going to happen. Sometimes you're lucky, sometimes you're not. We just happened to hit the jackpot, twice.
NORRIS: Melissa Gray is a producer here at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.