I'll Never Again Say 'It Can't Happen To Me'

by Elaine Roth
Originally Published: 
pregnant woman sitting on bed
Deby Suchaeri/Getty

I was thirty-one weeks pregnant with my daughter when she went still, when my healthy, easy pregnancy became a one-in-a-million scenario that neither the doctors who performed my emergency C-section nor the NICU nurses who took care of my daughter had seen.

As I sat shivering in the operating room while the doctor injected me with an epidural and a crash cart was rolled into the room and someone somewhere made sure there was extra blood on hand because I was suddenly dangerously high risk, I couldn’t help but think: This can’t be happening to me.

I was healthy. My pregnancy was nothing if not average and boring and wholly uneventful. Until one day it just wasn’t.

I still don’t quite understand what happened, or how it happened, or—the biggest question—why it happened. But it happened. It was an anomaly with a happy ending that became a story in a medical journal.

Just six years later, I found myself again saying: This can’t be happening to me. Or, more accurately, this can’t be happening to us. My then 38-year-old husband was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor that affects less than 1% of the population.

As the doctor read the results of that first MRI, all I could think was this can’t be happening to us. Because the odds were in our favor that this wouldn’t happen. And because we tried so hard to stay on the right side of karma. And especially because we’d paid our dues once before, when we’d spent fifty-six days watching a baby cling to life, learn to breathe, learn to feed.

Eventually, as denial turned to numbness turned to acceptance, I again looked at the statistics. They were in his favor. The disease was terminal, but some people survived, some people beat the odds. And we (the doctors and he and I) believed he’d be one of those people. He checked nearly every box in the category reserved for people who defied the odds. He was young. He was healthy. He had the right genetic markers, access to excellent health care, and the right mentality. He would be one of the ones who survived more than two years; he’d survive long enough for someone to find a cure for this vicious disease.

He died twenty months after diagnosis.

And I was left a young widow. Another statistic anomaly. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 1.2 percent of widows are under the age of 39. Because widows are older, right? The image of a widow is a stooped, gray-haired woman with a swarm of grown grandchildren huddled around her. Widows aren’t thirty-five. Widows don’t have two young children. I was once again on the wrong side of the statistics.

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages around us, my anxiety is as high as any single mother’s. The worries range from the trivial to the tragic, from how will I survive months on end without adult interaction to who will care for my kids if I get sick?

It’s this last one that keeps me up at night, that has me reading accounts of the onset of symptoms, studying the severity of headaches and breathlessness, noting the energy levels of afflicted people and analyzing whether I’d still be able to act as a caretaker (without infecting my children) with all those symptoms. That has me studying the characteristics of the people who’ve needed medical intervention, finding reasons to distinguish myself.

The line I hear most often in an effort to curb my anxiety is not to worry. I’m staying home and taking every precaution for those essential trips to the store, so I’m safe. I’m healthy and young, so I’m safe. And that yes, some young people are struck with disease so severely that they need medical intervention, a ventilator, even, but the percentage is so small.

I can’t accept that. Because I know, chances are, my plane won’t crash. Most likely I won’t be struck by lightening. In all reality, the thing that isn’t supposed to happen, won’t happen. But the idea that I should trust the numbers is simply impossible. Too many times I’ve landed on the wrong side of the statistics. And also, too many times I’ve learned that landing on the wrong side of the statistics once doesn’t insulate you from landing on the wrong side again.

The truth is, statistics can be comforting, but no one is immune from sometimes landing on the wrong side. Sometimes more than once. Saying it can’t happen to me isn’t an option anymore, for me. Not as a preemie mom. Not as a brain cancer caretaker. Not as a young widow. Statistics simply don’t comfort me.

So if statistics aren’t comforting, then is the only option to be afraid all the time, to live life just waiting for the next improbable thing to happen?

It can’t be. Because that’s not living…or at least not living the way that I want to live.

The answer for me is to acknowledge the statistics (or obsessively research and commit the numbers to memory…either works). Recognize that the chance the next terrible thing will happen does exist, even if that chance is small, and accept that the fear, however irrational, exists, too. Prepare (mentally, physically, or emotionally) when I can. And then take a breath.

And remember that statistics work in two ways. Yes, sometimes you fall on the wrong side of the odds and the worst thing you can imagine happens, your heart breaks and your world shatters and you’re left to pick up the pieces. But sometimes, you fall on the wrong side of the odds and the one in a million miracle happens. The impossible and improbable thing you’ve always hoped and dreamed for becomes reality.

I can’t find comfort in statistics. I will never again say “it can’t happen to me.” And I think that’s okay. I think it means I’m learning to approach life with my eyes wide open and my heart still full of hope.

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