Hope Is Alive

The Hope of Life and a Telephone Number
The experience of Dr Patrizia Vergani, a gynecologist in Monza, who often faces the hard diagnosis of prenatal illness

edited by Paola Ronconi

There’s not a succinct name that indicates the role of Dr Patrizia Vergani; perhaps “expert in maternal-fetal medicine” might do, but she prefers simply being defined a gynecologist, even though she is able to see in sonograms what often eludes others. We met with her at the San Gerardo Hospital in Monza, where she works.

The desire to have a child is, in its origin, a good desire. When does it become a wrong claim?

The problem is whether this effectively corresponds to the reality of the person, that is, to her fulfillment, her realization, whether the person is fulfilled in this pursuit to gratify a merely hedonistic desire. Painfully evident facts demonstrate that the simple fact of having a child does not totally fulfill a person. And we are made for a totality.

In your work, you sometimes have to communicate to parents that their unborn child has problems. How do you deal with such situations?

Illness is a condition of pain, of toil. The difficult part lies in affirming the life that is behind that illness, the motive of life that is superior to the illness. Only here lies the good. What I try to do is, first of all, place myself in a relationship with the person I have in front of me, to identify with what that person is living, engaging myself. Then, you diagnose illness in the child, not just abstract illness. You try to help the mother understand that the child, the fetus, which is in a relationship with her, inside her uterus, also has an illness. You dedicate time to a detailed explanation of the illness and the possible treatments, giving time for all the questions. You ask for a consultation with physicians specialized in treating that pathology and, if possible, you try to help the family meet other families that have lived that condition. Trying to make the child present before its illness, this is one of the most important things. At times, this is difficult because the mother does not have the child in front of her, and even though the bond between her and the child exists, it has to be evoked. I’ve always been struck that when a Down’s Syndrome baby is born, no mother has ever realized it until we doctors told her, even though the facial characteristics are clearly evident from birth. This is because when the mother sees her child for the first time, she sees her child, not any particular condition. The most difficult and dramatic thing about prenatal diagnosis is that the possibility of diagnosing an illness before birth tends to block a relationship. The diagnosis is done as if censuring the relationship, focusing attention on the illness and not on the person, not on the child. For a mother, seeing the child on a sonogram is positive, because she realizes, above all when she doesn’t yet feel it move, that the person she sees in the monitor is truly her child. We are (I am) called to help a mother become conscious of the fact that the person in her womb is her child, and to help her welcome it, even if it is ill, through a journey that makes her as aware and conscious as possible.

You said that it can be helpful to contact other families who have lived the same experience…

Once, I had to tell a woman that her child had spina bifida. We had a couple of meetings, and she initially accepted a series of briefings that would help her gain full awareness of the pathology of the fetus. Each time, she said she had two other children, and that it would be very hard to have to care for such a grave situation. We met specialists together. The more she became aware of all the problems that the child would have, the more she became convinced to abort it. I proposed that she meet the mother of a girl with spina bifida who used a wheelchair to move around. I offered it as a way to help her understand these problems, seeing them in real life, but she refused. One day (it was to be the last time we met, since she had already set a date for the abortion), I gave her the telephone number of that mother, telling her again to still consider that possibility. Later, this woman told me, “I waited a couple of days, but this thing kept whirling around in my head. And so I dialed the number, hoping that nobody would answer, but when I heard the other mother’s ‘Hello,’ I understood that I wouldn’t abort.” She accepted facing, deep down, the presence of that child and the fact that someone on the other end of the line was ready to show her how life goes beyond illness. We cannot stop a woman from aborting. But we must never give up proposing a possibility, no matter how small, like a telephone number on a scrap of paper.

What can sustain you in maintaining this position in your work?

First of all, not being afraid of doing this work; basically, not being afraid of the outcome of this work, even if this, in effect, is a consequence. In primis, I need to have the certainty that what I’ve encountered in Christianity is a proposal for everyone. When I first began working, it was an awareness born of an education; the more I go on, this awareness is bolstered by the human greatness I see in the people I encounter. I’ve seen people become great; I’ve seen them nurture a happy good. And I’ve seen the fulfillment of this: a mother who accepts a handicapped child loves the other children she already has or will have.
It’s a good that touches all the other people in the family. Beyond this, I see a great deal of pain, just as much pain in the people who think they must reject pain, for example, by aborting. On the other hand, the world of perfect humans–of children at any cost, but without ‘imperfections’–is a world in which loving relationships, help, compassion, and solidarity have no place. Do you realize what a tremendous lack we’re seeing in this kind of society, so that it is difficult for the ‘I’ to be fulfilled? How can a parent tolerate a child who’s less than a genius, if he wanted him perfect? Will our imperfections be accepted without a ‘concrete’ education to love, expressed by ‘who you are is worth more that what you do’? Nobody wishes for illness, but it can be a condition for the global realization of our ‘I’ and that of humanity. This is very clear for me.”