Diagnostic Drift

by Michael Martone

Appears in Other Voices #34


You flowed and flowed. You stood in the bathtub, the blood sheeting your legs. I called the doctor who said to bring you in and who later said there were probably always this many miscarriages. He was speaking of the general population, not you. Back then, he said, they were mistaken for menstrual bleeding. These days new tests let us know sooner. We call this diagnostic drift, he said, a condition always present but unseen. Until now. Now we know what we are seeing sooner. You had held your dress up away from the blood, and I had daubed at your bleeding with a wet washcloth. You hadn’t known you were pregnant until you weren’t. A classic case, the doctor said. Should we worry, I asked. Should this have happened? It is diagnostic drift, the doctor said. A few years ago you wouldn’t even know what happened happened. This happens all the time. We won’t even need to notice until the third time it happens, if it even happens again at all.


There there, another doctor said. It happens all the time. This time, you had known earlier you were pregnant and had been pregnant longer. Later, you’d seen a sign, you said, the day it happened. An English sparrow chick dead on the sidewalk you walked on the way home. In the bathtub, the blood was thicker this time and there was tissue in the pile of the washcloth. The doctor asked us to bring it in with us to the emergency room. There, there, she said. It is difficult, the doctor said. She held your hand. This happens all the time. There is no way of knowing. We know more now, she said, but we don’t know everything. We’ll keep an eye on it, she said, riffling through the sheets of paper. You looked off into the distance. At a distance, I looked at you, your hair fanned out on the white paper sheet.


It is more common than you might think, this doctor said to me. You were getting dressed behind the curtain. You had started bleeding during a prenatal visit. Things had been going well this time. Your doctor called me at work. He wanted me to drive you to the hospital, didn’t want you to drive yourself. She’s lost some blood, he said. She’s a bit light-headed, he said to me on the phone. I drove through the streets of a new city. We had just moved. All the streets looked the same—three flats and cyclone-fenced front yards. It was the doctor at the hospital who said that this was more common than you’d think. While you were there, I walked around the blocks of hospital buildings. I walked around three times. I told the doctor about the other times, about the doctor who had told us of diagnostic drift and that now we should be paying attention. Let’s just wait and see, she said. These things happen. I asked her how long we should wait before we tried again, and she thought, for some reason, I meant exercise instead of sex. As soon as possible, she said. The sooner the better. But then when she understood what I had meant she said, oh that. I watched your shadow move on the white cloth screen. Give it a few days, weeks, a month or so, maybe. Talk with your doctor.


There is no blood. There’s nothing to be done. There is your heartbeat but the other one is gone. The doctor has his nurse make the arrangements at a clinic for the D&C. We know the city better now. The main roads empty into rotaries I must circle, working my way around to the new road I need to take. I drop you off at the clinic. There is no place to park, so I idle at the front gate. You’re escorted in through the picket of a few silent protesters. I drive around the city, lazily circling the rotaries a few times, and then cruise along the highway next to the widening river where eights and fours skate back and forth on the smooth surface, disappearing in the shadows beneath the old bridges. I know we know more now than we did but it is hard to say. I know right now you are being questioned. An aide is asking questions and writing your answers onto forms she keeps in a file. Your history is being worked up. This happened and this happened and this happened and then this.