At the end of my second trimester of pregnancy, I answered a call from an unknown number.
To be pregnant is to exist on a never-ending receiving line of advice, whether we want it or not.
"I know your due date is approaching," said a stranger at the other end of the line, completely freaking me out. She identified herself as being from Natera, a company that my doctor had used for genetic testing I had consented to months ago.
"Excuse me?" I said.
"Have you considered cord-blood banking?" she said.
"No, I'm not doing that," I said. I had read enough about cord-blood banking, the process of saving stem cell-containing blood from your baby's umbilical cord, to understand that my family was in the vast majority of those that would with extremely high likelihood derive no medical benefit from it. Of course, in the societally sanctioned spending spree that accompanies new parenthood, plenty of companies are happy to charge anyone hundreds if not thousands of dollars plus annual storage fees to collect and manage your cord blood.
"Why not? Have you considered all the bene—"
"I'm not doing it and I don't want to explain my decision," I said before hanging up. I would later learn I neglected to check a miniscule box on my testing consent forms at the doctor to opt out of solicitations. Still, I was angry that I was being telemarketed unnecessary and costly medical services by someone who had been trained to immediately call my judgment into question. I was annoyed that my doctor's office would allow such intrusions at all. When I asked my OB about it at my next visit, she told me there's no way Natera would have gotten my information from them. Apparently even she didn't realize what was on those forms.
The incident with Natera did nothing to heighten my trust of the medical establishment during my pregnancy. I was hardly alone. Almost every mom I knew had expressed a similar sentiment.
"I don't trust doctors," read the text of a loved one when I told her I would probably get an epidural after my doctor recommended getting one because, she said, it can help relax the pelvic muscles during labor. But this friend, a highly educated woman who had had done her research and had two unmedicated births, believed firmly otherwise. "Look it up," she said. Thus commenced more of the furious Googling I found myself doing multiple times a day since deciding I wanted to become pregnant.
To be pregnant is to exist on a never-ending receiving line of advice, whether we want it or not. Information presents to us from Google's never-out-of-reach search bar, friends and family eager to use our pregnancies as an excuse to recall their own, and the doctor's office, where the wisdom of medical professionals neatly comingles with brochures and free samples from myriad companies that would really, really like our business as new moms. Separating the "good" advice from the rest is a Herculean task that many pregnant women manage only with vigorous fact-finding missions of their own.
The medical community in America is poorly equipped to help women navigate the enormous pressures that come with birth and transitioning to motherhood.
Doing my research during pregnancy felt like a defense against the scary unknowns, overabundance of opinions, and disturbing marketing schemes that come with entering parenthood. The medical community in America is poorly equipped to help women navigate the enormous emotional and societal pressures that come with birth and transitioning to motherhood. Too much of what pregnant women experience at the doctor has to do with dated ideas about our care, mandated by tradition or a fear of being sued rather than medical necessity. These practices, like weigh-ins at every appointment or medically unnecessary C-sections (which are estimated to account, horrifically, for almost 50 percent of all C-sections performed in the U.S.), only heighten anxiety.
Meanwhile, things that might alleviate stress – like having thorough discussions about the kinds of interventions we might be asked to accept at the hospital during labor and delivery – are left to outside educators and doulas that insurance plans typically don't cover. The net effect isn't better health outcomes for mom and baby, but rather a normalized sense of distrust many American women feel toward their OBGYNs, and the burden of going to every appointment and the delivery room on the defensive. Instead of being wed to dated medical practices and tangled in America's new motherhood industrial complex, shouldn't our doctors, of all people, be our biggest advocates?
As soon as I found out I was pregnant, I devoured Expecting Better, by Emily Oster, an economist who embarked on her own fact-finding mission during her first pregnancy, predicated on the belief that the advice OBGYNs have been giving pregnant women for decades is out of date and unnecessarily restrictive. The book includes controversial stances, like that having small amounts of alcohol while pregnant is OK. (More recent research has called this view into question.) Oster writes that for the vast majority of pregnant women, it's perfectly fine to lie on your back, do sit-ups, and eat Brie — all things I was relieved to learn I wouldn't have to give up for nine months, despite the traditional advice, which my doctor also gave to me.
Oster recommends hiring a doula, based both on research and personal experience. It's a worthwhile investment for those who can afford it: according to one study, 20.4 percent of laboring women with doulas had C-sections compared with 34.2 percent of women without them. A doula can do many things for a pregnant client, including helping her write a birth plan, massaging her back in labor, and cheering her on, which is especially useful for women who plan to labor without pain medication. Use of doulas is on the rise; according to DONA International, the world's largest and oldest doula association, the number of doulas who have been certified to date is over 12,000, up from 2,000 in 2002.
But the most significant role a doula plays is that of patient advocate in the hospital. This is a profound commentary on the way the medical establishment handles childbirth, a medical event that 86 percent of women aged 40 to 44 had gone through as of 2016. Recognizing the maternal mortality crisis in the U.S., where women are far more likely to die as a result of childbirth than anywhere else in the developed world and black women are three times more likely to die in childbirth than white women, a few states now allow Medicaid to cover doulas. Can you imagine feeling the need to hire an independent non-medical care provider to help you run interference with your doctors and nurses for something like an appendectomy?
I wouldn't have been aware of all the imminent interventions during my labor if my doula hadn't told me about them. Things happen fast in the hospital and doctors and nurses may rush patients to consent before proceeding with things like breaking their water or hooking them up to an IV of Pitocin. Only because my husband and I had spent six hours in birth class — a suggestion by my doula — did I realize that I was empowered to say "no" to such procedures.
Expecting more trustworthy advice to come from my doctor than books or Google or even a doula hardly seems unreasonable.
Of course, we all feel immense pressure to become good parents, and questioning conventional medical wisdom is a natural response to that pressure. "Looking around at the world and saying, who am I as a parent? What is important to me? Who are the wise people? What do I think wisdom is? What is a good decision? If you're a certain type of introspective person, if you're really asking those questions, that's going to include like taking a second look at things that doctors, for example, say," says Koyuki Smith, a doula and birth educator.
Expecting more trustworthy advice to come from my doctor than books or Google or even a doula hardly seems unreasonable. Yet my doctor's office seemed more concerned with checking off a list of boxes rather than providing me with personalized care that might have relieved my understandable anxiety about my first birth. When I still hadn't gone into labor around the time of my due date, my doctor encouraged me to be induced because my baby appeared to be large. I declined but scheduled an induction to "hold my spot" around the 42-week mark.
When I asked what medication would be used for an induction if I had one and she said Cytotec, I told her I had read that drug could cause serious complications, but she dismissed my concerns after I told her they stemmed from a book I read on natural childbirth. The FDA's page on Cytotec isn't exactly reassuring.
The nurse who took me in triage after I went into labor a week past my due date practically scolded me for waiting to go into labor naturally instead of opting for induction sooner. My doula told her while I was struggling to speak through labor pains to get off my case about it. I hadn't even become a mom and I was already doing so many things "wrong." Because I had done my own reading, I felt confident that my choices weren't harming my baby or me.
Becoming a mom would be less daunting if the medical community found a way to help women navigate the pressures of motherhood instead of adding to them. "Our culture at large doesn't support women enough in the complicated emotions that are a part of this process," said Alexandra Saks, a reproductive psychologist and author of What No One Tells You: A Guide to Your Emotions From Pregnancy to Motherhood. "I hope that every practitioner that works with women around reproductive health prioritizes her emotions around her experience."
For many of us, that will mean doctors who help us understand the pros and cons of conventional advice, don't use their offices as marketing channels, and don't pressure women into medically unnecessary inductions. Moms should also receive more attention after delivery both in the hospital and after they get home; a single, quick postpartum visit at six weeks is not an adequate way to care for women recovering from the trauma of childbirth, nor is it an adequate way to ensure women are emotionally supported during the transition. While several people interrogated me about my mental health at the hospital and my doctor's office just before and after birth, if I had been concerned about postpartum depression, I can't imagine feeling comfortable enough in those moments to tell strangers filling out obligatory worksheets.
It also means figuring out how to talk to patients who are prone to Googling their pregnancies with gusto every single day. It would be impossible for many women to shun independent research during pregnancy altogether. But it would also be nice if our doctors didn't add to our impulse to do it.
Amber Freed felt she was the happiest mother on earth when she gave birth to twins in March 2017. But that euphoric feeling began to fade over the next few months, as she realized her son wasn't making the same developmental milestones as his sister. "I had a perfect benchmark because they were twins, and I saw that Maxwell was floppy—he didn't have muscle tone and couldn't hold his neck up," she recalls. At first doctors placated her with statements that boys sometimes develop slower than girls, but the difference was just too drastic. At 10 month old, Maxwell had never reached to grab a toy. In fact, he had never even used his hands.
Thinking that perhaps Maxwell couldn't see well, Freed took him to an ophthalmologist who was the first to confirm her worst fears. He didn't find Maxwell to have vision problems, but he thought there was something wrong with the boy's brain. He had seen similar cases before and they always turned out to be rare disorders, and always fatal. "Start preparing yourself for your child not to live," he had said.
Getting the diagnosis took months of painful, invasive procedures, as well as fighting with the health insurance to get the genetic testing approved. Finally, in June 2018, doctors at the Children's Hospital Colorado gave the Freeds their son's diagnosis—a genetic mutation so rare it didn't even have a name, just a bunch of letters jammed together into a word SLC6A1—same as the name of the mutated gene. The mutation, with only 40 cases known worldwide at the time, caused developmental disabilities, movement and speech disorders, and a debilitating form of epilepsy.
The doctors didn't know much about the disorder, but they said that Maxwell would also regress in his development when he turned three or four. They couldn't tell how long he would live. "Hopefully you would become an expert and educate us about it," they said, as they gave Freed a five-page paper on the SLC6A1 and told her to start calling scientists if she wanted to help her son in any way. When she Googled the name, nothing came up. She felt horrified. "Our disease was too rare to care."
Freed's husband, a 6'2'' college football player broke down in sobs and she realized that if anything could be done to help Maxwell, she'd have be the one to do it. "I understood that I had to fight like a mother," she says. "And a determined mother can do a lot of things."
The Freed family.
Courtesy Amber Freed
She quit her job as an equity analyst the day of the diagnosis and became a full-time SLC6A1 citizen scientist looking for researchers studying mutations of this gene. In the wee hours of the morning, she called scientists in Europe. As the day progressed, she called researchers on the East Coast, followed by the West in the afternoon. In the evening, she switched to Asia and Australia. She asked them the same question. "Can you help explain my gene and how do we fix it?"
Scientists need money to do research, so Freed launched Milestones for Maxwell fundraising campaign, and a SLC6A1 Connect patient advocacy nonprofit, dedicated to improving the lives of children and families battling this rare condition. And then it became clear that the mutation wasn't as rare as it seemed. As other parents began to discover her nonprofit, the number of known cases rose from 40 to 100, and later to 400, Freed says. "The disease is only rare until it messes with the wrong mother."
It took one mother to find another to start looking into what's happening inside Maxwell's brain. Freed came across Jeanne Paz, a Gladstone Institutes researcher who studies epilepsy with particular interest in absence or silent seizures—those that don't manifest by convulsions, but rather make patients absently stare into space—and that's one type of seizures Maxwell has. "It's like a brief period of silence in the brain during which the person doesn't pay attention to what's happening, and as soon as they come out of the seizure they are back to life," Paz explains. "It's like a pause button on consciousness." She was working to understand the underlying biology.
To understand how seizures begin, spread and stop, Paz uses optogenetics in mice. From words "genetic" and "optikós," which means visible in Greek, the optogenetics technique involves two steps. First, scientists introduce a light-sensitive gene into a specific brain cell type—for example into excitatory neurons that release glutamate, a neurotransmitter, which activates other cells in the brain. Then they implant a very thin optical fiber into the brain area where they forged these light-sensitive neurons. As they shine the light through the optical fiber, researchers can make excitatory neurons to release glutamate—or instead tell them to stop being active and "shut up". The ability to control what these neurons of interest do, quite literally sheds light onto where seizures start, how they propagate and what cells are involved in stopping them.
"Let's say a seizure started and we shine the light that reduces the activity of specific neurons," Paz explains. "If that stops the seizure, we know that activating those cells was necessary to maintain the seizure." Likewise, shutting down their activity will make the seizure stop.
Freed reached out to Paz in 2019 and the two women had an instant connection. They were both passionate about brain and seizures research, even if for different reasons. Freed asked Paz if she would study her son's seizures and Paz agreed.
To do that, Paz needed mice that carried the SLC6A1 mutation, so Freed found a company in China that created them to specs. The company replaced a mouse SLC6A1 gene with a human mutated one and shipped them over to Paz's lab. "We call them Maxwell mice," Paz says, "and we are now implanting electrodes into them to see which brain regions generate seizures." That would help them understand what goes wrong and what brain cells are malfunctioning in the SLC6A1 mice—and help scientists better understand what might cause seizures in children.
Bred to carry SLC6A1 mutation, these "Maxwell mice" will help better understand this debilitating genetic disease. (These mice are from Vanderbilt University, where researchers are also studying SLC6A1.)
Courtesy Amber Freed
This information—along with other research Amber is funding in other institutions—will inform the development of a novel genetic treatment, in which scientists would deploy a harmless virus to deliver a healthy, working copy of the SLC6A1 gene into the mice brains. They would likely deliver the therapeutic via a spinal tap infusion, and if it works and doesn't produce side effects in mice, the human trials will follow.
In the meantime, Freed is raising money to fund other research of various stop-gap measures. On April 22, 2021, she updated her Milestone for Maxwell page with a post that her nonprofit is funding yet another effort. It is a trial at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, in which doctors will use an already FDA-approved drug, which was recently repurposed for the SLC6A1 condition to treat epilepsy in these children. "It will buy us time," Freed says—while the gene therapy effort progresses.
Freed is determined to beat SLC6A1 before it beats down her family. She hopes to put an end to this disease—and similar genetic diseases—once and for all. Her goal is not only to have scientists create a remedy, but also to add the mutation to a newborn screening panel. That way, children born with this condition in the future would receive gene therapy before they even leave the hospital.
"I don't want there to be another Maxwell Freed," she says, "and that's why I am fighting like a mother." The gene therapy trial still might be a few years away, but the Weill Cornell one aims to launch very soon—possibly around Mother's Day. This is yet another milestone for Maxwell, another baby step forward—and the best gift a mother can get.
This virtual event will convene leading scientific and medical experts to discuss the most pressing questions around the COVID-19 vaccines for children and teens. A public Q&A will follow the expert discussion.
Thursday, May 13th, 2021
12:30 p.m. - 1:45 p.m. EDT
Virtual on Zoom
You can submit a question for the speakers upon registering.
Dr. H. Dele Davies, M.D., MHCM
Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dean for Graduate Studies at the University of Nebraska Medical (UNMC). He is an internationally recognized expert in pediatric infectious diseases and a leader in community health.
Dr. Emily Oster, Ph.D.
Professor of Economics at Brown University. She is a best-selling author and parenting guru who has pioneered a method of assessing school safety.
Dr. Tina Q. Tan, M.D.
Professor of Pediatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. She has been involved in several vaccine survey studies that examine the awareness, acceptance, barriers and utilization of recommended preventative vaccines.
Dr. Inci Yildirim, M.D., Ph.D., M.Sc.
Associate Professor of Pediatrics (Infectious Disease); Medical Director, Transplant Infectious Diseases at Yale School of Medicine; Associate Professor of Global Health, Yale Institute for Global Health. She is an investigator for the multi-institutional COVID-19 Prevention Network's (CoVPN) Moderna mRNA-1273 clinical trial for children 6 months to 12 years of age.
About the Event Series
This event is the second of a four-part series co-hosted by Leaps.org, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and the Sabin–Aspen Vaccine Science & Policy Group, with generous support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.