As someone who dealt with many complications getting pregnant, I was excited to talk to Sarah DiGregorio, who writes about premature birth in her book EARLY: An Intimate History of Premature Birth and What It Teaches Us About Being Human (Harper). In this reported memoir, the freelance journalist, who covers both healthcare and food for many publications (including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Wall Street Journal, and Catapult) describes her own harrowing experience giving birth to her premature daughter, and investigates the story of neonatology, meditating on the questions raised by premature birth. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram:
Read on to find out how she does it, and also for a chance to win EARLY.
Were you an avid reader as a child? What kinds of things did you read?
Oh, god, yes. I was an only child, but I was never lonely because I had books. (And a dog.) I have always used books as companions, as an escape. I used to beg to go to the school library instead of suffer the indignities of middle school recess. And my mother was a children’s librarian, so books were always plentiful in my house. She and I read all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books together, as well as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and Lloyd Alexander (Taran Wanderer, The High King), My Antonia. In fact, my mother and I read together, aloud, before bed until I was well into my teens. I remember also loving Roald Dahl (especially Matilda), Bunnicula (about a vampire bunny!?) and the Dark is Rising series. The Mixed Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler made me want to move to New York.
What’s the strangest job you’ve ever had?
I don’t think I’ve had a job that’s actually strange. I grew up on Cape Cod, and one summer I worked at an ice cream shop where I had to sell tourists lobster ice cream. That was a little weird. It was definitely only the tourists who were buying that flavor! But the job that might surprise people is that I used to be a research assistant at a methadone clinic. I was the site coordinator of a study that aimed to help the clients there quit smoking. (The idea was that quitting smoking would help improve the clients’ health overall, and lots of people in recovery smoke cigarettes.) As a part of that, I was in charge of collecting urine samples and then organizing them in a big refrigerator. So I had to get up at like 4 AM to gather and organize urine—that was a big change from college. (But the clinic was great.)
Which talent do you wish you had?
I wish I could just let whatever comes, come. I guess I think of being calm as a talent! I am constantly scanning, worrying, wondering. My husband is much better at this. He deals with what is—not the many, myriad things that could be. My imagination won’t stop running and sometimes that is exhausting.
Have you ever traveled to do research for your writing? Where did you go?
Yes. For EARLY, I traveled to Nashville to meet a 97-year-old woman who was one of the first physicians to successfully treat respiratory distress in a premature baby. I met her in her log cabin in the woods, where she still lives by herself. When I got there, she was drinking a glass of iced tea and reading the newspaper. I went to the University of Iowa to talk to clinicians who are successfully treating babies as born as early as 22 weeks on a regular basis. While there, I also drove north to Manchester, Iowa—Iowa is starkly beautiful in winter—to meet a family who has a daughter, now seven, who was born at 22 weeks and successfully treated at University of Iowa. She was running around and playing with her sister and their chihuahua. I went to San Francisco for a conference on the deep connection between the experience of racism and preterm birth. I sat on a bench on Treasure Island and watched the sunset with one woman who told me her story of being treated in dismissive, racist ways by her healthcare providers when she was pregnant, and subsequently giving birth early. I went to Mississippi to speak to an OB there who works for the state Department of Health, who told me about the huge health disparities experienced by families in MS, as a result of racism and income inequality.
Tell us about your next big project.
I’d like to keep writing about healthcare: What it means to be a patient; what it means to be a provider of care. I’d love to examine the ways that models of care can be reworked, can be improved—there are ways that healthcare could be redefined to be more humanistic, more connected, could see the patient as a person, rather than a collection of body parts. We often talk about healthcare on policy levels—and that’s important—but most of us experience healthcare so intimately. I’d like to write about healthcare in ways that reflects peoples’ experiences, and then try to draw inferences about systems from there. So I’m trying to figure out the best ways to approach that.