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Ariel Levy knew from the time she was little that she wanted a life full of adventures, and that by pursuing something she loved — writing — she could go to new places and explore new worlds. When Levy stepped off a plane in Mongolia in November 2013 to write a story for The New Yorker magazine, she didn’t know that she was about to embark upon one of the most arduous journeys of her life.
Levy was five months pregnant with her first child when she traveled, with her doctor’s blessing, to Mongolia for work. On her second night in Mongolia, the pains that Levy had chalked up to normal pregnancy aches intensified, and she went into labor in her hotel room. There, across the world from her family and friends, Levy delivered her son at 20 weeks old. He son lived for ten minutes, and in that time, Levy experienced motherhood and tragedy in one fell swoop.
When Levy picked up the phone to call for help, the voice on the other end of the line belonged to Dr. John Gasson, who calmly told her to take an ambulance to the hospital. He also told her that her son had no chance of survival.
"I had to explain to her, 'I'm sorry but your baby is not going to survive. It's impossible.' And she was very brave, very engaged, and very practical," Gasson told TODAY.
When Levy arrived at the hospital with her son wrapped in a towel on her chest, Gasson was expecting her.
"I went over to Ariel and my first thought was intense sorrow for this person," he said.
After days of convalescing in Mongolia, Levy flew back to New York, where her grief felt bottomless. She woke up in the middle of the night to find she was lactating for a baby who wasn't alive.
"I never knew I could feel that bad. I never knew you could suffer like that, because a switch flipped in my heart while I was there. And I had experienced maternal love. So I felt in the deepest part of myself, like, I was a mother. But I came back and I had no child," Levy told TODAY.com. "I was making milk to feed a child who wasn't there. So I felt like I was literally dripping with motherhood, but I wasn't a mother."
When Gasson emailed her medical records from Mongolia, Levy took that chance to ask him about her experience.
He wrote back and said, "The milk letdown reflex after a miscarriage is one of nature's least kind tricks."
"I just thought that was such a beautiful way to put it," Levy recalled. "I remember being like, 'I want to communicate more with this person.' He was the only person who was there. Even though he was in Mongolia, and he was South African, and I didn't really know him, being in communication with the only other person who was there made me feel comforted in some kind of deep way."
Gasson felt a connection with Levy, too, and they fell into correspondence easily. Over time, their shared experiences blossomed into more, and one year after losing her son, Levy met John in South Africa, where their relationship grew from friendly to romantic.
The couple has plans to marry, and plans to split their time between New York and South Africa. Levy tried to become pregnant again, but two years, untold expense and countless rounds of IVF were unsuccessful.
Despite finding a partner in Gasson, Levy wanted to make it clear that John wasn’t a white knight who rode in on a horse and saved her from despair.
“Losing a child and not being able to have another one, nobody can save you from that. It's mortality, is what it is. That's something you just have to learn to surrender to,” Levy said.
Levy has been telling her story, through her memoir "The Rules Do Not Apply," and through conversations with women she has met or who have written to her about their own stories of loss.
“I've found out from the hundreds of women who've written to me that, unlike other kinds of grief, I think miscarriage, stillbirth … there's some shame around it. And I think you feel a little crazy. Because it's not something that's spoken about," Levy said. So it feels like, ‘Am I insane for grieving this this way?’... I had no idea until it happened to me that it doesn't feel like a little medical accident. It feels like your child has died.”