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October 25, 2011

Love, Loss & the Oscars

After years of trying, Daniela Petrova and her husband, acclaimed journalist Sebastian Junger, finally conceived a baby, just after his documentary won an Oscar nod. But Hollywood was no match for the drama that awaited them.

group at oscars

Walking the red carpet at the 2011 Academy Awards with, from left, Tim Hetherington, Idil Ibrahim, Staff Sergeant Aron Hijar, and Sergeant Misha Pemble-Belkin.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Author

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The last thing I ever thought would happen to me is that I would go to the Oscars. And I certainly never thought it would save my husband's life.

I grew up in Communist Bulgaria, five of us in a one-bedroom apartment that had no hot water or central heating. The two state TV channels broadcast only at night, and if they showed a movie, it would be a Russian one. After the Berlin Wall fell and Bulgaria finally shook off communism, we got cable television with countless American and Western European channels. I was 18 when, wide-eyed, I watched my first Oscars. Because of the time difference, I had to wait till 3 in the morning for the ceremony to begin. That I should walk down that same red carpet one day seemed as unlikely as it would be to walk on the moon. But many years later, there I was, next to my husband, Sebastian, smiling for the cameras.

Sebastian had made a documentary with his good friend, the internationally acclaimed photojournalist Tim Hetherington, about American soldiers in Afghanistan. The film, Restrepo, won the jury prize at Sundance, and in January, we celebrated its nomination for an Academy Award. The four of us — Tim, his girlfriend, Sebastian, and I — flew out to Los Angeles for a week of parties and events that culminated with Oscar night at the Kodak Theater.

Restrepo didn't win an Oscar, but — little did we know — Sebastian and I were returning to New York with a far greater prize. Two weeks after we'd come back, I took a home pregnancy test and stared, stunned, at the two pink lines. I screamed, and Sebastian came running to the bathroom, worried that I had somehow hurt myself. We stood there incredulous before the little pee-stick — a testimony to the miracle that had taken place in L.A. And a miracle it was. We had battled infertility for the past six years, resorting to countless IUIs, six IVFs, and even a donor egg cycle — all unsuccessfully. And here we were, pregnant naturally.

We knew that miscarriages are common in the first trimester, and with our history, we didn't want to get too excited. At first, I didn't even want to know when my due date was. But how doyou live with such news, ignoring it, pretending that it isn't happening? How do you keep yourself from imagining the future? As the weeks went by and the pregnancy progressed normally, I allowed myself to believe that perhaps it was finally happening for us, too.

At seven weeks, we heard the heartbeat at our reproductive endocrinologist's office, and he released us into the care of an obstetrician. We sighed with relief. We were finally joining the club of normal people. Two of our closest friends were pregnant as well, and we began to imagine our babies growing and playing together. We even indulged in speculation about the gender of the baby. If it was a boy, we joked, we would have to name him Oscar.

The Academy Awards was the final event of a three-year-long project that had begun with Sebastian and Tim embedding with American soldiers in a remote outpost in Afghanistan. It was time to find a new assignment. The Arab Spring was in full swing, and they planned to go to Libya to cover the civil war. For me, that brought the old fears of my husband working in a war zone. But something was different this time. I was pregnant, and all I could think about was the life growing inside me, a millimeter each day, as the doctor told us. I felt so protective of it that I couldn't possibly excite myself putting up a fight, arguing that Libya was too dangerous.

Maybe because I didn't object this time, or maybe because Sebastian, too, was deeply affected by the prospect of finally becoming a father, he decided to stay. What if I had a miscarriage while he was away? What if I worried too much about him and the stress hormones hurt our child? When you've waited for a baby for as long as we had, you'd do anything to protect it. Morning sickness hit a couple of days after Sebastian was supposed to leave. I lay curled up on the couch with a bucket next to me, while he shopped and walked the dog and took care of our meals. There was no way, we realized, I could have done it on my own.

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