[TW: This article discusses Hyperemesis Gravidarum and a traumatic pregnancy experience and may be triggering for some readers.]
The thing that saved my baby's life was not knowing how bad it was going to get.
15-20% of Hyperemesis Gravidarum (HG) sufferers terminate otherwise wanted pregnancies because of the condition. For me, in addition to extreme nausea and vomiting, HG caused severe dehydration and malnutrition, esophageal tears and burst blood vessels. One lockdown, six hospital stays four IV fluids, two bouts of Covid and roughly 2,772 anti-sickness tablets later, my husband and I have a beautiful, healthy baby boy. HG not only stole my pregnancy, but nearly stole my baby.
Disclaimer – I am very aware that women struggling to get pregnant would probably give anything to be pregnant with HG. I can conceive, which is extremely lucky, but I can’t comfortably carry a baby to full term. HG is very different from normal pregnancy sickness – I cannot stress enough that it is so much more than just being sick. It is a wholly debilitating illness that leaves you unable to leave the house, work, drive, read, speak to friends, let alone plan and prepare for a baby!
I was admitted to hospital within four days of finding out I was pregnant, which immediately took away all of the initial excitement. My test for dehydration was off the scale. By the time they put the drip up I could barely move or open my eyes, and I began throwing up foaming bile. We know humans can survive a relatively long time without food but not without water. The doctors explained what HG was and that they needed to replace lost body fluid through an intravenous drip and inject anti-sickness medicines directly into my muscles.
To make it worse, it was the height of lockdown, so the hospital was in full Covid mode. Only very recently finding out I was pregnant and not knowing much about it, I thought “everyone has morning sickness”, so am I just a drama queen? I was not allowed visitors and I was too sick to use my phone since screens made me feel worse.
I couldn’t watch TV, read books or magazines and so I was left alone with my thoughts, wondering if this illness was going to give me a higher chance of miscarriage. Apparently, it means you have a stronger pregnancy because of the hormones – but that didn’t really help at the time!
Going with societal norms, you don’t ordinarily tell people you’re pregnant until you get to the “safe” 12-week mark. We had told our immediate family, but I was nervous about telling friends even though I wanted them to know what I was going through and why I was ignoring them! I didn’t see, speak, or text my friends for pretty much the whole pregnancy.
The scary fact that I already had Covid-19 whilst pregnant (very early prior to a positive test) took a backseat. There was not much information available, but the consensus was the pregnancy still existed, it was too early to really see anything on the scan and so it must be OK. If anything, it weirdly helped me, as I had no taste or smell. Also, because everyone was in lockdown, I didn't feel I was missing out on anything social and fun.
The thought that kept me positive and helped me through the first trimester was thinking morning sickness would end at 12 weeks. That’s what society tells you, right? After leaving hospital, I spent the rest of my first trimester bed-bound. I had to lie in a quiet, dark room; I couldn't even shower. I had to be bathed by my mum or husband as I was too sick to stand (we moved back in with my parents). A defining factor of HG compared to morning sickness is that it impairs your ability to lead a normal life.
Well into my second trimester, the sickness hadn’t stopped. By week 16, I had lost over 15% of my body weight (nearly two stone) making my BMI severely underweight for my height, let alone pregnancy. At a time you're meant to start showing a baby bump, I was a skeleton. The opposite of what you think will happen when you're pregnant.
One rainy Sunday night I hadn’t kept anything down for 10 days straight, so it took all my energy to make it to the hospital (car journeys were hell). I cried to the consultant and he said if you can keep down one can of Sprite a day, you'll be OK (it had to be full-fat Sprite because of the salt and sugar content, and from a can). Is that seriously enough to keep me alive, let alone the baby?! The whole way through my pregnancy people would say the baby will always be fine because they take what they need and obviously that was great, but what about me? I am not fine, and if I am not fine in the long-run how is the baby going to be fine?
I was taking 12 tablets a day – setting my alarm through the night so the medication never ran out. I feel awful looking back as I did no research on how these tablets would affect my unborn baby. Anti-sickness tablets during pregnancy have a historically bad reputation, but I would have done anything just to get me through the next minute/hour/week/month.
And trust me, when you have been sick for so long, and a someone tries to suggest a remedy – normally ginger, or gives you a dirty look for drinking full-fat fizzy drinks and salty crisps because you should be healthy, or tells you to eat more because your baby needs nutrients – you are ready to flip! Equally, if you have a good day and post a picture on social media and people comment “So glad you’re better now” or think you are exaggerating your symptoms, the worst part about a good day is you know a worse day is coming soon.
I was told if the symptoms hadn't gone by 12 weeks, my pregnancy would be highly unlikely to continue past 20 weeks. While nausea and vomiting in pregnancy is generally estimated to occur in 50 to 90% of all pregnancies, Hyperemesis Gravidarum is estimated to occur in 0.5 to 2% of pregnant women. Of this number, only 22% will suffer past 20 weeks to full term. There was a lot of crying on the bathroom floor, hugging the toilet and wondering why me. But as hard as it is, you do remember all the people struggling with fertility and count yourself lucky.
Thirty-two weeks came (which felt like 32 years) and I was throwing up blood in the middle of the night, debating whether to wake up my sleeping husband because I knew it would cause more worry and upset for everyone involved… and undoubtedly another hospital trip. So that was me back on IV fluids and I begged the doctor to take the baby out. I knew babies could survive at 32-weeks. He went mad at me - babies have much better chances the longer they are in, and why would I want to cause potentially unnecessary harm to my baby? They would only do this if it was life threatening to the mother or baby – but to me it felt like throwing up blood was life threatening. And little did I know it was going to get worse.
After being discharged I contracted Covid for the second time whilst pregnant. I tried to Google whether this had happened to anybody else in the world but could not get an answer. I was 33 weeks pregnant, Covid-19 positive, isolating again, whilst suffering with HG – pretty depressing! The coughing fits made the sickness a lot worse, while the normal third trimester aches and pains were majorly amplified. My main worry was if I had reduced movements, we would not be able to go in for a routine check-up without making a fuss and putting other people at risk.
At this point, my husband had helped me non-stop as I had been sick in the shower, sick on myself in the bath, sick on the side of the road and cleaned up countless times whilst I peed on the bathroom floor because I was being sick in the toilet, or sick in the bath because I was peeing on the toilet. It was relentless for him too.
Ordinarily, I am a super organised person but everything I thought I would be whilst pregnant I was not. I had no books, no pregnancy clothes, no baby shower, I attended no classes, no fancy hospital bag prepared by the door, I wasn’t posting pregnancy yoga pictures or making green juices. I was scarcely able to buy the bare necessities for a baby until a couple of weeks before he arrived.
From finding out I was pregnant at four weeks to the birth seemed like the longest stretch of time, but looking back it feels like it never happened because I never really got to be pregnant at all.
We had to have an elective C-section at 37 weeks for multiple reasons, but HG definitely played a part. I was so weak I don’t think I could have physically pushed a baby out. We were quite lucky with our consultant. He told us about another baby he delivered the week before by ‘natural section’, something we had never heard of. It is a procedure that makes a cesarean seem less like a major abdominal operation and more like a vaginal delivery.
Since I felt like I had failed at being pregnant, I really wanted to be able to have a natural birth and succeed. Having a natural section, I was able to pull the baby out of my tummy myself and put him on my chest for immediate skin to skin contact. I am so grateful for this, as it was really empowering to be able to deliver my own baby and feel in control of my birth – something I had never felt during pregnancy.
I was extremely sick after he was delivered, making it hard for the surgeons to stitch me up. But thankfully since then (I’m currently ten weeks postpartum) I have not been sick once. One of the strangest things after birth was being able to drink a glass of water normally and not have to worry about taking too much or sipping it slowly. It is one of the things that really goes against human nature, not being able to drink when you're thirsty or eat when you're hungry – even when the supplies are available.
Credit: Sophie Darwin Photography
Throughout the entire pregnancy I kept thinking I don't know how I could possibly have another child with how ill I had been. This makes me sad because I would love more children, but I'm extremely nervous about becoming pregnant again. I feel strong and invincible at the moment because I survived and I delivered my own baby, but I know if I had HG again that the first bout of sickness would bring all of the old memories crashing back.
I would immediately be worried about how bad things would get, and how hard it would be mentally to care for my family and be pregnant with HG at the same time. Even writing about my experience is hard to remember. It is sad to hate the memory of being pregnant, and even harder to now think, looking at my gorgeous little boy, that I seriously contemplated not carrying on.
HG stole my pregnancy and nearly stole my child. The hardest thing about HG is going to bed after a terrible day and knowing that you have to do it all over again the next day. My pregnancy was purely about survival.
My husband was amazing, I couldn’t have done it without him, and so was my family. Despite the trauma we did have good days - we did laugh, we were lucky enough to have an amazing birth and we are now happy and healthy. It is such a rare complication, but awareness needs to be raised to explain the difference between HG and morning sickness.