In honor of Hyperemesis Gravidarum Awareness Day, I wanted to share my personal story. Some elements are medically descriptive, which may be uncomfortable for some readers. Nevertheless, I hope my story will encourage and inspire you as we work together to defend human dignity for all.
It was morning again. I lay very, very still, and very, very hopeful. “Maybe it won’t be so bad this morning,” I thought, as I would think every morning. I rolled slightly to one side, observing my husband sound asleep, and glanced at the clock. 5:00 am. With a heartfelt prayer, I rolled to my other side and sat up in bed.
Immediately I felt the bone deep waves of nausea pouring over me, seemingly washing every cell of my body in misery. With tears in my eyes, I inched my way off of the bed, across the floor, and into my bathroom, praying I would make it to the toilet in time.
Every morning, I wished for reprieve, and every morning, I was denied. The morning I just described was a good morning. No, a great one. Because sometimes I wasn’t so lucky. Sometimes I would start shaking – deep, wracking tremors and spasms which only served to make my nausea that much worse. When those mornings came, I would cry, often without tears because I was so dehydrated.
I would vomit until only bile was left. I would feel so helpless, so out of control in my own body, that I would be certain that I wouldn’t survive another minute of this torture, another moment of agony. And on those mornings, I feared another day of living more than I feared death.
What was wrong with me? It was something that only time could fix. I was pregnant.
At about seven weeks pregnant with my fourth child, the nausea hit hard. About a week later my nausea must have felt that it was slacking off and needed to take it up a notch. My midwife gave us a list of home remedies and herbs to try, and fortunately those seemed to hold off the worst of the symptoms for several weeks.
At nearly nine weeks pregnant, I started bleeding – badly. In hysterics yet again, I called my midwife and she sent us to the emergency room. I can remember being dazed in the ER bathroom. I was visiting the bathroom to throw up, but I couldn’t stop the bleeding and was certain I was miscarrying. Everything I read online was discouraging.
When I lay on the ultrasound table, the ultrasound tech checked my chart and got very stern with me. “I can’t let you see the screen. I can’t tell you about anything that I find. I write the report, and I send it to the doctor, and that’s it. OK?” I nodded my agreement, but as soon as her back was turned I began a series of complicated hand motions to rival any baseball catcher’s calls. My husband correctly understood my frantic gestures to mean that he was supposed to watch the ultrasound screen and report back to me in detail.
After a few moments of tense silence and reassuring nods from my husband, the sonographer exhaled loudly. “I just had to tell you that in case there was something wrong, but everything looks fine to me,” she explained, pointing at the screen.
Turning it so that we could see our little peanut for the first time, she showed us a good strong heartbeat. That was the moment that I fell irrevocably, unexplainably in love with my tiny treasure. That baby, that hardly looked like a baby and was utterly still in my womb at the time of the ultrasound (so still that I thought the baby was dead until the ultrasound tech explained that the baby was just sleeping) became my reason for survival over the next seven months.
The next few days were nerve-wracking. The doctor could not determine what it was that caused the bleeding, so we were sent to my dad’s to wait it out. With lots of family to help with my other three children, and my favorite smoothie store nearby to get some nutrition in me, it was a blessing to be stuck there while we watched and waited. I have a vivid memory of my stepmom making me a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese because it was all I could think of that sounded palatable.
I’ll also never forget my aunt stopping in to encouraging me, telling me that when she was pregnant with my younger cousin she experienced exactly the same thing and everything was fine.
After several days of panic, the bleeding stopped, the nausea continued, and we felt reassured that at least for this time our little one was still with us.
My nausea seemed to level out for awhile. We traveled home, and at around 11 weeks I started to improve. I had been bedridden for a little while, but I was able to get up and go to the store once or twice, and I even went out to eat with the family once. My husband had a business trip scheduled, and I told him to go ahead, as long as I was still improving. I felt stronger, and I felt that my morning sickness (which lasted all day) was surely coming to a close. After all, I’d had very little sickness with my first pregnancy, none with my second, and a regular, solid 12-weeks of it with my third.
The day my husband was scheduled for a trip, I woke up to the most severe, extreme nausea I had ever experienced. Once, years before, I’d had terrible food poisoning.
The food poisoning episode paled in comparison to this nausea. This was all-encompassing, and so severe that I could not even think straight. I was violently shaking, unable to even communicate to my husband. I was later told that I was talking gibberish. And that day began my nightmare. You see, it didn’t get better for months. I had that debilitating degree of severe nausea for the majority of my pregnancy, and when I did “get better”, “better” only meant that I was able to hold down a little food and fluid.
I had a condition that I had seen before – hyperemesis gravidarum. I had recently watched a friend go through it, and knew another woman from church had had it, but I didn’t believe that I had it myself until my doctor diagnosed it.
Every day, I had terrible shaking spells (which I later found out were due to extreme dehydration), and every day I had to lie perfectly still on my bed to avoid starting the out-of-control vomiting that seemed to define every day. At that point, 12 weeks pregnant or so, I lost 12 pounds in 10 days, and that was only the beginning. I began to get weekly IV’s. I didn’t wear makeup, I didn’t wear “real” clothes – it was sweatpants and scrunchies for me, and even those were a trial.
I tried every remedy, herbal and otherwise, under the sun. My midwife kept researching and sending me new ideas, but nothing helped. Liquid became my enemy, and I kept down about half of what my husband insisted that I try (usually protein drinks). I lost my eyelashes, part of my eyebrows, and a lot of hair from malnutrition.
My days became a haze that centered around my toilet. I would try to read (a favorite pastime), but could not concentrate. I know I watched television on my computer, but I couldn’t recall what I watched even that evening. I pined for my children – all I wanted was to snuggle my sweet little ones and enjoy them! But I couldn’t have them in the room with me. The noise, the accidental bumping of the bed, the touches – all drove me to the toilet yet again. I felt as if I was put into a bubble of misery, and no one could get close. Family members and friends stepped in to help with the kids, which I was very thankful for, but it also seemed to highlight my failure to take care of my own home and children.
My midwife helped me to find a high-risk ob/gyn, and the first doctor I saw was not the one for me. At our first visit he asked me if I would like to ‘terminate the pregnancy’. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. After months of this torture, he wanted me to give up the reward of a baby at the end? He wanted to forever still the tiny life inside of me? I didn’t even have to consider my answer. What I needed was not abortion. I needed medical care.
Thus began what I refer to as the spin cycle of doctors. One doctor would confirm that yes, I had HG, and no, they couldn’t do anything about it. Another doctor would be horrified by the number of IV’s I received weekly, and would recommend multiple medications that did not work. The next doctor would know absolutely nothing about hyperemesis gravidarum, and suggest that I try ginger (I had tried ginger in every form), and try to “eat more frequently”…even though I couldn’t eat any solid food for weeks at a time. Many acknowledged that I needed an IV port, a medication pump, and a home health nurse. Unfortunately, the pump would only work if we found a medication that worked, and my nausea was untouchable.
We did not have the money for a home health nurse, and I was terrified of the permanent IV port and potential complications. I didn’t need anything to make me worse! So I stayed home and got bi-weekly (sometimes three or four times weekly) IV’s.
A turning point with the doctors at our first hospital came when I was in for an IV and went to give a urine sample, finding that my urine was coffee colored. After much hemming and hawing, I was told that there was likely something wrong with my kidneys, but they didn’t know what. I was to have a kidney ultrasound, and after the ultrasound, the doctors didn’t say another word to me and were unable to answer any questions. These same doctors repeatedly reassured me that there was no need to check the baby’s growth, although other hyperemesis sufferers said the opposite.
Still in touch with my midwife, I contacted her and told her how sick I was, and that I was unable to get any answers about my potential kidney issues.
At her recommendation, I switched doctors and found a doctor who, while not totally familiar with hyperemesis, was at least insistent upon checking the baby’s growth and making sure that I got some nutrition and fluids.
Week after week went by. My husband regularly took me to the hospital for IV fluids, and I would lay on the hospital beds for hours, crying, frightened, and so alone. The hospital smells would inevitably aggravate my nausea. I was so dehydrated that when they would attempt to give me in IV, it always took at least four and up to eight attempts to get the IV in. The IV sites were painful, my arms were mottled with deep blue, brown, and yellow bruises. At every visit, I would plead with the nurses to get an anesthesiologist to do the IV (they were much better at it), and show them the places that just did not work. Invariably they would either completely ignore me or insist that they were professionals, push the IV in against my wishes, and collapse vein after vein.
My husband still had to work, and had impossible family demands on him along with work. I desperately needed him to understand what I was going through, but how could he? I couldn’t even understand it!
At 24 weeks, when many hyperemesis gravidarum cases improve, mine did not. I knew I was an odd case – my fourth pregnancy was my first experience with hyperemesis gravidarum. Someone I knew had self-diagnosed that she had hyperemesis, but after explaining her case versus mine to several doctors, they agreed that I had an extremely severe case and that many women believe they have HG although they only have mild or regular morning sickness that lasts throughout the pregnancy.
My odd case of HG left me with tachychardia, moderate hydronephrosis of my kidney, and a longing for my family like I had never felt before. During the day, family members cared for my kids while I was either in bed at home or in the hospital, and at night my husband would buy some food that I thought might sound good, only to have me take a bite and push the rest away in disgust. Food was my enemy. I would have panic attacks thinking about the next time I would have to force myself to eat. I would be filled with terror every night just at the prospect of waking up again the next day to begin my suffering anew.
Every day, lying in my bed, I would get chills and shivers head to toe. The all-day feeling of dread left me miserable and feeling desperate. Someone encouraged me with the saying, “The only way past this is through it,” and that became my mantra. When I felt desperate, out of control, ill, and lonely, I would repeat, “the only way past this is through it.” My prayer life took off – there’s just something about constant desperation that makes you truly reach out to God in ways you never have before.
When I reached 32 weeks, it was a milestone. I felt amazed that I had survived so far. My little girl’s kicks were a daily reminder (and an extra tummy disturbance) that she was alive and well and taking what she needed from me. I knew that she would likely survive if she was born early, and although my nausea was still severe, I was able to start holding down foods, although liquids were another story.
At 34 weeks I had a growth scan and saw that the baby looked great. At 35 weeks, our house was vandalized in the middle of the night, and we had to move into an apartment. The stale cigarette smoke smells churned my nausea up even more, but my husband was able to quickly find a great house for our family to move in to. After repeated visits to the hospital for a suspected amniotic fluid leak, a routine growth scan showed that our little girl had not grown at all from her previous scan. Our baby was diagnosed with IUGR (intra uterine growth restriction), and I was told that she needed to come out right away.
A mere four days after we moved in to our new home, I was held at the hospital with the expectation of an induction. I feel convinced that God had His hand upon us at that time. At around midnight that night, I realized that I had been having contractions for a few hours that were getting more and more painful. Sure enough, without the induction, I was in labor! And praise God for that, because I had not wanted to be induced at 3am!
We were especially thankful for diligent doctors when I began to run a fever, and they figured out that I had an amniotic fluid infection called chorioamnonitis. Chorioamnonitis is a bacterial infection that can lead to sepsis, brain damage, and death. Praise the Lord, our sweet little girl was born at 5:33 am perfectly healthy, with no long-term signs of damage or infection.
At a double-risk of stillbirth with IUGR and chorioamnionitis, we knew we had so much to be thankful for when we saw our tiny girl.
Only five pounds, eight ounces at birth, she was under five pounds by the time we left the hospital but happy, healthy, and whole. Disregarding the doctor’s orders to “go easy” on my first postpartum meal, I felt hunger for the first time in months after delivery and chowed down on an omelet and big glass of ice water. I had craved water for six months but was not able to drink even a drop because it would come straight back up. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the taste of that hospital omelet, the half gallon of ice water that I downed without pause, and the amazing feeling of keeping it all down, with no gagging or vomiting to plague me.
After what we went through – and I make no mistake that our entire family suffered with me – it only took one look at my little girl to know that it was worth it. In the darkest part of my pregnancy, I couldn’t even recognize the “baby” part of my pregnancy. She wasn’t moving very often yet, we were having a hard time capturing her image on ultrasounds, and I didn’t feel pregnant, I just felt like I had the most severe food poisoning known to man for months. But even though I couldn’t feel very attached to the little person who was unintentionally making me so very ill, I hung on. Even when I thought neither of us would survive, I pushed forward.
The very moment I laid eyes on her, I knew without question that she was worth it.
For my baby, I would go through the darkness, the vomiting, the shaking, the severe nausea, the pain, the hospital stays, the desperation – I would do it all again for her.
She is worth every moment of suffering that I endured, and I can even look back and say that it is a privilege to have suffered for such an amazing cause – bringing my sweet little girl into the world. She is the joy of the entire family, an absolutely beautiful little girl, sweet, precocious, and advanced for her age, and not one of us can imagine our lives without her.
When we talk about being pregnant in difficult circumstances, I know what that’s like. I know it forwards and backwards, inside and out. I have been there! I have been at what, for me, was the lowest of lows. I have been humiliated and unable to move or think because of my pregnancy complications. I have been sicker than I thought a person could be, and for months at a time. I have changed a lot, too – I was not a big fan of doctors, but I definitely recognized the need for medical interventions in serious cases like mine.
My faith in Jesus Christ, and a love for someone I had never met got me through a severe case of hyperemesis gravidarum.
Pro-life activists have been accused of lacking compassion for pregnant women, although it is very obvious that true compassion is reaching out to help, not pushing someone into an abortion clinic. Being prolife in all circumstances means that we are regularly told that we don’t know what it’s like to be pregnant when it’s not easy. We are accused of wanting to “force” people to continue with their pregnancies.
The bottom line is not that we want to force anyone to do anything! But killing a living, growing, developing human being is just wrong. There will never be another little girl exactly like the one I carried in my womb. Just knowing and recognizing the value of my baby strengthened me.
Many pregnant women considering abortions are in a tough place. They think they can’t survive, can’t make it through. Trust me, I know what that is like! I essentially lost myself for nine months. My family and friends, on the rare occasion that they saw me, almost didn’t recognize me. My sole purpose during that time was survival, and I put all focus there. There was very little for me to enjoy during that time – not food, sunshine, family, hobbies, fellowship, or anything. When all of that was stripped away, I was left with my faith, my family (the little bit that I got to spend time with them), and my baby. We were in this fight together. We are survivors.
And if we can do it, I know that other women can do it too. When the only way past something is through it, through it we must go, knowing that in the end the journey is worthwhile.
For life, Jennifer Mason
Communications Director Personhood USA