Warning: this post deals in great detail with the trials and tribulations of hyperemesis. You might not want to read this essay over lunch.
The first time I realized something was wrong, I was at work. After spending the morning making phone calls and responding to emails, I pushed my chair out from my desk and then promptly buckled as a wave of nausea rolled over me. I gripped the edge of the table, sank back down into my rolling chair, and focused on breathing deeply and waiting until the queasiness passed. It was odd, but I wrote it off. It was nearly lunchtime: I probably just had low blood sugar and had stood up too quickly.
The next day, the nausea hit again. Only this time I threw up in my office trash can.
Over the next few days, the vomiting intensified. I spent the weekend curled up on the bathroom floor in abject misery. I debated calling out sick on Monday and Tuesday, but I had just started an intense new job and didn’t want to fall behind. It sucked, sure, but it was just a stomach bug. It couldn’t last forever, right? I nibbled on Saltines and sipped at ginger ale and prayed for the illness to abate quickly.
The next morning, I woke up to my husband frantically calling my name and shaking me. Well at least, I thought he was shaking me. It turned out I was actually having full-body convulsions. It was frightening enough that I didn’t protest when he insisted on taking me to the emergency room.
At the hospital, the endless stream of questions began. A half dozen medical personnel quizzed me about my health history. Every person concluded with the same question: could you be pregnant? I scoffed. There was no way! I was taking birth control pills. I hadn’t missed a period. I mean, I understood where the question was coming from: I was a female patient in the prime of my childbearing years. But it just seemed like such a pedestrian diagnosis. Surely I had the plague, or something more glamorous?
My blood work told a different story, though: it came back baby-positive.
Within a few hours, the hospital had pumped me full of fluids (my convulsions had been brought on by dehydration) and anti-nausea medication, and sent me for an ultrasound. Even though scans showed I was only three to four weeks along, my husband and I realized we were going to have to start sharing our unexpected news. My nausea was so out of control, there was no way I’d be able to hide it for too long. We also made the decision to tell my boss so she knew why I had hastily called out sick on my way to the hospital that morning.
Everyone in our respective families was thrilled when we shared our news. My sister nearly drove her car off the road in her gleeful celebration. I had trouble sharing in everyone’s joy, though. I was so sick all of the time. I cursed whoever had coined the term morning sickness. It was woefully inadequate to describe what I was going through. I was sick morning, noon, and night. I began sleeping with a bucket next to my bed because I would sometimes wake up already gagging. No matter what I ate, it wouldn’t stay down. Even dainty sips of water would quickly come back up. Soon I was avoiding all but the most bland and inoffensive foods. I lost ten pounds in two weeks. It turned out getting knocked up was the most efficient weight-loss program I had ever been on.
Still, I tried my best to maintain a positive attitude. The first trimester is only thirteen weeks long. Everyone assured me that after that, my nausea should taper off. I could make it just a few more weeks. Surely the second trimester would bring relief from my nonstop discomfort. And in the meantime, I learned to mostly cope with it. I warned people up front that I was experiencing worse-than-typical morning sickness, and usually managed to excuse myself from meetings in time to make it to the ladies room, which I always scoped out immediately upon arriving at a new location. I factored in extra time for my commute in case I needed to be sick on the side of the road. I carried plastic bags everywhere I went in case the sickness struck without warning. Once, an unexpected wallop of nausea hit me as I was cruising through heavy traffic on I-75, without giving me enough warning to navigate through the cars and pull over. I flipped on the cruise control, grabbed a grocery bag, and threw up twice going 70mph.
Alas, when the second trimester arrived, my sickness seemed to increase instead of decrease. At the peak of my illness, around 20 weeks into my pregnancy, I was throwing up anywhere from 20-25 times per day. I continued to drop weight. I was hospitalized three times for dehydration. And though my boss didn’t outright fire me, she made it clear that she was very unhappy with my inability to perform to my pre-pregnancy levels of work. I was exhausted. I felt like there was no end in sight. I was demoralized. And so, even though it would reduce our household income by 40%, I allowed myself to be pressured into leaving my job.
What I was experiencing was not your run-of-the-mill morning sickness: I was suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum, a condition which affects fewer than 2% of pregnancies. This rare disease is characterized by persistent and severe nausea and vomiting that often runs the course of an entire pregnancy. Affected women often experience severe dehydration, weight loss, and vitamin and mineral deficiencies. More severe cases may lead to central nervous system complications as well as liver and renal failure. While there is speculation on what triggers the onset of hyperemesis, no one knows exactly what causes this condition. Some people think it may be related to motion sickness (which I am also afflicted with): there is also some belief that women who are sensitive to the hormone fluctuations of pregnancy (specifically estrogen and hCG) are likely to suffer from hyperemesis. There are some commonalities when it comes to cases of hyperemesis. If you’re under 30, you may be at risk. Sisters and daughters of someone who has suffered from hyperemesis have a greater incidence of suffering from the disorder. Women carrying female fetuses are also much more likely to have the condition.
My pregnancy felt like it stretched on for more nine years instead of nine months. I took prescription anti-nausea meds like Zofran, but they did little to help on bad days since I couldn’t keep them down. I wore Sea Bands, which have helped in the past with my motion sickess: they seemed to have a small palliative effect, though it may have just been psychological. After eons of misery though, I ultimately gave birth to a healthy baby girl. She was induced a few days ahead of my due date after a particularly bad stretch of days caused me to drop another five pounds in the matter of a week. She weighed in at a dainty 5 pounds 10 ounces, but she was strong and energetic from the get go: she lifted her head up and looked around the room the moment they set her on my chest. My joy at finally meeting her was rivaled only by my happiness at no longer spending my days curled up on the bathroom floor. Thankfully, my nausea that had plagued me evaporated within hours of her birth, and has not returned in the intervening 18 months so I can devote plenty of attention to her without constantly scouting appropriate vomiting locations.
While I was still in thick of it, my friends and families did their best to be understanding about my level of illness. My mom experienced it with both of her pregnancies, so she was definitely a sympathetic shoulder, and my husband was extremely supportive. But the amount of people who seemed to think nibbling on crackers and sipping on ginger ale would fix me right up was astounding. I appreciated the well-meaning advice the first four hundred times I heard it but it began to grate after a while, especially from friendly acquaintances who had heard I was unwell but hadn’t witnessed the full torrent of my sickness. Even now, people seem surprised when they ask when my husband I will get started on baby number two and I tell them that Eisley will be an only child. While some brave mothers decide to take the risk and try for another baby after a bout with hyperemesis, I am steadfast in my commitment to never put myself, my body, or my family through 40 weeks of torture like that again.
Recently though, hyperemesis gravidarum has gained a very public face. Duchess Kate Middleton was forced to announce her pregnancy at just twelve weeks when she was hospitalized early in her pregnancy, and palace officials announced she was afflicted with the disorder. My heart goes out to her – I seriously wouldn’t wish this condition on my worst enemy – but I am relieved to see that it’s finally becoming more well-known. I was lucky enough to face mostly compassionate responses during my struggles with this disease, even from people who didn’t fully get what I was going through, but many women don’t get support from their family, friends, and employers thanks to the mystique of this little-known disorder. It is my hope that more widespread knowledge of hyperemesis gravidarum could lead to a better understanding, and maybe even a cure.
Have you suffered from hyperemesis gravidarum? If so, please share your stories and coping strategies in our comment section!
Kate Wight is a freelance writer and work-at-home mom to a daughter Eisley, who was born in October of 2011. Kate writes for a variety of clients on topics ranging from eco-friendly living to social justice issues to fashion when she’s not busy chasing after her very active toddler. You can read more of her work at the Bob Brown Art blog or in Edible Sarasota magazine.