By Evan Cooper.
Think back to a time when you were so nauseated that you could barely breathe. Perhaps you caught a stomach bug, became the unfortunate victim of food poisoning, or found yourself on a boat that lurched and swayed so severely that you begged to be back on solid ground. Now take that sensation of nausea and triple it, quadruple it, times it by ten. But in this case, there is no medical antidote, no ridding the body of offending bacteria, and certainly no shore in sight.
This is how it feels to be pregnant and suffering from the rare, but merciless condition known as Hyperemesis Gravidarum.
About 75 percent of women who become pregnant experience what is classically labeled as “morning sickness,” a regretful period of time that, for many, lasts far beyond the morning hours and, often, around the clock. But a smaller percentage of pregnant women, around two percent to be exact, will suffer from nausea so intense that even a single sip of water becomes impossible to ingest and vomiting so violent, only a hospital stay can replenish the body’s lost vital nutrients. Ultimately, if left untreated, HG can be fatal for both mother and child.
When I became pregnant nearly seven years ago, I had visions of transforming into that ubiquitous vision of an ethereal earth mama; a radiant vessel of creative female energy; the embodiment of the yoga goddess Shakti herself. I had no idea that I was about to become sicker than I’d ever been in my life. In my mind, pregnancy was to be a time of euphoria and grace, not illness and struggle. After all, I’d already been there, done that.
As a teenager, I had overcome a frightening episode of partial blindness with the potential diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis looming eerily over me for years to come. In my efforts to heal, I discovered yoga and, after making a full recovery, went on to become a yoga instructor and wellness author aimed at helping tween and teen girls through the trials of adolescence and life in general. Through all of this, I became a devotee of the mind-body-spirit connection and grew to believe that through a combination of mental stamina, physical discipline, and spiritual faith, I could literally handle ANYTHING.
Then I became pregnant. And rather than reveling in this glorious phase of my life, Hyperemesis literally brought me to my knees and made me beg for mercy before the porcelain god. It didn’t matter that I desperately wanted the life growing within me; there was no mantra, no yoga pose, no degree of faith or fortitude that could save me from the ever-increasing wrath of Hyperemesis Gravidarum on my body. Only modern medicine could do that.
Now, every day, when I look at my feisty, energetic, beautiful, freshly minted six year old girl, Emerson Eden, I experience a rush of gratitude for the care I received that enabled me and my baby to survive the seemingly endless 36 1/2 weeks that was my first pregnancy.
But what of the thousands of women who do not have access to such medical support? According the World Health Organization, approximately 800 women day every single day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. Imagine, if you can, being pregnant in sub-Saharan Africa or rural Haiti or one of the many other areas where women must suffer silently and who are unable to get the help they need. But it’s not just in these far away, foreign places where women are dying due to poor or non-existent maternal care; it’s right here, in the United States of America. Shockingly, the maternal morbidity rate in the US is around fifteen deaths per 100,000 births, meaning that each year in the U.S. alone, about 700 women die of pregnancy related complications.
Statistics aside, the loss of a mother– any mother– is a tragedy beyond comprehension. Yet, more often than not, due to our busy lives and shielded hearts, an issue such as this, must touch us personally before we are motivated to incite change. My experience with HG (through one fruitful pregnancy and two subsequent lost ones) was like a wake up call, opening my eyes to the issues surrounding maternal health. Out of my physical and emotional anguish was born a deep driving desire to shed light on the need to raise funds, supplies, and support for pregnant women who so desperately need and deserve it.
In a culture where celebrity baby-bump watching has become a pop-cultural past time, and losing the “baby-weight” is a commonplace conversation, it might sound rather dramatic that I literally thank god that I survived pregnancy. But I do. And this is my story.
After doctors determined that I would require the help of IVF in order to conceive, I made an appointment with my OB for a routine examination and to begin the process of fertility treatments. At that very same appointment, the nurse entered the exam room and quizzically announced that my routine pregnancy test had lit up positively. My OB looked at me, smiled, and encouraged me not to get too excited. “I’d love to see you prove science wrong, though!” he winked.
Well, I did. Blood tests concluded that I was most definitively pregnant and my husband and I were over the moon with excitement. Barely three weeks into my baby’s gestation, however, I began to suffer from the dreaded morning sickness that most women do. But by a little over five weeks in, we knew what I was experiencing was much more intense than your every day reaction to rapidly increasing hormones. I couldn’t eat and, more critically, I couldn’t drink. I was trapped at the foot of the toilet, struggling to catch my breath between heaving up bile. ER visits became frequent and by my third visit, and after quickly shrinking down to a mere 90 lbs. from a previously strong and athletic 110 lbs., I was officially admitted to the hospital. I literally could not stop retching. It didn’t matter that there was nothing left in my stomach; my body reacted as if there was. In fact, my body reacted as if it were being attacked. And it was pure torture. I remember pleading with my husband to help me, knowing full well, there was nothing he could do but sit there, helpless. I was so severely dehydrated that, even once rehydrated via IV, the flu-like feeling of nausea was simply beyond what my brain could handle.
A week into my hospital stay, as I lied with colorful bags of various electrolyte filled fluids dripping slowly into my veins, the doctors diagnosed me as stable and gave me the green light to go home. Though medically speaking, I was now out of the danger zone, physically, I writhed in misery. Home care was arranged and a “Zofran pump” – a device that functions much like an insulin pump, which attaches to your body through a tiny tube and delivers a constant stream of antiemetic medication around the clock–was delivered to my door. Fortunately, with a physician husband, I was spared the gruesome job of sticking myself with the needle and tube every three days to give each insertion point a rest. And while the Zofran kept me from actually vomiting, the nausea remained extreme. Not to mention, the liquid medication that would drip into various parts of my thighs was so caustic, it left wide, red, swollen mounds at every infusion site.
Although I was a weakened version of my former myself, I managed to get through the pregnancy without requiring a feeding tube or a PICC line (peripherally inserted central catheter, which is more of a permanent IV line that terminates in a large vein near the heart) and eventually was able to gain back my weight and then some by my third trimester. And on May 4, 2008, my incredible daughter came into this world. She was a bit early and came with as much urgency as she had grown within me via frightening crash Cesarean section. But she was here and, together with a team of support, we had made it.
Believe it or not, in the years following the birth of our daughter, I wanted to try for another baby. Whenever I’d suggest it, my husband would protest. “You just don’t remember how awful it was; you’ve clearly blocked it out. Please don’t put yourself through that again!” he would beg. But two times I did. Sadly, I lost my subsequent pregnancies for reasons unrelated to HG, but not before suffering through a good several weeks of it each time. And he was right: each time, I would forget how bad it was; I’d forget because all I wanted was to cradle that baby, a sibling for my daughter, in my arms. And while I know now that I cannot put myself or my family through any more pregnancies, I still long for a second baby. That’s how strong biology is; that’s the power of motherhood.
The sad truth is, like any ailment, Hyperemesis does not just wreak havoc on the body of it’s sufferer; it plays a nasty game with her heart and mind as well. For, only hours after I lost my subsequent pregnancies, I would be simultaneously freed from the brutal grasp of incapacitating nausea, and promptly imprisoned in a coop of unconscionable grief at the loss of my much longed for second child. I have spent years pondering, obsessing, reliving, and reviling those moments; moments wherein Hyperemesis truly robbed me of my sanity and, had I not had the necessary intervention, nearly my life. I don’t think I’ll ever stop grieving for the babies I might have had, but perhaps, out of my sadness, others might be saved.
While HG is no longer a common cause of maternal death around the world, pregnant women are still dying as a result of severe bleeding (often after giving birth), postnatal infections, high blood pressure, unsafe abortion, AIDS, malaria, and a host of other complications. In a day and age where we can successfully transplant hearts and send satellites to Mars, it is unfathomable that we would allow even a single woman to die during pregnancy or childbirth. But it is a stark and very real reality that must be addressed.
It is commonly said that our most creative acts are born out of our most extraordinary moments of suffering or grief; that it is our pain that leads us to enact positive change. And this is surely the case for me. I’ve both celebrated and suffered through pregnancies, I’ve gloried and I’ve grieved. I’ve learned the impossible lesson that, when it comes to bringing life into the world, so much is out of our control. But we must take action where and when we can. Somehow, we must ensure that every mother has the medical care she needs during pregnancy and after. Because, as the current champion of this cause, Christy Turlington, super-model turned women’s activist, so aptly named her brainchild organization, Every Mother Counts.
Evan Cooper is the author of a popular book for tween and teen girls: Um, Like…OM: A Girl Goddesses Guide to Yoga (Little, Brown), a blogger at www.spiritandsole.net where she ruminates on the experience of being a “spiritual girl in a material world”™, and momma to a spunky 6 year old dancer girl, Emerson Eden. After being deeply transformed by her personal experiences of pregnancy, Evan aspires to be of service to the cause of improving maternal health around the world. She is currently at work on her second book.
Jennifer Pastiloff, Beauty Hunter, is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Jen’s leading one of her signature retreats to Ojai, Calif. over New Years. Check out jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up: South Dakota, NYC, Dallas, Kripalu Center For Yoga & Health, Tuscany. She is also leading a Writing + The Body Retreat with Lidia Yuknavitch Jan 30-Feb 1 in Ojai (2 spots left.)