Hyperemesis Gravidarum is in the news at the moment following the announcement of the Duchess of Cambridge’s third pregnancy. Although it is terrible that Kate suffers from this condition, it has raised awareness of the health condition which is so much more than bad morning sickness which I hope will lead to more support for all women are pregnant and experiencing the condition.
Karen Oliver has kindly agreed to share her story with us.
“Imagine feeling like you were about to die throughout your entire pregnancy. That’s what suffering from Hyperemesis Gravidarum (HG) feels like. HG is severe pregnancy sickness, affecting just 1-2% of pregnant women. You’d be forgiven if you’ve never heard of it, I hadn’t either until I was diagnosed with it during my first (and most likely last) pregnancy.
HG is absolutely nothing like regular morning sickness. If you’ve ever had salmonella food poisoning, you will have some idea of the scale of HG, only HG can often last anywhere between 20 weeks to the whole pregnancy. Unfortunately for me, my battle with HG did last the duration of my pregnancy.
So, what is Hyperemesis Gravidarum?
HG is prolonged and severe vomiting and nausea. Some women report vomiting up to 50 times a day, or every 20 minutes. This was certainly the case for me for the first 20 weeks, before it finally eased off to just 5-10 times a day for the rest of my pregnancy.
As you can probably imagine, this meant that getting food and drink in and keeping it down was incredibly difficult and most days, completely impossible. This lead to severe dehydration and malnourishment. In rare cases, HG can even result in complications for baby such as reduced amniotic fluid and ruptured placenta.
What does life with HG look like?
Before I received treatment, I would lay in bed all day for weeks trying to stay as still as possible because I would throw up as soon as I moved. I couldn’t brush my teeth for weeks as the toothpaste would make me throw up immediately afterwards. I would go days without showering and even on the ‘better’ days, my husband would have to get in with me to hold me up as the warm water combined with standing up would make me faint.
All I could do was just lay in my bed, puking into a bucket at my side and really hoping I wouldn’t die of chronic dehydration right there on the bed, while worrying like crazy about my precious baby.
I lost my job (and my maternity pay along with it) because of the length of time I was ill for. Socialising was out of the question and hobbies became distant memories. HG bought with it a side dish of financial chaos and chronic isolation and I slipped into a deep depression which even carried on long after the birth in the form of flash backs and PND for the first year of my son’s life.
Medication, weight loss and hospitalisation
Most HG sufferers require hospitalisation, often repeat admissions, for IV fluids and vitamins depending on the scale of their dehydration and malnourishment. This is even with the use of prescribed anti-sickness medication.
Usually the scale of malnourishment is clinically measured by high ketone levels in urine and rapid weight loss, often between 5% and 15% of their pre-pregnancy weight. I lost 2 stone within my first trimester, despite the excess fluid and bloating I had making me ‘show’ much earlier than expected.
Leading cause of death in the 1930’s
Hyperemesis Gravidarum is thought to have been the leading cause of death for pregnant women back in the 1930’s, when HG was assumed to be a mental illness caused by a subconsciously unwanted pregnancy. It’s worth noting that many HG sufferers/survivors, like myself will tell you that their pregnancies are very much wanted, and some women may have even been down the long and emotionally exhausting path of IVF treatment to conceive.
Fortunately, we’ve moved out of the dark ages and health care practice and medicine has significantly advanced. Though sadly, there are still some misconceptions surrounding the condition, even in a world where all the information you could ever need is available at our fingertips. Even in today’s society, there are incredibly devastating cases in the news where women have had to terminate their very much wanted pregnancy, often as a result of medical professionals not being aware of the range of treatments available or just unwilling to prescribe anti-emetic medication (which has been used off-label to treat pregnant women for the last 40-50 years, without a statistical increase in foetal abnormalities).
I have no doubt that the fear of prescribing medication for pregnancy sickness is part of the legacy of the Thalidomide disaster, but the same doctors wouldn’t refuse medication to a pregnant woman suffering from an asthma attack or an epileptic fit. The same logic applies to HG, in that without treatment, the woman could die and the risks to the foetus are far higher than of those posed by the medication itself. My advice to any woman facing HG with a doctor who is unwilling to prescribe medication, is to find another doctor!
Happy outcome but everlasting effects
My baby is now a perfectly healthy, happy two-year-old. I have recovered from PND and the flashbacks stopped around a year ago. I know however, that my son will never have siblings. Many women with Hyperemesis Gravidarum do go on to have subsequent pregnancies, but for me personally, sadly I don’t feel like I ever could.
For those wanting more information on HG and the treatments, I highly recommend the book “Hyperemesis Gravidarum:The Definitive Guide by Caitlin Dean RGN and Amanda Shortman” and Caitlin Dean’s blog: Spewing Mummy. Also, for those feeling utterly isolated in their experiences, join the Facebook group for Hyperemesis Gravidarum. Scrolling through this group on my phone with just the one tired finger was all I could manage some days, and it kept me going knowing I wasn’t alone.
Karen Oliver is a former social worker with a background in psychology and sociology. She is now a writer, author and the Founding Editor of Beyond The Bathroom Scale. She is also the Founder of The Health Mindset Programme an online programme for busy women who want to improve their relationship with food, exercise and their bodies.
You may like to read up on some more common pregnancy issues.