Photo: Ann Marie Collymore
I read a lot of books and articles when I was pregnant. My goal was to be as informed as I could be on all things pregnancy-related. It was my first rodeo and I was 42 years old, and fell into the category of being “at-risk” for a list of pregnancy ailments. From c-sections to pre-term labour, I thought I was thoroughly book- and internet-savvy, right down to preeclampsia. However, postpartum preeclampsia was something I wasn't ready for. This disease that I somehow overlooked nearly took my life.
This rare disease is a close cousin to preeclampsia and is also related to high blood pressure. The symptoms, which include stomach pain, vision changes, nausea, shortness of breath, severe headaches and major swelling in the face, hands, feet or limbs, usually come on right after giving birth but can appear up to six months afterward. The scary thing about it is, like me, some women may not even have any symptoms or signs during pregnancy.
And as it turns out, I had the most severe form of preeclampsia—HELLP Syndrome. This life-threatening complication stands for hemolysis (H), which is the breaking down of red blood cells; elevated liver enzymes (EL); and low platelet count (LP). Its symptoms are the same as preeclampsia but also include pain in the upper right abdomen, shoulder, neck and upper body pain and seizure. It’s rare—only about one in one thousand women will develop this disease. It can slowly creep up on you or attack aggressively. Either way, if you don’t get prompt medical care, the disease can cause seizures, stroke, organ damage or even death.
A few days before a scheduled c-section, I started having contractions. An epidural was administered once I settled in at the hospital and I was told to rest since I was only a few centimetres dilated. Because I had polyhydramnios—meaning I carried way more amniotic fluid that was actually needed—my baby was lying sideways. Within a few hours, he was in distress and needed to come out. I was whisked away to an operating room for an emergency c-section.
The next thing I remember is my sister waking me by vigorously tapping my ice-cold hand to alert me to her presence, then I blacked out. Again, she tapped my hand, and this time my baby had arrived and was swaddled and being presented to me by the nurse. All I could muster up was a smidgen of a smile at my sister before I blacked out again. I think the doctors must have thought I was asleep, but I felt like I was already starting to slip away. I felt disconnected from reality. Even in the recovery room as my family and my baby’s dad celebrated, I knew something was amiss, but I wasn’t able to communicate what I was feeling. It felt like what I imagine an out of body experience would feel like. I concluded that I needed rest, closed my eyes and figured the feeling would go away after some sleep.
I will always remember the look of distress on my mother’s face when I woke up the next day. All of my responses to the doctor’s questions caused her alarm. He asked my name and I replied with my telephone number. I didn’t know where I was, why I was there and what was happening. I was later told that my tongue hung out of my mouth similar to a dog suffering from heatstroke. And for a while, my family thought that I had actually suffered from a stroke. However, the acting resident doctor didn’t seem to have a sense of urgency. But my mom knew the person with the vacant gaze lying in the hospital bed was not her spritely, outgoing, logophile of a daughter. And with over 20 years in the field of senior care, she knew just how to handle dismissive doctors. She demanded tests to be run and wanted answers ASAP.
I was moved to another wing of the hospital and monitored by two nurses. After a barrage of tests, they still couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me, but they did come to the conclusion that I may have been suffering from organ failure. The next day, I was awake for a little bit and needed to make my way to the bathroom, wheeling my IV and dragging the dead-weight of my feet under me. My nurse came with me to help, but the room started to spin, gravity took over and I felt myself letting go. I fainted, slammed my head on the floor and woke up attached to every machine imaginable. Over the next five days, I went through a myriad of complications: my liver and kidneys were failing, my blood pressure was sky high in a state of hypertensive crisis and my blood sugar dropped significantly, leaving me on the border of slipping into a coma. My platelet number dropped and my blood wouldn't clot to allow my fresh c-section cut to heal. I had visual and aural hallucinations, and when I finally gained full consciousness again five days later after, I woke up realizing that I had trouble formulating proper sentences. It would take me a minute or two to find the words I was looking for—and sometimes I couldn’t find them at all. This speech impediment absolutely terrified me.
Amazingly, I wasn't properly diagnosed with postpartum preeclampsia until my fourth day in the hospital. That’s how hard it is to recognize. According to my family, everything was happening very fast. My body was shutting down and my health was swiftly deteriorating—meanwhile, with so many different symptoms, including some that threw the doctors off completely, it was a challenge for them to figure out postpartum preeclampsia was the culprit that was ravaging my body. I was treated with a vigorous medication schedule to control my blood pressure and sugar, routine blood tests and round-the-clock monitoring. However, they could only do so much. The rest was up to my mind, body, and spirit. According to my doctor, thankfully, everything worked in tandem to bring me back to my reality, my family and to my little boy.
When I regained consciousness and could somewhat make sense of things again, an onslaught of worries and emotions overcame me. How would I run my copywriting business or take freelance jobs if I had trouble formulating a sentence? How would I be able to take care of my baby who has been residing in the NICU for almost a week because of an ill mother? I felt that a lot of firsts were stolen from me because of my condition—breastfeeding, initial skin-to-skin contact during those important first few minutes and more. I also faced a daunting recovery all the while caring for a newborn and navigating the journey of new motherhood.
Since this all took place, I’ve spoken with many mothers about their experience during childbirth and the poignant recurring issue that I’ve noticed is women not speaking their truth while in the hospital. Some felt things weren’t right physically or just didn’t feel right about something happening to their body like discomfort or a twinge of pain in an unfamiliar place, yet they decided to remain silent. From fear to temperamental and unresponsive doctors, there were many reasons why women just didn’t bother. But it’s so important for women to have their voices heard. My mother recalls having to follow the doctor and his medical residents into the hallway to adamantly plead my case because he didn’t seem too concerned with my status after his visit. This whole ordeal could have gone differently if she wasn’t there to advocate on my behalf.
This experience was definitely nowhere in the peripheral of what I expected or envisioned for my first baby’s delivery. And the ordeal didn’t end there. I went on to suffer from an extreme case of carpal tunnel that derived from my pregnancy, which lead to extensive damage to both of my hands, a bout of postpartum depression, two surgeries and more. Let’s just say my healing process was mostly a disastrous roller-coaster ride, but I made it through! As I come upon my boy’s second birthday, I can say that after therapy and a healthy dose of love and support from family and close friends, I’m finally starting to feel like myself again, with a bright-eyed, boisterous and happy little boy in tow. I'm battered with many bruises and battle scars, but I'm still here laughing, loving, writing, chasing dreams and persevering—and for that, I’m eternally grateful.