Journeying through the valley – My hyperemesis story
© October 2018 Folakemi Emem-Akpan
I am a survivor; been through hell and back, proud of my war scars, but not quite willing to do it all over again.
It began early February; that slightly bitter taste in your mouth, those slightly swollen breasts, and those occasional flashes of nausea that clue you to the fact that you are most likely pregnant. The PT strips, all of them, confirmed my suspicion. But just to be doubly sure, I had a blood test done.
I had a week’s respite between getting the positive results to when the morning sickness hit.
I wasn’t new to the game; had been to the rodeo twice before. I had a twelve-year-old daughter and an eight-year-old son, and neither of the two previous pregnancies had been that smooth sailing. My first pregnancy, I was a wide eyed, naïve newly wed whose world was rocked to the foundation by the intensity of morning sickness when I fell pregnant.
I wasn’t used to bending over the bathroom bowl puking my guts out, or curling up in the foetal position on the bathroom floor begging for respite from the nausea. Working full time as a journalist, it was a terrible terrible time, and I was vomiting at least eight/ten times a day, whether I was home, in the office or on the field.
The second time around, I kind of knew what to expect, so the sickness and the nausea and the dizziness and the vomiting eight/ten times a day was no surprise. By this time, I was still working as a journalist but as a freelancer, so it was easier on me, as I could decide when to go out to source for stories and when not to.
With those pregnancies, the morning sickness lifted around four months, and life returned to a semblance of normalcy.
This third time, I didn’t really expect the same thing because I have been told over and over again, had read countless times that no two pregnancies are the same. I had no expectations, but certainly hoped that I would have an easier time of it. This was going to be my last pregnancy. I was much older, much more financially stable, had my own business, wrote my own bills, worked for myself. I was ready to put up my feet and enjoy every little bit of it.
How wrong I was.
The first week seemed it would follow the same pattern as the previous pregnancies. Frequent visits to the bathroom to throw up, and hyper salivation; that inability to swallow your own spit without puking your guts out. It all seemed normal; at least normal by my own standards.
The second week, everything changed. One day, I started to puke and couldn’t seem to stop. I seemed to spend all the time in the bathroom. No sooner would I be out that I would go back in, until sanity demanded that I get a puke bowl and place beside me so that all I had to do was to turn my head sideways and be sick into that bowl. It became necessary because I couldn’t walk back and forth to the bathroom anymore.
Have you ever heard of someone puking 40 times a day? Well, it happened to me. When I puked 30 times a day, it was a good day. When it got to 51 times (as I counted once), it was a very bad day. 40 times a day was the average.
No off days, no weekends, no rest. Everyday puking. Everything made me puke. My own saliva. Chewing gum. A sip of water. The smell of perfume. The smell of food cooking. Even sudden movement made me puke.
One day after puking blood and having no energy to stand, I curled up on my living room floor, asking for God to take the pain and the misery away. That’s where my mother met me and carted me off to the hospital. I was barely five weeks pregnant, had dropped from my pre-pregnancy weight of 65kg to 50kg, couldn’t walk unsupported and couldn’t even hold a sensible conversation because talking tired me out.
That was the day I was officially diagnosed with hyperemesis gravidum.
A quick definition: Hyperemesis gravidarum (HG) is a pregnancy complication that is characterized by severe nausea, vomiting, weight loss, and possibly dehydration. Signs and symptoms may also include vomiting many times a day and feeling faint. Hyperemesis gravidarum is considered more severe than morning sickness.[
This definition that I have given (from Wikipedia) is one of the milder definitions of hyperemesis. To get a better understanding, imagine what morning sickness feels like in a normal pregnancy. Now multiply that awful feeling by twenty, all day long, no respite.
I had a three day stay in the hospital where I was pumped full of fluids and received anti emetic medication. The fluids brought colour back to my cheeks and gave me a semblance of strength I’d not had in weeks. The anti-emetic did not work. Even as I received the fluids, whatever food came in through my mouth ended up leaving through my mouth too.
I got discharged after three days and promptly fell into the waiting arms of sickness again.
Here’s how HG affected me:
Ptyalism; the inability to swallow my own spit without feeling nauseous or throwing up. This means I constantly had a bowl beside me to spit in, and a closed bottle whenever I went out. The salivation did not let up, and I often woke at night feeling like I was about to drown in my own spit.
The inability to drink water: Yes, I couldn’t even drink water without vomiting. I had to resort to taking very little sips per time. A surefire way to vomit was to drink a quarter cup full of water, and everything would come back up. I couldn’t even sip room temperature water. My water had to be freezing cold with pieces of ice floating in it, if it were to stand a chance of staying down.
The inability to eat food and drink water at the same time: Another sure-fire way to vomit was to eat and drink water at the same time. So, I resorted to drinking water first, then eating whatever I had to eat after and making sure I didn’t as much as sipped water for the next two hours.
Vomiting everything: There was virtually nothing that would stay down. As soon as food entered my mouth, it almost always came back out. Even when I didn’t eat, I would still vomit. If I chewed gum to stop my salivation for a while, the sweetness of the gum would make me throw up. In the very early days, even swallowing air sometimes made me vomit and I averaged about 40 times a day. Once I passed the first trimester, average puking per day moderated to about 20 times.
Nausea: Nausea is different from vomiting, and in my case was much more dreaded than the actual vomiting. Nausea is that feeling that you are about to be sick that does not relent, that does not let up until the minute you submit to the urge and throw up. The terrible thing is that you can be nauseous without it ending in being sick, and that nausea is a very terrible place to be in. And to be nauseous every waking hour is a hell I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
Vomiting blood: If you have never vomited blood before, it can be quite scary. My very first time of vomiting blood scared the hide out of me. By the second, third, fourth, fifth time, I was no longer as surprised or as scared. The doctors explained that the lining of my stomach was bruised from the constant squeezing and contractions of puking and sometimes, that bruised lining would bleed, hence the redness in my vomit. The blood was never much, and was never quite red (more of a brownish or wineish tinge) but I always knew when I was about to throw up blood. First, I would get this pinching feeling in my throat and lungs, then in my ears. And the only way to relieve it was to vomit; and there I would see the blood.
No smells please: My husband’s perfume became public enemy one. Even if I was sleeping and he sprayed perfume, I would bolt out of sleep feeling sick, sometimes choking. After a while, he had to go out of the room and into the living room to spray his perfume. Even then, the smell would carry and I would pinch my nose closed until the worst of it had passed. There was a policy of no spraying of air fresheners, always closing the kitchen door whenever cooking was going on there (especially the smell of noodles), using very little detergent to wash clothes so that the smell didn’t carry too much. A whiff of something, whether pleasant or otherwise, was enough to get me puking.
No motion: Nausea can be complicated by movement and HG made it so that movements made me sick. After eating, I had to stay in one position for at least thirty minutes to increase the chances of keeping it down. I would practically freeze into position, afraid to even as much as turn my head. And car rides were hell. I felt every bump, every rise, every pothole in my innards. For the few times I went out in a car (I couldn’t even drive so I had to be a passenger always), I always went with a coverable puke bowl, that I could be sick in and then push under the seat until I got to a place where I could properly dispose of the smelly contents.
Dizziness: I had never felt so dizzy in my life. Standing up too quick, sitting down too fast, turning my head too soon made me feel dizzy.
Lethargy: I have never been a lazy person in my life, and when HG hit, it hit in all of its lethargic glory. I would lay down on my bed, psychologically encouraging myself to get up and go to the bathroom or get up and go take a bath. The task I needed to do might require nothing more than 10 minutes, but I would have to encourage myself for nothing less than 2 hours before I could get up to do it. To walk to the bathroom and take a bath needed more psychological prodding than I could handle and I am ashamed to admit there were two/three days I didn’t take a bath. When I did muster enough strength to get to the bathroom, I had to sit on the edge of the bath up to get through the ordeal. Days when my husband was at home, he sometimes had to bathe me. Also, my laptop would gather dust for days, sometimes weeks on end. Running your own business, you never get off days or sick days, and even though I worked from home, a lot of things needed my attention. I would take calls, put the caller on hold while I puked into my bowl. Then I would wipe off my mouth and continue the conversation. Clients don’t want to deal with business owners who appear weak, so my energy was conserved for those calls. I would put life and enthusiasm and force into my voice, and not one of these people ever got an inkling that I was going through a personal hell. I also work as a freelance editor and writer, and those nine months, I had to turn down so many writing projects my bank account knew It was missing something. An avid book consumer, I read an average of three new books per week. During this period, if I got to finish one book in three weeks, it was a record. My brain was active. It was filled with ideas. My brain wanted to read, wanted to work, wanted to fire. But my physical strength couldn’t just match up with my mental strength, and I would lay there, my brain working feverishly, but my body unable to carry out the demands of my imagination.
Dental issues: Of all my family members, I have always had the need for more dental care, being more susceptible to cavities than all the others. During this journey, I learnt that journeying through HG while having prior and underlining dental problems is no joke. The stomach is full of gastric acid whose job is to break down food enzymes. Now, when you bring back food that has gone into your stomach, it comes back not alone but with gastric acid and this does a number on your teeth and gums. Combined with the fact that I wasn’t brushing regularly, I had to pay two very unpleasant visits to the dentist during this period to fill cavities that wouldn’t stay filled. The filling would crack and break and fall into my food, and the pain would begin. The last cavity fell out when I was about seven months pregnant and I chose to bear the pain of it until after delivery. But it wasn’t fun.
Insomnia: The only thing that made all the ugliness of HG go away was sleep. When you’re sleeping, you’re not sick or nauseous, and it was a glorious time to forget it all. But I just couldn’t sleep. I wanted to sleep. I wanted that blissful oblivion, but couldn’t get it, couldn’t attain it. I would lay there, awake while everybody slept, exhausted and fully aware of all the aches and pains of my body.
Now. Moving on from hyperemesis, I also had some other trying issues. It seemed every side effect of pregnancy seemed to want to make their abode with me. From month two onwards, I had tail bone pain. There was no painkiller for this and this means I was in agony for seven months. We tried massage, hot water therapy, cold water therapy, everything that could be tried. The pain meant that I couldn’t stand for long. It meant I couldn’t sit for long either, so I was always alternating between sitting down, laying down and standing up. It didn’t help. The pain also meant that I had to walk very slowly. Moving up and down the stairs in my house was a chore and there were times I didn’t come down from my room to the living room for days.
Throughout this trying period, Google was both a friend and an enemy. There is virtually no information under heaven you can’t find on google, and I became an instant authority on HG. What I discovered was frightening. Online, I read the stories of women who had gone through the same valley that I was going through. I read of triumphs and failures. I read of women whose HG resolved in the first trimester, and of those very few who battled HG the whole nine months. I read of women who had to have PICC lines in throughout through which their food and nourishment was delivered. I read of women who had ten and more hospital stays in the course of their pregnancies. I read of women who were so sick they considered terminating their pregnancies, even though the pregnancy was planned and the baby very much wanted. I triumphed with the triumphs, and I sorrowed with the losses.
I heard all kinds of opinions. Some felt I was just being lazy. I wasn’t the first woman to be pregnant, was I? And it wasn’t even my first baby. Some attributed my being sick to my advanced maternal age (I wasn’t a spring chicken by any means). I took it all in stride. What was harder to swallow was the assumption on behalf of some that my faith wasn’t strong enough. A born-again Christian, I profess faith and have enjoyed divine health for years. For more than fifteen years, I haven’t visited the hospital except for deliveries, dental interventions and annual checkups. To be so confronted with illness was unexpected. I prayed. I cried out to God. I lay myself bare before Him. I put all of the faith I had, or thought I had, on the line. Yet I was still sick.
And unlike most HG cases that resolve by 20 weeks, I was one of the unlucky ones who bore the full brunt of it for the whole nine months. At the end, I wasn’t puking 40 times a day anymore, but was averaging 8 times. And the very last time I spat in my spit bottle was after Israel was born, right there on the delivery table.
Why this story/article?
First, it serves as my catharsis, my exhale after the long inhale of pregnancy. Imagine what it feels like when you hold your breath for so long you feel you are about to die. Imagine the sweet release when you finally exhale. This is how I feel right now. All the emotions I felt, all the feelings I felt that I couldn’t express as at that time, herein is the expression.
Secondly, I write because I write about every major event in my life. Whether I decide to share my writings with others is another matter entirely, but I write whether I am happy, sad; jubilant, crushed; whether on the verge of success or failure. I write because writing is like fire shut up in my bones. It must find a way out.
Thirdly, I write because of my darling Israel. Now that he is here, he is worth the nine months of hell. They put him on my belly the moment I pushed him out, and as my hand reached out to stroke him and as he let out that indignant wail every new mother wants to hear, I fell in love. I had loved him from the moment I knew I was pregnant, but this was another kind of love. He was real; he was here; and he was mine. I fell in love irrevocably, and my heart is forever bound with his, just like it is with my two older ones.
But would I do this again, if I had been told at the very beginning that the journey would be so emotionally arduous and physically debilitating? I don’t think so. And that’s why I thank God daily that I didn’t have a clue that I would be so sick. If I had, I would probably never had attempted to get pregnant, and then Israel wouldn’t be here. So, thank you God, for keeping me in perfect oblivion.
Fourthly, I write for my family. For my husband who was a bulwark of strength; whom I had never seen to be so tender in all of our thirteen years of marriage. I write for my husband who would encourage me, and bathe me, and come home with all kinds of fruits and food, encouraging me to just take a bite.
I write for my older kids. They emptied bowl after bowl of vomit. They curled up on the bare floor with me and cried with me. They bought treats with their own money and coaxed me to eat. They effectively lost their mother for those nine months because I couldn’t cook, couldn’t help with their school work, could hardly speak to them. I write because I am ecstatic to be their mother once again.
I write for my mother, who cooked meal after meal, and brought them to me. She cooked not just for me, but for my family, so that we could retain a semblance of normalcy. For my husband’s birthday, she made a feast and brought it to my door, so I didn’t have to cater to the few visitors we had. In those nine months, we made a full transition from a mother/daughter relationship into a friendship. How glad I am of her friendship.
Finally, I write as an apology to two sets of people.
I write in apology to every challenged Christian who’s been judged by other Christians as not being prayerful enough, not holy enough or not with enough faith to get that problem solved. I find that we Christians are about the most judgmental people alive. We tend to think that if someone has a problem and can’t get hold of a solution, he must either be a closet sinner or a faithless Christian. I used to be one of the people who thought that way until I went through my own valley. Through it all, I never questioned my Christianity and God’s love towards me, but I questioned whether I had enough faith. If the Bible has said that we can with faith as tiny as a mustard seed move mountains, why wasn’t I moving the mountain in my path. I will never understand why HG decided to pitch its tent with me, but perhaps it was for me to get a better understanding of the prejudice and silent criticism faced by challenged Christians.
I also write in apology to every pregnant woman who has symptoms and complaints no one else seems to understand. Our society has a way of labelling a sick or complaining pregnant woman as being just plain lazy. We are fond of asking if they were the very first woman to be pregnant. Now, I realise that if its not your body, you just don’t know. We have no right to question a woman’s unique symptoms. Is it your body? If not, how can you tell that she’s exaggerating. Quite the opposite; a lot of us tend to keep quiet and suffer in silence because we don’t want to be labelled as whinny. Even in hospital settings, even face to face with our doctors who are supposed to be serving us, we hold back information. We don’t speak up because we’re told, “it’s just a sign of pregnancy”. I want to encourage you. Speak up. Ask questions. Say how it is. Refuse to be intimidated.
My journey through the valley of hyperemesis gravidum produced a most bountiful fruit; the fruit of a baby boy whom I have fallen helplessly and forever in love with. And my journey through this hell has taught me patience, compassion, and a renewed appreciation for family and loved ones.
For this, I am eternally grateful.