We sat in the lobby at St. Thomas Midtown, Dr. H’s orders in hand. The sobbing had commenced, and Terra was trying desperately to keep me calm. It took forever to get me admitted, which these emergency situations usually do. Terra and I didn’t really have any idea how serious things were about to get. When we left Dr. H’s office to head over the hospital, the nurses all hugged us . . .that should have been a good indicator.
I felt like complete hell by now. I hadn’t eaten all day, and it was now around 5 pm. I had a blinding headache, which I assumed went hand in hand with the sobbing. Once I was admitted and wheeled to my room, the nurse explained to be that I was going to be put on a magnesium drip because my blood pressure was well above stroke range. It took 8 nurses with 30+ years of experience 10 times of blowing out my veins in all regions of my swollen arms before they finally paged the head of Radiology. Everyone was gathered around me when he arrived in my room. He had six walky-talkies around his neck and three pagers on his waist. He commented on how I looked like I was in the middle of a scene from “Psycho”, found a vein, and hit it on the first try. That was the last time I saw ever saw him. I was ok with that!
Did I mention that I’m thirty-four years old, and before this day, I hadn’t been in a hospital since the day I was born? I had never had blood drawn except my initial pregnancy panel. Needless to say, I was petrified by everything I had already experienced up to this point.
The magnesium made me extremely sick – dizzy, nauseous, hot flashes, aches, pains, heart palpitations, extreme fatigue, and uncontrollable shaking are among the lovely side effects. In addition to the magnesium, I had to have a catheter put in, and bag after bag of fluids were being pumped in to my body. The nurses were coming in every fifteen minutes and taking my blood pressure. They were gathering outside my door, and we could hear them talking about me in hushed voices. The nurses, young and old, had never seen someone in my condition. My doctor kept calling my nurses on their cell phones when they would come in to check my blood pressure, but they wouldn’t tell me what she was saying. They just kept telling me to try to relax. (I think “high anxiety patient” might be written somewhere in my chart – lol). We just kept asking about Ruby – we wanted to make sure that she was ok, and everyone assured us that Ruby was perfect. I kept telling everyone who would listen that I hadn’t felt Ruby move or kick since about noon that day. Dr. H ordered an in room ultrasound, and Ruby was measuring at 3 lbs, 9 oz with a steady heart rate and no signs of distress. This was the only news I cared about as I lay there feeling like a giant pile of hangover.
About six hours after I was put in IV fluids, I started to swell. I was already swollen, but this was a whole different ball game. My legs turned purple. I couldn’t turn my head or bend my fingers. My catheter bag was empty – no fluids were leaving my body. I was getting sicker and sicker. The scale on the bed showed that I had gained 4 pounds since I was admitted, and my blood pressure was not being controlled by the magnesium. I only had a passing acquaintance with what was going on, and I kept trying to joke around with Terra and pretend this was all just ‘precautionary’. But she was terrified, and although she was trying to hide it, it was all over her face.
Somehow, I made it through the magnesium-filled night. Neither Terra nor myself slept. I shook uncontrollably, prayed, cried out to God to get me and Ruby through this. Terra pretended the things coming out of my mouth made sense, and she rotated icy cold towels on my forehead and neck. My nurse came in at some point in the night and gave me a steroid shot to help build Ruby’s lungs in utero. When the sun came up, I felt relieved, even though I knew I had another ten hours of magnesium to suffer through. The next day was more of the same. Now, my arms were bruised and swollen, my head was pounding, and we still didn’t really know what was going on. I have a vague memory of my mother-in-law standing by my bed and laying her hands on me and praying me and Ruby.
At the stroke of 5pm, my nurse came in and shut off the magnesium drip. Within minutes, I started to perk up and feel better. I still couldn’t eat or drink anything, but I was able to think somewhat clearly for the first time. I was now 32 weeks and 3 days pregnant and receiving my second steroid shot to help strengthen my baby’s lungs. Shortly after the magnesium was turned off and most of my sweat had dried up, Dr. H appeared like an angel to see how we were doing. We were SO HAPPY to see her, I’m pretty sure I cried (again)! She told us she’d been on call all night, running around the hospital delivering babies and checking in on me via my nurse for the last twenty four hours. She’d been observing my labs and blood pressure and urine, none of which was looking good to her. I couldn’t believe that, because I felt so much better! Dr. H told us about HELLP Syndrome, and told us that delivery was no longer a ‘maybe’ at this point. Our baby had to come out in the next twelve to twenty four hours or both me and the baby would die. Dr. H told us that induction was still a possible option, but that if my numbers continued to decline through the night, a vaginal delivery would not be feasible due to the time constraints of my rapidly failing health.
We were moved to a smaller room in another part of the hospital so we could rest up for whatever the next day would bring. I hadn’t showered in so long, and I had been sick and sweating all night, so I was anxious to get cleaned up. My legs weren’t exactly cooperating with that, so Terra helped me shower and get in to bed. I still wasn’t allowed to have anything to eat or drink, but the nurse’s tech snuck me some peanut butter and graham crackers since I hadn’t eaten in literally days. It was the most delicious thing I’d ever tasted!
For the first time since we were admitted, we had a quite and restful night. I prayed myself to sleep and finally found some peace with what was happening to me. I felt like God was telling me everything was going to be ok, and that Ruby and I were in His hands. I was hooked up to an automatic blood pressure monitor that took my blood pressure every fifteen minutes. I slept through most of it! The next thing I knew, I was waking up and Dr. H was standing at the foot of my bed. She told me that she’d slept in the doctor’s lounge that night, and that she’d been watching my readings and making her assessment of how to proceed. Her diagnosis was in: I had HELLP syndrome, and my kidneys were failing. My blood pressure was dangerously high, and my blood was rapidly losing the ability to clot. We had to get the baby out, and it had to be now. When we asked if we had time to call our families (my family lives in St. Louis, which is five hours away), she stated that we could make the calls but that the operating room was already being prepped and that the anesthesia team would be in shortly to prep me for an emergency C-section. In less than an hour, our baby would be here.
I knew NOTHING about C-sections. I had done all this reading on vaginal deliveries, breathing techniques, I had even reserved Terra and I the special ‘birthing suite’ for delivery. I didn’t know how C-sections worked, I didn’t know what was going to happen to me or to the baby, and I didn’t know who was going to be doing what to me. I was completely unprepared because a C-section had never even been on my radar.
I called my mom and expressed to her how much anxiety I was having. She gave me wonderful advice: she told me not to panic, that I was in God’s hands, and to trust the God was the one guiding the eyes and hands of my doctor. She said if I started to feel myself freaking out, to just let it happen, trust the process, and try to enjoy the birth of my daughter even though it wasn’t what we planned.
The anesthesia team showed up shortly after we told our families what was going on, and I got a crash course on C-sections! Before I knew it, I was being wheeled to the operating room. Terra wasn’t allowed to come back there while I was prepped for surgery – instead, she went with our nurses to get scrubbed in so she didn’t miss the delivery.
I was really scared. My baby was about to be born two months premature. I was loopy from exhaustion, stress, hunger, and organ failure. But I also had excitement building up inside me. I knew I would be meeting my baby so soon, and this was a moment that Terra and I had dreamt about for over a year. Although it wasn’t coming about the way we had anticipated, it was happening, and we just had to go with it!
I received my spinal block while standing sitting naked on a table in from of a very handsome doctor who reminded me of Taye Diggs. He made an awkward situation more comfortable by telling me a story about a patient he had who become so overcome with anxiety that they grabbed his hand and started sucking his thumb. I felt better knowing that I hadn’t done anything too nutty while receiving my anesthesia.
The spinal block worked so fast. Before my head hit the table, I felt the drugs moving through my body, making me completely numb from the chest down. Dr. Taye Diggs was pinching various parts of my skin with the forceps, making sure I was totally numb, and he couldn’t believe how quickly it worked on me! My nurse, who stayed beside me the entire time I was being prepped, encouraged me to take deep breaths while she told me stories of her son, “The Drag Queen”.
Once I was numbed, shaved, and sanitized (ha!), more people started coming in to the room. First, I was introduced to the NICU team who was on standby, and would begin caring the Ruby the moment she was born. There was a respiratory specialist, a neonatologist, and two nurses. They had everything that Ruby might need just in case there were any immediate problems. Next, my wife Terra was allowed to come in. Finally, Dr. H made her appearance. It hadn’t occurred to me that she would be the one performing the C-section, but I felt actual relief knowing that me and my baby were in her hands. She came bouncing in and kept talking about how excited she to meet Ruby. And this is why we love her.
The details of how the procedure went are fuzzy. I have memories of laughing with my doctors, and I think we even sang a few songs together. But I remember very vividly the moment that Dr. Heidemann said “She’s here!” and held her up over the curtain for me to see. I couldn’t hold her at that moment, but they placed her right by my head and I got to see what she looked like. She was SO CUTE! I looked at Terra and we both started laughing because she looked exactly like me.
And then . . . Ruby was whisked away, and that was the last time I saw her for two days. The NICU team immediately began working. They put in a feeding tube, gave her some shots, and took some blood from her foot. They put a preemie diaper on her, which was huge on her little 3lb, 9 oz body. They also gave her the cannula but she was never hooked up to oxygen. She was born screaming, which is unusual for a baby born so early, and thanks to the steroid shots they gave me while I was on magnesium, she never needed anything but a little extra room air. Terra was with Ruby the whole time she was with the NICU team, and even went with her when they transported her to the NICU.
After they stitched me up, I had another catheter put in and was put back on magnesium for another 24 hours. I wasn’t able to see Ruby for two days, and I wasn’t able to hold her for five. I was hospitalized for 9 days with extremely high blood pressure. Ruby stayed in the NICU for sixteen days, and her only issue was her size. The hospital wouldn’t release her until she was five pounds. Luckily, she loved eating, so she gained enough weight to go home rather quickly!
I missed out on so much because of HELLP. I have a myriad of residual health problems even now at six months post partum. Since I was on so much medication, and my body had been through so much trauma, on top of the fact that I didn’t get to hold my baby for days after she was born, my milk never fully came in and I was only able to nurse a few times. I pumped every two hours for two months to get Ruby every drop of milk that my body would make, but I was never able to produce more than an ounce or two at a time. I finally gave up. Feeling like a failure has been the dominating emotion since having HELLP syndrome. I also feel extremely thankful for doctors and nurses who knew what to look for and took the time to go above and beyond what they are paid to do in order to save mine and my baby’s life.
I’m fairly certain at this point that no one will ever understand what it is like to experience an illness like HELLP. In what was supposed to be the happiest, and most exciting time of our lives, my wife and I were overcome with anxiety, stress, illness, and sadness. I have had the darkest days of my life since having my baby. But I have also had experienced happiness like I never thought I could. I have been crippled by anxiety, I have alienated myself from friends and family because of my inability to be able to express everything that I have gone through. At the same time, I have been able to learn how to make myself vulnerable to a few people and truly learn how to lean on another person. I have strength inside of me that I never knew I possessed, and I like to believe that I passed that strength on to Ruby.
For more information about HELLP Syndrome:
American Pregnancy Association
March of Dimes
Heart Health for Moms