“For a long time, I didn’t think I would be a mother. First, because quite frankly, I wasn’t interested in having kids. Second, because by the time I decided maybe having children was something I might want to try, I didn’t have a husband. So, when I found myself pregnant after one try at the age of 36, my husband and I were delighted.
My ‘geriatric pregnancy,’ as all of my hospital tests would relentlessly remind me, proceeded smoothly despite my age and the only thing that showed up on any of the genetic testing was that I was a carrier for Factor V Leiden’s, which is s clotting disorder. However, being a carrier puts you in a tricky ‘middle zone’ where you yourself don’t have a clotting disorder per se, but you also don’t not have a clotting disorder, either. It made for nonstop confusing conversation with all of the various doctors and nurses who helped me through my pregnancy.
My due date came and went and, with it, my patience. ‘See you next week!’ my doctor joyfully told me as I dejectedly left my perfectly-healthy-40-week-appointment and waddled back to my black car during a summer heat wave. I was even less impressed when I made the same trek back in the hot July heat on time for the 41-week appointment I was vocally lamenting. All signs pointed to a healthy, but super-over-it-pregnant-mama that was overjoyed to finally have an induction date on the calendar after two false labors.
Three days later, my husband and I arrived at 7 p.m.-on-the-dot for our induction appointment. I felt fine, a little bloated from being 10 days overdue, but ready to have this baby. I always joked that my birth plan was having no birth plan because I didn’t want to tell the doctors what to do. Looking back, that’s the one thing I would redo. In not having a birth plan, I realize I also didn’t set up boundaries and expectations of what I needed from the doctors and nurses.
But hindsight is 20/20, and 30 minutes after walking through the labor and delivery doors, it was discovered my blood pressure was slightly elevated. Certainly not a cause for alarm, but my admitting nurse decided to do a urine sample just to be safe. From there, I honestly don’t know what happened. Not because I wasn’t conscious to experience it—because trust me, I did—but because no one really told us what was happening as it was happening.
Over the next two days I went through test, after test, after test, round-the-clock, every 60-90 minutes, while also trying to induce labor. I was immediately hooked up to a machine that, at first took my blood pressure every 15 minutes, but eventually took it every 2. I had a catheter placed so I would be on 100% bed rest and I had to lay in a very special way so that my son’s heartbeat could be monitored at all times. During my first night in the hospital, the on-call doctor woke me up at 2 a.m. because my platelet count had dropped to 104 and they didn’t think it would stay above 100 by the time I was in labor. Since you can’t get an epidural after it drops below 100, I had to decide quickly if I wanted to get an epidural port placed. I hadn’t even started to dilate yet, but decided I wanted to give myself options, so at 3 a.m. the anesthetist showed up at my door.
So, at this point, you would think it was pretty clear I had preeclampsia, and someone would have advised us what was going on, but I think with all of the lab techs, nurses, and doctors endlessly coming in-and-out of the room they assumed one of them was telling us something.
But no. I thought the devolving chain-of-events was standard labor-and-delivery stuff.
So, we know I have protein in my urine: check. My blood pressure continues to get higher and higher: check. I’m really swollen: check. My platelet count is low: Not sure what this means, but sure, add it to the list, check. Oh, and my liver and kidney function aren’t working correctly, I vomited on not one, but two nurses, I have a massive headache and my vision is going gray, and not only am I on oxygen, but y’all have me on this medicine called magnesium that is making me insanely warm and uncomfortable…okay, what is happening here???
Every time someone came into our room, the news was worse than before. My condition continued to deteriorate and yet, nothing. I had heard about preeclampsia during the standard labor-and-delivery classes and, at this point, it became clear that’s what was going on, but even as I was experiencing it, I didn’t know what was happening. I asked doctor, ‘So, when it is eclampsia?’
I figured the ‘pre’ must have meant something, right?
‘When you have a serious, grand mal-type seizure,’ she replied.
I’m sure the look on my face flashed to a terror. So that’s why they administered the magnesium…And that’s why they keep checking my reflexes every chance they get. But in this revelation, I was also confused. ‘Why aren’t they doing an emergency C-section? Everything I’ve learned about preeclampsia is…you stop it by having the baby…soooooo, why aren’t we getting to the baby-having here?’
I asked the next doctor who walked into my room, what was going on, but continued to find myself unsatisfied by the responses. I kept getting fluff. I’m not dumb. What I wanted was answers. Exasperated, I finally blurted out through tears, ‘if my organs are starting to fail, why aren’t we doing an emergency C-section?’ I was scared. What was happening?
‘Oh honey,’ the doctor replied, ‘you’re just being hormonal. Every woman goes through a part of her labor where she doesn’t think she can do it.’
I was shocked. This was the response I received in the middle of, what I now know, was my HELLP experience. Did you think it was from a male doctor? Think again. I wanted some damn answers and for someone to be transparent with us.
I waited for the next shift’s doctor to arrive so I could ask her the very same question. Still, unsatisfied by the answer, at least I could appreciate it a bit more: ‘Since you’re a carrier for blood clots, we want to be careful about putting you at risk.’
Okay, I can understand that one a bit more and, as my research these past two years have shown me, it probably was the right move at the time(?), but I often wonder if the severity of my HELLP symptoms were the primary reason. I will simply never know.
But it was about this time, I started getting a little more savvy to the situation. I vaguely, through my foggy, magnesium-fueled mind, remembered a friend who had posted on Facebook about her experience with HELLP. She may have even pinged me prior to my delivery as a token of ‘good luck and also if you experience…’ I started to put two and two together. I wasn’t sure if that was what was happening, but I also knew this didn’t seem normal, either.
As my vision continued to dwindle and my water finally broke, my abdominal area suddenly became very tender to the touch. When the nurse brushed it off, my ‘coolness’ just snapped. Why was nobody taking this seriously? I yelled some choice words surrounding my frustration about the situation just as a big contraction started. Thankfully, my son was born hours later, but looking back, I think we were both on borrowed time. Preeclampsia and HELLP are not an ‘hours later’ sort of situation.
The same nurse who brushed off my abdominal symptoms was there when it was time to transfer to my postpartum room. At first, she was irritated that I was unable to walk to the postpartum room. Then she was frustrated I couldn’t move well enough to get into the wheelchair. And finally, she was visibly annoyed when she and another nurse had to move me into the postpartum bed and wheel me to my new room. I felt so bad and so weak in that moment. I had just given birth to a child 48 hours after being induced, my new son and husband in a different room, me just waiting alone, so dazed, for some awful nurse to passive aggressively wheel me to a room I was too weak to walk to.
I really felt alone in that moment.
Just when this experience had about broken me, my guardian angel of a postpartum nurse appeared. I apologized for not being able to make it down to the room myself and she looked at me as if I was crazy. She touched my hand and said, ‘We only give magnesium to the sickest mamas. You are a very sick mother right now.’ And with that, I no longer felt like failure. I needed someone to give me permission to feel as sick as I felt so that I could heal.
I remained bedridden my entire hospital stay and was only taken off my magnesium and allowed to walk around a couple hours before we were basically, kicked out. It seemed apparent that it was in my best interest to say, but due to lack-of-space in the maternity unit of a very large hospital I would be placed in an overflow area with nurses who didn’t specialize in postpartum care and in the general patient population. Additionally, since my son would be discharged and I wouldn’t, our options for having him stay with me and work on nursing were very limited. It seemed I was apparently now ‘magically healthy enough’ to, in short, get the hell out of their room.
I struggled as a new mom, especially because I didn’t realize how delayed the magnesium would make my milk, but also because I didn’t have the words or validation from the doctors and nurses who cared for me just how seriously ill I was. My husband was home for just a few days and I didn’t have any family members around to help. It wasn’t until I my 6-week postpartum checkup that I discovered my liver and kidney function were still not working properly at the time I was discharged from the hospital.
Nobody told me this. I still feel the same rage today as I did upon learning this information two years ago. Thankfully everything came back okay during my checkup that day, but I was in utter disbelief. I still am.
After that, I decided to try to figure out what happened to me?
Did I almost die? Like, was I really close to dying back there? For sure I would have died in prairie times, but I mean, maybe modern medical times, too?
Was my son close to dying? It seemed like everything that could have gone wrong did, so was it by sheer will alone that we survived?
The medical community seemed to think it was no big deal, were they just trying to protect me so I wouldn’t be afraid in the moment, but they secretly had a handle on the situation in the background? Or, was everyone so distracted by all the patients they were tending to that I was actually falling through the cracks?
Is this what other moms in my situation experience at this hospital? At other hospitals?
What if something had happened? My husband and I weren’t given the opportunity to even have that conversation. Should we have had it while we sat there wondering what was going on?
And finally, what actually happened? Why did it happen? Was it really severe or just like, kinda severe? It seems like it was pretty severe and you guys seemed to think I was really sick, but then, why didn’t someone comfort us or tell us what was happening?
I had forgotten about my vision being gray and some other symptoms until I watched the final episode of the series Masters of Sex. During it, a character quickly develops severe preeclampsia, and nobody knows what’s happening as the situation unfolds. Watching this scene, a year after my delivery, I felt my experience for the first time. That scene could have been written verbatim from my experience. I felt so let down by the medical community.
The doctors and nurses who cared for me during my stay, unfortunately, didn’t equip me to watch for any preeclampsia complications postpartum. They also didn’t give me the validating words to share with others so they could have more appropriately helped me postpartum be it physically, emotionally, or empathetically. Nor have they equipped me with the knowledge of how to care for my body two years after experiencing HELLP.
For now, I continue to read the stories of other women, looking for my experience in theirs, wondering, ‘Could that have been me or my son?’ ‘Was that me?’ ‘Will that be me?’ ‘Did that happen to me, too?’
I will likely forever try to understand just what all happened, but it’s also my forever hope to educate expecting mothers to use their words and knowledge in the birthing process. That, even if they don’t opt to have a birthing plan, they instead create an information plan, demanding access to information about what is happening to them and their babies’ bodies and how they will go about getting that information when the time comes. Prepare expectant mothers: Who will get that information? How will they get it? And what do you want to do with it? Decide what you will do if, in the moment, mother or baby needs an advocate, because they may. And, although it sounds dramatic, speaking up in the moment could mean the difference between life or death.
It’s your body. You have a right to know what happens to it.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Brandy DuToit Klocksien of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Subscribe to our free email newsletter, Living Better—your ultimate guide for actionable insights, evidence backed advice, and captivating personal stories, propelling you forward to living a more fulfilling life.
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