“I’ve wanted to be a mother for as long as I can remember. I used to daydream about having a little girl, the unbreakable bond we would share, the matching outfits, Friday night makeovers, and all the other not so realistic aspects of parenting. So, when I found out I was expecting a baby in February 2017, I was ecstatic! I couldn’t wait to hold my little girl in my arms and bring her home to be with her Daddy and me. I guess somebody forgot to tell me that no matter how many stars you wish on, sometimes dreams don’t turn out quite as planned. Overnight, the picture-perfect family I meticulously planned for, the one with hair bows and a white picket fence, became a mommy and her baby boy.
My pregnancy was uneventful, except for a Placenta Previa concern that turned out to be a false alarm. I chose to remain positive and consider that minor scare a blessing because it allowed me to have a few additional ultrasounds to see my precious boy. My vital signs looked great, in fact, my blood pressure was consistently lower than normal, I was on target for the recommended weight gain and the non-stop nausea finally let up. Having not learned my lesson yet, I devoted my days to carefully reviewing my birth plan, creating a delivery playlist, and meticulously organizing. It was a priority to me that my son made his grand entrance in a peaceful environment, with as little stress as possible. In hindsight, I know I was desperately trying to over-compensate for the guilt and shame I put on myself as a single mother.
At 35 weeks, I had my last high-risk ultrasound to verify the position of my placenta. Everything checked out great, the baby looked perfect, and I was released without any concerns. Within days, I was miserable and even my bones cried for relief from the nonstop ache. I began to lose feeling in my arms, my legs were numb, and I couldn’t figure out why I gained almost a pound every single day when my diet never changed. Overnight, the burning began.
The discomfort began as a minor nuisance, further convincing me that my son thought my ribcage was a great place for his feet, just like he thought my bladder was his own personal trampoline. The burning sensation spread into my chest: a vague reminder of heartburn. Within an hour, a stabbing pain came in waves, alternating with the persistent burning. I tried everything to alleviate the pain and found placing pressure in the center of my chest my only option. I laid my head down, overwhelmed with fatigue and rubbed the sleep out of my blurry eyes. Four hours later, my intuition became too loud to ignore and I ended up in the emergency room for the first time.
The Emergency Room staff referred me to Labor and Delivery as their standard protocol. The baby and I both needed to be examined before any further treatment could inevitably take place. My nurse requested a sample for Urinalysis, and once I was through, she carefully fastened an External Fetal Heart Rate monitor to my stomach. The nurse and I went through the standard triage questions and I carefully explained my symptoms to her. She left the room and came back with a small Dixie cup. ‘This is a GI cocktail. We’re pretty sure you’re having some minor reflux symptoms.’ I knew precisely this wasn’t the case, but I drank the entire cup quickly, desperate for some sort of necessary relief. Labor and Delivery monitored me for another hour before releasing me with a handout on Acid Reflux.
Eight hours later the burning returned, only this time, accompanied by uncontrollable vomiting. I crawled to the bathroom; the pain beginning to radiate around the right side of my ribcage. I laid on the cold floor of the bathroom, exhausted and defeated for countless hours. I struggled to remain conscious, blacking out, waking to throw up again, desperately trying to drink fluids before blacking out again. The vicious cycle continued throughout the entire day and into the night. I knew this couldn’t be reflux, I sobbed hysterically until I couldn’t take it anymore.
I quietly snuck into the room next to mine. ‘Mom, something is wrong. I can’t breathe.’ I gasped for breath, hysterically sobbing, screaming with each attempt to fill my lungs. We hurried to the car to head back to the hospital. ‘Please! Please, make it stop!’ I slumped against the passenger door. My mom shook me until I responded. ‘I think I’m dying!’ Everything went black. The next thing I remember was the door to the car opening and the sound of my mom screaming for help. ‘My daughter is pregnant and in severe pain! She can’t stop vomiting and is unconscious!’ The ER technician casually pushed a wheelchair to the car, once again, stating that Labor and Delivery would have to release me for treatment first. He rolled the wheelchair into the elevator, and a nurse wheeled an incubator in to ride up with us. A tiny baby curled up inside, her little arm as tiny as my finger. I instantly began to panic. This feeling of overwhelming terror would not shake. I was the only parent my baby had. What would he do if something happened to me? Would he be okay? He didn’t deserve that kind of life. What had I done wrong to cause this?
Labor and Delivery released me to the Emergency Room after verifying I wasn’t in labor, and the baby was doing great. An ER tech supported me into the hospital bed, without a word. My new nurse came in, and logged on to the computer. I wretched into the vomit bag. She hooked me up to the blood pressure machine and reluctantly began the standard intake questions again. I stopped throwing up again, and with nothing left, I asked for some water. She seemed annoyed that I couldn’t get through the questions without throwing up. After many countless hours, blood tests, an ultrasound, and an x-ray, the attending physician released me with three pain pills and yet another Acid Reflux diagnosis. I cried uncontrollable sobs the entire way home. The only thing that kept me hanging on was my appointment that afternoon with my OB.
In the lobby of my OB’s office, I laid on the floor, shaking and crying. I couldn’t sit down and didn’t have the strength to stand. My nurse called me back and my OB came right in. I tried explaining the last several days, the best I could. Without hesitation, my OB told me to go directly back to Labor and Delivery because she was admitting me. The next few hours flew by. Fifteen minutes after my initial blood draw, my nurse came in and told me we were delivering the baby as soon as possible. Nurses began rushing around, the anesthesiologist came in, and through the haze of magnesium and steroids, I did the best I could to understand. ‘You have HELLP syndrome. Your kidneys and liver are shutting down, you’re in potential danger of seizures, strokes, and we have to deliver this baby immediately.’ I don’t think I realized until that very moment that something was terribly wrong. My OB came into the delivery room and sat next to me in the hospital bed. ‘I know this wasn’t our plan, but I have to do what’s best for you and the baby. I promise you; everything is going to be okay.’
They wheeled me into the operating room where the anesthesiologist gave me my spinal block, and everything went black. My son, Max William, was born on October 12th, 2017 at 9:14 p.m. He was immediately treated for breathing issues. I barely remember anything about the days following. I was placed on bedrest, the magnesium and steroids had me in a fog, and I felt like my body was on fire. My mom and grandmother changed Max’s first diaper. They held him while I drifted in and out of consciousness. I couldn’t breastfeed and Max had to be fed with a syringe. The next morning, I looked over and saw him in the bassinet beside me. ‘Who is this baby? Where did he come from? What happened?’
It rained the next day. I stared at the clock. I didn’t feel anything. Someone needed to put my baby back inside me where he was supposed to be. After they let me off bedrest and I tried to stand up, everything had stiffened, and it hurt. After days of testing, they told me I could take Max home.
The first night, my mom stayed up with me. I hadn’t really slept in days and I was still so sick. The second night, I did it alone. Max cried and I couldn’t remember what to do first. Diapers? Bottle? Somehow, I managed to get it together. As the days passed, I became more and more distressed. I was scared to hold him and the only thing I wanted was to go back to the hospital and try again. I was so ashamed to admit that I didn’t feel connected to him and I wanted to disappear. I had thoughts of not waking up anymore. That Max would be better off with someone else. My thoughts tortured me. ‘I’m a failure. I can’t give him the home he deserves. What if he grows up to hate me?’ Three weeks later, I saw my psychiatrist and told her everything. I confessed things to her that I was terribly ashamed of. I told her I didn’t know this baby, that he’s a stranger to me.
I felt so cheated out of my birth plan. I did everything I could to give him the best life possible and it was taken from me. I couldn’t breastfeed and my baby was on formula. I couldn’t do anything for him. I couldn’t even remember the day before. Did I hold him? I spent days staring at the wall. The TV blared mindlessly. I closed my eyes and hoped I wouldn’t wake up. I cried. Every time I took a shower I cried. Every time he slept, I cried. I cried more in those days than I’ve ever cried.
It took six months before things started to settle for me. I continued to ask my mom if I’d loved my son enough. My son is 20 months old. He’s fiercely independent, hilarious, and stubborn. Sometimes he prefers my mom or my brother over me. I’ve convinced myself it’s because I didn’t love him enough. The truth is that I was dying, just like I told my mom that the second morning. Max and I are the lucky ones. There are women and precious babies who lose their lives to this rare syndrome. 1 out of 1,000 women are diagnosed with HELLP syndrome, and before my own experience, I’d never even heard of it. I still have days where I doubt my ability to be a good mother and I’ve spent many nights awake, scared of the nightmares that come when I close my eyes.
At the end of the day, I would do it all over again for my beautiful boy. We have each other, and that’s all I could ever need or want.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Brooke Elston of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.
Read more powerful stories from mothers surviving HELLP syndrome:
‘It was my child’s birthday. I heard a crackling noise. I was drowning in my own fluid. Literally. ‘I feel like I’m dying!’ As I raised my legs, I couldn’t even tell where my knee was. I. WAS. SWOLLEN.’
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