‘I was strapped down. ‘What if I feel him cut into me?’ My husband wiped away the tears that ran down my face.’: Mother says newborn’s delivery was the ‘most terrifying day of my life’ after HELLP syndrome diagnosis

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“I fell in love with Isabella from the second I saw those two pink lines on the pregnancy test. Yes, I was anxious…what if I wasn’t a good mom, what if I wasn’t ready? But not for a second did I doubt how much I would love her. My husband and I were so excited as we had been wanting a baby for a while, and this was our first. I told my husband I was pregnant on Valentine’s Day 2018 and I’m pretty sure I’ll never be able to top that as a gift.

The first trimester of my pregnancy was rough…I had morning sickness all day every day to the point that I couldn’t get off the couch or eat. My doctor prescribed me some pills to help with nausea, which was my saving grace. Once I hit the second trimester, the morning sickness faded and my energy returned. I didn’t even really feel ‘pregnant’ at all.

Pregnant woman stands outside holding ultrasound pictures while her husband kisses her stomach
Courtesy of Beka Stephens

My husband and I opted to do a 16 week ‘sneak peek’ to find out the gender of our baby. Although I would love my baby no matter what, I was hoping for a baby girl. When the ultrasound tech said ‘you’re having a baby girl’ I immediately started crying. It felt like I was getting everything I could ever ask for and I was so thankful.

I’m a ‘planner’ when it comes to big life decisions and changes…I take comfort in planning things out, making lists, organizing everything. By 20 weeks I had created a perfect little woodland nursery upstairs for our baby girl. I’m a big hunter and love everything outdoors, so it was the perfect theme. Although I planned on having her sleep in a bassinet by my bedside for quite awhile, I loved creating a special room for her. Turkey season passed and I tagged out in Ohio for the first time ever… I couldn’t help but think it was because I wasn’t really hunting alone. Isabella was along with me on the adventures.

Pregnant woman smiles in selfie in camo jacket holding bow and arrow
Courtesy of Beka Stephens

We picked out her name fairly quickly… Isabella Lee. Isabella because we both liked that name and I love the nickname Bella. The middle name Lee because it is my middle name, my mom’s middle name, and my grandma’s middle name. I wanted to carry on the tradition.

I have always been a healthy person. Even during the winter, I rarely get sick. I live an active lifestyle, always outdoors doing something. I make home cooked healthy meals every day, rarely eat junk food, and we rarely eat out unless it’s a special occasion. Even so, I took extra precautions during pregnancy. An avid coffee drinker, I cut back to one small cup each day. I researched all the foods a pregnant woman should or shouldn’t have. I took it easy outside and made sure I never overdid myself or got too hot. I made sure I stayed hydrated, and took my prenatal vitamins every morning.

I never got hormonal or moody …some relationships are strained during pregnancy but our relationship thrived even more. Everything was great.

The third trimester crept up and I still felt amazing, although I got tired easier and was ready for the baby to be here so I could go back to a normal routine. I finally had a small bump to show off and take a few maternity photos.

Pregnant woman stands in field in suede fringe dress holding her stomach
Courtesy of Beka Stephens

Then I hit 30 weeks and everything changed. I started feeling nauseous one evening out of the blue. I couldn’t keep anything down and felt completely awful. I chalked it up to third trimester morning sickness and hoped it would pass. Then I started feeling pain in my ribs. When Isabella moved or kicked my ribs, the pain was so bad it almost brought me to my knees. I took several hot showers a day to relax enough to make it bearable. When I called the on-call nurse at my primary OB, she told me this was all normal for the third trimester and I shouldn’t worry. ‘Drink plenty of water and get some rest.’

The next day I started noticing swelling in my feet and ankles as well and decided to see what I could find in a Google search… haven’t we all done that? Everything that popped up pointed towards preeclampsia….or just your normal third trimester. I was anxious at the thought of preeclampsia, I didn’t want to risk anything happening to my baby. I decided to buy a blood pressure cuff and check my blood pressure for peace of mind. My blood pressure turned out to be extremely high…and I’ve never had high blood pressure in my life. I called my doctor again and they told me to come in for a blood pressure check just to be safe. It was still high when they checked it and they had me do a 24-hour urine sample and get blood taken at the lab on Monday morning.

Tuesday, August 14, dawned and I felt great. Maybe I had just gotten a stomach bug… Little did I know this day was going to be the most terrifying and amazing day of my life.

I was having breakfast that morning with my husband when I got a call from my doctor. ‘How are you feeling?,’ he asked. ‘Have you taken your blood pressure?’ I told him I felt great and although my blood pressure was still a little high, it wasn’t bad. He paused for a second and said, ‘Your labs aren’t good. Your blood pressure isn’t indicating how bad they are. Are you going anywhere today or staying home?’ My heart was beating fast and he said to hold on a minute and he would call me back. The next few minutes waiting for him to call back were nerve wracking. When he called back he said, ‘You need to go to the hospital. You have toxemia and it is already in the severe spectrum. They’re probably going to have to take the baby in the next 24 hours. We’re sending you to Good Samaritan since they have the best NICU.’

My whole entire world stopped. I started crying, I could barely even say ‘ok’ and that I was on my way. I was in shock and I was terrified. I remember my husband hugging me, telling me he loved me and that it was going to be ok, and to pack a few clothes for the hospital. I remember walking into the bedroom and staring at my empty overnight bag that I hadn’t packed because I thought I had two months before Isabella was born. I didn’t know what to pack now, none of the newborn clothes would fit her, and I probably wouldn’t be able to take her home. I didn’t know what sort of clothes or things I would need because I didn’t know how long I would be in the hospital.

Pregnant woman stands outside looking at husband who is holding her stomach
Courtesy of Beka Stephens

I barely remember the drive to the hospital except that I couldn’t stop crying. How could I have my baby at only 31 weeks and 4 days? She wasn’t full term yet, how could she be healthy? What if she didn’t survive?

To those of you unfamiliar with toxemia, more commonly known as preeclampsia, it is a condition that is fairly common in pregnant women. If you do a Google search it will tell you that ‘It can impair kidney and liver function, and cause blood clotting problems, pulmonary edema (fluid on the lungs), seizures and, in severe forms or left untreated, maternal and infant death. Preeclampsia affects the blood flow to the placenta, often leading to smaller or prematurely born babies.’

I was diagnosed with HELLP syndrome which is a life-threatening form of preeclampsia. HELLP syndrome is a life-threatening pregnancy complication usually considered to be a variant of preeclampsia. Both conditions usually occur during the later stages of pregnancy, or sometimes after childbirth.

H (hemolysis, which is the breaking down of red blood cells)
EL (elevated liver enzymes)
LP (low platelet count)

The global mortality rate of HELLP syndrome has been reported to be as high as 25%. That’s why it’s critical for expecting mothers to be aware of the condition and its symptoms so they can receive early diagnosis and treatment. One every 20 women are diagnosed. I was that one in 20.

Once we arrived at the hospital it was about 12 o’clock in the afternoon. I was checked into a room and hooked up to fluids and a magnesium drip. I was given a steroid shot to help with the baby’s lungs. Doctors were in and out of my room trying to decide if they could keep me pregnant for a few days or if they had to do an emergency C-section. They kept telling me, ‘you’re lucky because you are having a girl and baby girls develop quicker than boys and are tougher!’ But I was still terrified she wouldn’t be ok.

Shortly after, we were told I would have an emergency C-section within the hour. I was prepped and wheeled into an operating room. I must have looked as terrified as I felt because the one nurse said to me, ‘Don’t worry, this may be your first time, but it’s not our first time doing this.’

My husband wasn’t allowed in the room until after I received an epidural. I remember being so terrified I was shaking, and the nurse let me hold her hand and told me to keep my chin down while they gave me my epidural. I remember telling her I didn’t want to see the needle. Almost immediately my legs and lower body began to get numb. I was helped onto the operating table and strapped down so I couldn’t move. A blue curtain was put up above my waist so I couldn’t see what the doctor was doing. I kept thinking, ‘what if I feel him cut into me?’

It was an odd feeling knowing they were cutting me open, I could feel tugging but no pain. My husband sat at my head and wiped away the tears that ran silently down my face. Was my baby aware that she was going to be pulled out? Was she going to be scared?

I strained to hear what the doctor and nurses were saying but couldn’t quite make it out. I would hear them occasionally laugh so I thought that everything was probably going well. I knew when they pulled her out – I felt a tug and I suddenly felt hollow. Then I heard the tiniest little cry and I felt a few seconds of relief. She could cry so she had to be ok. I remember asking, ‘Is she ok?’

When the nurse pressed her up against my cheek she was swaddled tightly and I couldn’t see her little face under the CPAP machine. And just like that, she was rushed off to the NICU. I told my husband to go with her to make sure she was ok. She was only 2 lbs 13 ounces and 16 inches long. The tiniest baby I had ever seen. I drifted in and out as they finished stitching me up and wheeled me back to my room.

Mother looking at newborn nurse holds that has to be ruched to NICU and attached to CPAP machine
Courtesy of Beka Stephens

I continued to drift in and out of sleep until my husband returned to my room to tell me that our beautiful baby girl was ok. I wanted to go see her more than anything, but I could hardly move. I barely slept that night between crying and worrying about Isabella. The next morning I was finally allowed to have some food…fruit and some ice water. I couldn’t keep it down due to the magnesium drip. If you’ve never been on a magnesium drip, it is just awful. The most awful thing I have ever experienced. I felt exhausted and couldn’t move without getting nauseous. Even ice water wouldn’t stay down. I was told I had to be on it for 24 hours after giving birth, so I wasn’t going to be able to see my baby until I was off the magnesium drip.

Those 24 hours were a hazy blur of feeling awful. At 5 o’clock Wednesday evening they took me off fluids and magnesium drip and I started to feel well enough to move. All I wanted was to hold my baby. My husband helped me into a wheelchair and I held a pillow against my C-section incision to help with pain. We proceeded slowly to the NICU where I stood for a few agonizing minutes on swollen legs to wash my hands before entering the baby area.

Her face was still covered with the CPAP machine, but I could see her head of dark hair and she was so tiny. The nurse, who I don’t remember at all, picked Isabella up out of her little closed crib and set her on my chest. I felt love like I’ve never felt in my life.

Mother smiles in selfie in NICU with newborn asleep on her chest
Courtesy of Beka Stephens

The next few days in the hospital consisted of pumping every three hours so the nurses could give my milk to Isabella through a feeding tube. About every three hours my husband would help me into my wheelchair and bring me 4 floors down so I could see Isabella. Her bilirubin levels became high so she was put under blue lights and I wasn’t allowed to hold her again for days.

Mother sits while father stands looking at baby laying under blue lights in NICU
Courtesy of Beka Stephens

The day I was discharged from the hospital was a day I dreaded. I was in the hospital for five days. I started crying before I could even walk away from Isabella’s bed…my heart was breaking. I had to leave my baby behind for some other woman to take care of, and it just wasn’t right. Nothing had prepared me for this. It was a tough night for both myself and my husband. I remember crying my heart out and saying to my husband, ‘I’ve never been without her before.’

Every day we drove to the hospital, my husband went back to work after a week so we drove separately when we needed to. One hour there, one hour back home. I didn’t get to see Isabella’s face for about a week due to her wearing a CPAP machine to help her breathe. When they finally took it off, her tiny face was swollen and indented where the mask had rested. It took a day for her little face to return to normal and she had a perfect little round face.

Newborn laying on her back on NICU with CPAP machine over her head
Courtesy of Beka Stephens

Every day she got a little stronger. Soon she was in a crib instead of an incubator, and her PICC line was taken out. She started taking feeds by mouth and I would spend the whole day alternating between holding her, pumping, and nursing. I would cry every single day leaving her, and I couldn’t walk away from her unless she was sleeping. She started to recognize when I was there. If she started crying, I would stay and rock her to sleep, sometimes resulting in hours longer than I had planned to be there. The NICU became a second home and the nurses became friends. I swear those women were angels on Earth.

Mother stands in NICU holding baby girl beside husband who they can finally take home
Courtesy of Beka Stephens

I learned so much being at the NICU. It’s something you don’t really think of until it happens to you. I struggled with feeling guilty for leaving her, and feeling like my body had betrayed me. The one thing my body was supposed to do naturally was carry my baby safely and it had let me down. Instead of relaxing at home postpartum and taking care of my baby and myself, I was getting up every day and pushing through my own pain to go see my baby who was being taken care of by other people. None of it seemed fair. Then 35 days in, when we weren’t even expecting it, the nurse told us, ‘I have good news, Isabella can go home tomorrow.’

The day she came home (day 36) was the most amazing day of my life.

Mother smiling holding baby at home after being in NICU for 36 days
Courtesy of Beka Stephens

Isabella is full term today and is healthy and thriving. She has doubled her birth weight and grown almost 4 inches in height. October 12 was supposed to be her due date and instead, she is actually 2 months old. I am thankful for every second with her, even being awake for hours in the middle of the night and getting up to feed her and change her. I never thought I could love so much, and I had no idea how much I was going to love being a mom. I’m thankful every day for my strong little warrior baby.”

Mother lays down in selfie with baby asleep at her side
Courtesy of Beka Stephens

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Beka Stephens, 29, of Cincinnati, Ohio. Did you have a similar birthing experience? We’d love to hear your journey. Submit your story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.

Read other mothers’ first-hand accounts:

‘My husband and I arrived at the hospital to await our baby’s arrival. I had no idea the very bed I was settling in would soon become my death bed.’

‘I heard this noise – a crackling noise coming from my lungs. The moment I realized my lungs sounded like Rice Krispies, my monitor started blaring. I was drowning in my own fluid. Literally.’

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