Images and text by Jennifer Schaffener
“Don’t worry, you will have her early,” my friend Ashley said as I juggled the diaper bag and corralled my almost 2 year old Ryan out the door. I turned at looked at her and I said, “If there is a God I will,’ and I shut the door and left. The pain started the next day.
It felt like gas. Maybe it was heartburn or maybe my chest was going to explode. It could be indigestion. Whatever it was, it hurt. I tried popping some Tums but they didn’t provide any relief. I went to work at the ice skating rink as usual and I remember complaining to my student, Allison, that I had this awful pain that just wouldn’t go away. I kept pushing down around my breast bone, trying to figure out why it hurt so much. I mustered through my lessons and drove home. When I got there, I curled into a ball on my bedroom floor and cried.
I didn’t know what to do. I sent my husband, Dan, out for Gas-X. Something had to relieve this pain. Nope, nothing worked. At around 9 PM I called my doctor’s office emergency line. You have to understand, when I had my first child, my son Ryan, I didn’t even want to call the doctor when I was in labor. I didn’t want to be one of those women who went to the hospital and got sent home. The doctor told me to take some Tums or Maalox and if it wasn’t better in the morning to call the office. She told me it was probably just the baby pushing on my diaphragm. Afterall, I was almost 34 weeks along. I laid on the couch the rest of the night, not knowing what to do. The only relief I got was if Dan forcefully rubbed my back.
Around 1 AM the pain stopped- gone! I couldn’t believe it. I went to bed nervously optimistic. I felt okay the next morning, but definitely not 100%. Around 4:30 PM the pain came back out of nowhere like a ton of bricks slamming repeatedly into my chest. I sent Dan back out to the store, this time for Maalox as the doctor recommended. I chugged it- nothing. One of my best friends recommended getting in the tub to see if it would relieve some of the pressure- nope. Around 8:30 PM I quietly went upstairs, grabbed a change of clothes for Ryan who was still in his pajamas from the night before, threw them at Dan and said, “We are going to the hospital.” He asked if I was going to call the doctor first and I told him no. I had the courage to go, so I was going. Something had to be done to fix this. I couldn’t take the pain any longer and I knew something wasn’t right. I kept saying, “They have to pop this bubble in my chest.” So Dan, Ryan and myself all left for the hospital with nothing more than a few diapers, some juice in Ryan’s sippy cup and our cell phones, figuring we would be home later that night, or at the very least the next morning.
When I first got to the hospital, they questioned me like I was crazy. Did you call your doctor? Why are you here? Does it still hurt? On a scale of 1-10 describe your pain. I wanted to scream. I know they deal with people all the time that aren’t really sick, but I knew something was wrong. I know my own body. After what felt like hours, I finally saw a doctor.
She questioned me again and I felt like I was on trial. I almost felt like maybe I was wrong and I shouldn’t be wasting their time. She too, chalked it up to heartburn and gave me Pepcid, a stronger heartburn medicine. Hey, I had already tried all the over the counter ones, what is one more! They did the routine urine sample and blood pressure- all normal.
When I had absolutely no relief they thought it might be my gallbladder. Apparently during pregnancy, or even after having children, your gallbladder can flare up and need to be removed. They had to admit me because of my pain level, but that meant I had to stay overnight because none of the techs were there to do the ultrasound on my gallbladder until the morning. Dan’s mother and sister came to pick up Ryan and we settled into our little hospital room for the evening. They gave me a shot of morphine to help relieve the pain. I couldn’t eat lunch meat while I was pregnant, but they could give me a shot of morphine- go figure!
At 8 AM on Saturday morning they wheeled me down to have my ultrasound. While the tech was pushing around with the wand, the pain intensified. I was convinced it was my gallbladder now. I was going to have to have surgery while I was pregnant. I could handle this. It can be controlled through diet and medicine, but most likely surgery was the option. Within those 15 minutes, I had completely convinced myself, I was going to be operated on. It is amazing the way our brains work. Yes, I was going to have surgery. Little did I know what kind.
Soon after I returned to my hospital room, a doctor came in, casually sat down and started to explain to me and Dan about having my gallbladder removed during pregnancy. I remember him saying he better not get ahead of himself though because he hadn’t seen the results from the ultrasound just yet. With that, he left the room. He popped back in, “Nope, it isn’t your gallbladder,” and he left again. He came back into my room a few minutes later and told us that my doctor was on his way to talk to me about having a cesarean. And with that, he left again. Dan and I were like wait, what?!? Now? In 6 weeks when my baby is due? Then the high risk doctor came in and laid it all on the table for us. I had HELLP Syndrome and the only way to fix this was to deliver the baby. It meant I had breakage of red blood cells, elevated liver enzymes and low platelet count which is essential for blood clotting. This is a rare complication of preeclampsia or toxemia. The pain I was feeling was actually my liver expanding. Normally it doesn’t get this far, but I had none of the warnings. I never had high blood pressure, no excessive swelling and I didn’t have extreme weight gain- most people thought I was just a few months along! Generally this occurs in women under 20 or over 40- I was 29. Normally, it is your first pregnancy- this was my second. I didn’t fit the mold, but it didn’t matter. It was happening and it was happening quickly. I burst into tears. I couldn’t believe they were taking my little baby so early. We hadn’t even agreed on her name yet! They kept reassuring me that she would be fine. I was 34 weeks to the day. I felt like I couldn’t process it all. I remember sitting there with such a blank stare. It could have been five minutes; it could have been two hours. At around 2:30 PM I was wheeled into the operating room, had to walk around the dreaded operating table (I had never seen one in person- it was like a skinny, foam cross) and I had to lie down. I couldn’t have an epidural/spinal because my platelet count was so dangerously low that I could have bled out through my spine, so I had to go under general anesthesia and have a breathing tube inserted. Dan couldn’t even be in the room with me. The last thing I remember is getting another IV slammed into my arm, one of the nurses say they had never seen someone give an IV so fast, another one of the nurses counting the operating tools and the anesthesiologist saying the time. At 3:05 PM, little Kaylin Grace graced us with her presence. She weighed in at 4 pounds, 9 ounces and 18 inches long. Apparently I was in some sort of a recovery room at some point, but I don’t remember any of that. I vaguely remember being wheeled from recovery back to my room. When the doors opened, all of my family was in the waiting room. I was so groggy from the anesthesia. True to fashion, I muttered something nastily to everyone looking at me.
I hate being the center of attention, so I still laugh at that to this day. I don’t remember much of the rest of that day or even the night. I know a nurse came in every hour to check my vitals and breathing. I kept failing my oxygen test and had to be on oxygen for the next day or so. In the morning, a bunch of people came buzzing in after my blood test results came back. It felt like I was on a television show. All of a sudden there were nurses and doctors and needles and machines. My platelet count was down to 16,000. It should be close to 160,000. My liver enzymes were around 600, but should be around 32. All of the signs of HELLP were still affecting my body. I wasn’t recovering quickly enough. I had to have 2 blood transfusions of platelets. It was as if I could feel them entering my body and I immediately started to feel better. Of course this was only the beginning of my recovery, but it was a start. I also had a 48 hour steroid treatment that helped to quicken the recovery process.
While all of this was going on, I still hadn’t met my daughter. Weeks later, my mom informed me that she had said to one of the nurses that they had to get me down to the NICU to see my daughter. It was as if I didn’t even care that I had her. It was like a dream. The nurse said to my mom that there was no way I could down there. “You don’t understand how sick your daughter is.” Wow. Hearing that gives me chills to this day. I had blood drawn every few hours for almost a week that it got to the point they had to stick me twice to find a vein that worked. My arms and wrists were black and blue. From the girl who threw up at her first prenatal appointment while I was pregnant with my son when I had to have blood drawn, to the girl who just stuck out her arm and said, “Here, take my blood.” From there on out, I continued to get stronger every day and my body made a full recovery. I remember at one point, my doctor said if I had waited much longer to get to the hospital, I would have definitely been in ICU and my outcome may not have been so great. As I sit here and relive this, I am reminded just how lucky I am. Not knowing anything about HELLP prior to my diagnosis, I was of course thirsty to learn more. I learned that many women and their babies die from this. I count my lucky stars.
I was in the hospital from Friday night until Thursday of the following week. I finally got to meet and hold my daughter on Monday. I was too weak before that to go down to the NICU. It was so surreal. I know people use that word often, but it was. I knew I had a baby, but because I was so sick and she wasn’t in the room with me, it was almost as if I didn’t.
Kaylin was in the NICU for a total of 13 days. She came home on Ryan’s 2nd birthday, just in time for his party. All along I joked I wanted two July babies (Ryan’s birthday is July 15th). Kaylin was due August 13th. I meant like July 30th, not July 2nd. I wished and hoped that she would come early. I guess I got my wish. I just hope the rest of her life isn’t so crazy. I hear little girls are.
I always wanted three kids. Now I am not so sure. I have spoken to my doctor about the chances of this happening again and he told me that the chances of it happening again are about the same as it ever happening to begin with. He does not seem concerned and said I would be monitored a little closer. I didn’t have any of the symptoms, so how would they know? I have a beautiful family- Ryan is almost 5 and Kaylin is almost 3. It may be time to throw in the towel and count my blessings. Only time will tell.