It has been a month and I’ve been contemplating on how to start writing this. I still am not really sure what to say first. I feel inclined to start off with a joke; brush it off with nonchalance and minimize the situation because that’s what I do. And I do it very well, a little too well. And really, that’s sort of what got me into the problem in the first place. Four weeks ago I was compelled to simply write about the order of events that happened to me, but that seemed kind of pointless. Then I wanted to relate it all to surrogacy and birth, but again, so what? However, I’ve had a lot of time to think in these last four weeks and I’ve reflected on myself quite a bit. I realized that my anxiety, more specifically my anxiety coping methods, almost killed me.
I have anxiety and depression, however, I have a pretty good handle on it. I’m in tune with myself and almost always am able to head off a panic attack. I’ve learned what my triggers are and I can talk myself out of a mood. I also have an amazingly supportive husband who also can see through me (most of the time) and can help minimize a situation and handle a mood swing. I’ve not had any issues since college; that’s ten years of keeping myself in check and sane without medication or therapy. I’m happy with that. I feel very successful with that. Sometimes I even feel “cured”.
My anxiety nearly always presents it’s self as a physical ailment rather than an emotional one. I simply am not emotional. I don’t cry and rarely get mad. Instead I suffer from angina, headaches, muscle aches or cramps, bloody noses, dizziness, etc. When I was a junior in college I ended up in the hospital with severe chest pain. I could have sworn I was DYING. I was fine. I was just terrified of finals approaching and trying to juggle three jobs. My senior year I was rushed to the ER for fainting and extreme kidney pain. Again, my organs were failing me and I was on my death bed. I was fine. The emotional toll of moving cross country and living with an abusive boyfriend was really getting to me though. Over the years I learned to not freak out so much about the physical aches and pains. I learned to stay away from Dr. Google and to evaluate emotional issues first. By looking at stressful situations at the onset of a headache I’ve been able to avoid both the physical pain and the panic attack. I’ve learned how to let nearly everything roll off my back as a means of self preservation; this has saved me both physically and mentally.
I’m strong. I’m really strong. I can run an all up-hill race in sub zero temperatures and set a course record doing so. I can birth giant babies in my living room without so much as a Motrin. I really can just kind of turn my brain off and power through anything. It doesn’t matter how much something hurts. I can take a deep breath and muscle through to the end. I like that about myself. And, that is my coping method. Muscle through and it will be over soon. Suck it up, Buttercup. Just Do It. I hate involving other people in my drama, so I usually brush it off with an “I’m fine!” I act calm or even use humor to deflect what I’m feeling. And it usually resolves it’s self. You’re not dying. If you ignore it, it will go away.
Except when it doesn’t. Apparently sometimes physical pain really is more than what one can simply suck up.
I started gaining weight rather rapidly in December. I knew I wasn’t running as frequently as I had wanted. The plan was to run 3 to 4 times a week (no more than 5 miles at a time) until there was ice and snow on the trails, making it dangerous. With the consistent 60 degrees there was no excuse to NOT get out there and workout, but the start of the start of the third trimester brought on a new fatigue. I began taking naps during my workout time. I blamed those extra pounds on my lack of movement. I also wasn’t really digging the pregnancy anymore. I was uncomfortable, nothing fit right, doctor’s visits drove me nuts, and I just wanted my body back. I was feeling aches and pains that I had never experienced during any of my other three. I had figured it would be my last pregnancy anyway. And then the dizziness and headaches started. My butt was growing bigger by the day and (surprisingly) causing a serious depression. I was having strange body image issues that I had never had before, but again, I assumed it was because it was a surrogacy pregnancy.
Monday, December 14th was a difficult day to get through. Something just wasn’t right. I was beyond tired. I felt like I was walking through Jello. My thighs and butt were huge. I was dizzy and paranoid, but I couldn’t figure out why. I kept thinking and feeling that any moment I would simply be dead. But, like all the other days the week before, there wasn’t really anything that bad. I had to admit that my pain level was fairly low, that there wasn’t really anything wrong. It was brushed off as pregnancy aches and pains as well as some stress related to either the surrogacy and/or the upcoming holidays. Anyway, there was no need for alarm. I knew I had an OB appointment on Wednesday the 16th. I would just mention all of these nuisances to him and I assumed he’d brush them off as well. I’d be fine because I’m always fine.
That evening my husband wasn’t as convinced as I was. He feared I was suffering from pre-eclampsia, a very dangerous condition that affects pregnant women, usually after the 20th week, and the only cure is delivery of the baby and placenta. He took my blood pressure at the dining room table; 150 over 90. My stomach flip-flopped and my heart sank. This wasn’t just nothing. This really was serious. Even though I felt pretty much ok, I realized I might actually not be. But I had three small kids around me and my husband’s terrified eyes looking at me. Act normal, there’s nothing to see here I told myself. “That’s too high. I guess we should go to the hospital then and get things checked out.” While Hubs called around for a babysitter I quickly braided my hair as tightly as possible (I knew I’d be in the hospital for a few days and I didn’t want to deal with tangles) and threw together a go-bag (the largest novel I could find, tablet, phone charger, a few changes of socks and underwear) and off we went to Manchester ER.
At first I wasn’t taken very seriously. I clearly wasn’t in any sort of distress, let alone labor. I was very calm. My pain level was around a 3, maybe, I guess….am I in any pain, really? I explained that my blood pressure was typically low, in the 90 over 60 range, but this evening it was 150 over 90, and I had significant swelling, and I had gained over 6 pounds in the last two days. I was given a gown and some hospital socks (that wouldn’t fit over my feet), I was put on a gurney, and hooked up to all the monitors. My hands were flapping and I had whole body shakes, but I was incredibly warm. I couldn’t focus my vision and I kept having episodes of dark spots and sparklers on the edges, forming a strange shimmering tunnel. I felt like I was falling even when I was laying flat on my back. I couldn’t breathe and a giant lump in my throat made it hard to swallow. I felt like I was dying, but knew it was an anxiety attack. Being in a hospital was terrifying and my body was betraying me. My blood pressure was checked every ten minutes and it went up with every reading. My blood was drawn and a scant amount of urine taken. My platelets were low, liver enzymes were up, and I had a crazy amount of protein in my urine. I actually was dying.
I was hooked up to an IV of magnesium sulfate and given some pill for the headaches. Because my blood was being drawn every two hours and vitals were taken every 30 minutes it was impossible to sleep. The fear of a seizure didn’t help. Thankfully my sister arrived early the next morning (Tuesday, December 15th) and the hospital let me have some breakfast. Unfortunately, as I finished up my oatmeal they determined that I would be delivering ASAP. I was given a shot of steroids in the rear (to help the baby with his lungs) and told that I had to hang on 24 hours for the next shot. The baby needed two shots. I needed to stay on magnesium (and then remain on the IV for a full 24 hours after delivery). I was also going to be transferred to Hartford Hospital so that the baby and I could be in a more advanced NICU. I was terrified but I knew that succumbing to the fear wasn’t going to help. I knew I had to stay in control to try and keep my pressures down and to cause as little stress for the baby as possible.
My swelling continued and by the time the ambulance arrived at Hartford I couldn’t even stand on my own. I was given a catheter and the nurses practically willed me to produce urine, but my kidneys had given up, leaving me dry. My sister followed the ambulance in her car with my belongings and made it to my room just as I was meeting my new team of doctors and nurses. A doctor was performing an ultrasound on the baby when I felt a new wave of nausea, but I knew I wouldn’t throw up. I was falling very fast backwards into a hole, yet I was strangely peaceful. “Something bad is about to happen,” I said to the doctor. She looked up alarmed. “Are you nauseas? Do you need a bucket?” she asked and motioned to a nurse. “No, no. It’s not that. Something else isn’t right.” Suddenly my body broke out into a cold sweat, drenching my body as I hit the bottom of the hole causing a terrible, slamming pain to go through my body. At the same time all the alarms and bells went off on the machines. Someone said something about the O2 being at zero. Someone else said something about my blood pressure and my pulse being gone. I was surrounded by more doctors than I could count, but all I could see was my sister’s eyes looking at me over the top of their heads. I could see the whites of her eyes and all I could think about was how unfair it would be to die in front of her. An oxygen mask was put over me and I realized I couldn’t hear anything anymore. I don’t want to deal with this, I thought to myself. I just want to sleep. So I rolled over and went to sleep. I dreamt about walking through the woods with my daughter.
I don’t know how long I was out, probably not long really, but I woke up to someone in blue scrubs doing an echo on my heart. My head was on fire. My pulse was back up to 40 and my pressures were back to being too high. I wasn’t dead yet and the doctors didn’t know what had happened. Through chattering teeth I tried to explain that it was most likely an anxiety attack. I don’t think they believed me. It didn’t matter anyway. By now I had gone into self preservation mode and basically shut my brain off. I had to take this in steps. The first step was allowing enough time for the steroids to work. The next step would be delivering the baby. The third step would be getting through the rest of the magnesium and hoping my blood pressures would come down.
I delivered my three children without and medications, completely natural and on my own terms. My children were also born well past their due dates and without so much as a hiccup and entirely on my own terms. This was going to be my first hospital birth and I was a little nervous. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to labor the way I wanted to, that the doctors and nurses would be too medical, would insist I lay on my back, stab me with needles, and tell me when to push. I was also very nervous about being pushed into a C-section. The idea of having my abdomen sliced open while I was awake was simply terrifying. I was afraid that the Pitocin wouldn’t induce labor because it was too early and I’d have no choice in the matter. I was afraid they’d hack me open and I’d die anyway.
My husband came and went (he was incredibly nervous), my sister had to leave to go to work, and my father had to go home to sleep. My mother stayed with me though. Finally the next morning, Wednesday the 16th, came and I was given the second shot of steroids. By noon they had decided that my liver was going the way of my kidneys and so I was given Pitocin to begin labor. I was 29 weeks and 6 days pregnant. The surrogacy agency had already been in contact with the baby’s parents and they were well on their way to CT. I could feel early labor contractions and they were a welcomed distraction from my headache. By 4pm I had a pretty good sense of a timeline and suggested that Hubs and my father go and get some dinner; the show would be on soon and they wouldn’t want to do this on an empty stomach. And I was right. They came back about an hour and a half later just as full on labor was starting.
Contractions picked up speed, but they still didn’t feel strong enough to birth a baby, but I was also so done with being pregnant and wasn’t going to give in to having a C-section. My body was huge and unwieldy, but Hubs managed to pick me up so I could turn to all fours into a semi-squat, using the back of the labor bed to support me. Hubs pushed on my hips and the small of my back and I could suddenly feel the pressure of true labor at 6:30pm. A doctor with an ultrasound wand was insisting that I lay back so she could determine the position of the baby. “I know the position!” I yelled at her. “He’s just fine, I know he’s head down!” She didn’t seem to believe me, again insisting on an ultrasound. I was afraid that if I managed to turn over and lay down again I wouldn’t have time or even be able to get back up and would be stuck trying to push on my back. I stood up a little straighter and told her she’d have to do it this way or not at all.
Suddenly a whole new fear came over me. I knew this was going to be a very tiny baby. What if the contractions were too much for his little bones? What if I broke him just by pushing? I didn’t know what to do. I knew I had to push to get him out, in fact, my body was screaming at me to push. But I was so desperately afraid of hurting him that I didn’t even want to move and I held back against my primal urges. I could feel that his head was at the cervix and all I could envision was having his head emerge but his neck being broken with the next contraction. I decided it was time to just be done with it. It was certainly too late to do anything else, so I just pushed. And I kept pushing. At 6:44pm, less than an hour after labor began, the baby rushed out all at once, intact in the bag of waters, and with his placenta. He was immediately whisked off to the NICU while the remaining doctors examined me. I had had a full placental abruption and some minor clotting.
Now that everything was over (and I was still breathing) my husband and parents went home for the night. I stayed on the magnesium and continued to swell.
I had gone up to about 180 lbs, almost 40 pounds of water weight in less than two weeks. My body felt like it was going to burst like an over-ripe tomato. My skin was hot and it hurt. I was getting a new text message every five minutes, but my hands and arms were too swollen to respond. Even my scalp was swollen! The nurses could no longer find a vein and gave up drawing blood. Now we were just waiting for my kidneys to kick in.
I finally peed a tiny trickle about noon the next day (Thursday December 17th). The only way to get the swelling down would be to pee it out. The magnesium drip was stopped at 6:45 and my pressures were monitored until about 8:30pm. That’s when I left in the ICU and was placed in the “general population” on another floor where they continued to monitor my blood pressure every two hours. I also no longer had a catheter would have to get up on my own to pee.
The first time I had to stand on my own without the nurse to help me was a little terrifying and extremely painful. I was so swollen that the pressure of my body weight on my legs and feet was incredible. The nerve endings in my feet were going nuts. The muscles and ligaments in my legs were straining. But I knew I had to get up. I had to pee because the faster I started using the toilet, the faster the swelling would go down & the faster I could get back to normal and a lot less pain. I gritted my teeth and dug down somewhere inside of myself and just did it. I just got up. I could hardly stagger to the toilet, but thankfully it was only three steps away. I got myself into a two hour routine: get up and pee, wash hands, set up pump & pump breastmilk to send to NICU, get up and pee, wash hands and pump parts. That was all I could do for the next 24 hours. The TV was too stimulating and caused a headache. Reading was impossible since I still couldn’t focus. Texting my friends was just as difficult. Staring at the clock and waiting for the next half hour was all I could pull off.
I was told that it could take up to six weeks for my blood pressures and the swelling to return to normal. Just take it easy, remain on bed rest except to use the toilet, and monitor my pressures. I was told to return to the hospital if my pressures went back to 160 over 90. I was handed a breast pump, a giant box of bottles, and 500 labels along with discharge paperwork. I went home (Friday December 18th) just as they were passing out dinner trays.
Life at home was much more trying than life in the hospital. Children were making noise, the TV was always on, and the house was a complete disaster. I was in the hospital less than a week but the whole household seemed to have disintegrated. I tried to avoid anything that would cause too much stimulation, but that proved to be difficult. The simple task of folding laundry was enough to cause dizziness and raise my blood pressure. I was down to about 160 pounds, but I still felt terrible and was depressed about the condition of my body. My parents’ Solstice Party loomed ahead and I wasn’t sure I wanted to go because I didn’t want to be seen. I felt like Jaba de Hutt and wasn’t sure if the stimulation of a holiday party would be too much for my head. I would wake up in the middle of the night in convulsive tears because the headaches were just too much to bare.
I made it through the weekend okay and decided not to mess with the kids’ holiday and do the party. Plus I was down another 5 pounds and able to squeeze into some of my own clothes again. (I left the hospital wearing a giant pair of men’s PJ bottoms and a hospital gown because I was too swollen to wear even my maternity clothes.) The goal was to go to my follow-up visit on Tuesday December 22, pick up the kids from school on the way home, and then go straight to my parents’ house & just sit in a quiet corner. But Tuesday felt a little off. I didn’t complain because I didn’t have anything to really complain about. Of course I’d be a bit dizzy. I had just given birth and gotten out of the hospital…I could suck it up. My OB did not agree with me. My blood pressure was 175 over 95. My reflexes were excited. My vision was spotty. The doctor insisted that I immediately be admitted for stroke symptoms. So we flew back to get the children from school and an ambulance met us at the house. At this point I was completely flushed on one side and had very little strength in my right hand. Shooting sparklers flew across my vision and the headache began to mount. My blood pressure had risen to 190 over 118.
I was given two IVs with various kinds of medication in attempts at bringing my pressures down. I was given several kinds of headache medication to attempts to return my vision to normal. An EKG was taken. I was put in an MRI machine to look at my brain. The nurses watched me like hawks, waiting for the stroke to get worse or a seizure to take over. Finally the right kind of drugs was found and I was able to sleep.
But it was a terrifying ordeal, much worse than waiting out the pre-eclampsia and birth. Now it was truly serious and I knew it. I kept thinking about my brother and how insanely disappointed I was that I was missing the holiday party and my one chance this year at getting to visit with him. He hadn’t been at Thanksgiving dinner and wasn’t going to be at Christmas dinner. I was lonely and scared. What if I had a full on stroke before seeing him again? Would I recognize him if I got to see him again? How badly was this going to affect my brain? How much work was this going to be for my husband? What would we do?! Just dying from it all seemed easier, but I was terrified that I wouldn’t be so lucky. I didn’t even care about my blood pressures and brain anymore; I just wanted to see my brother and sister, laugh and be goofy like we did at every Solstice party. I wanted to watch my kids open their presents from Santa. I wanted to eat a Christmas cookie. But that just wasn’t going to happen.
Despite how badly I just wanted to break down and cry, I somehow I managed to push aside all the emotion and just focus on willing myself to not have a seizure. I made it through the night and my pressures came down. I still had a headache, but it was tolerable. By the middle of the afternoon the following day (Wednesday December 23rd) I was discharged for a second time in less than a week. I was put on blood pressure medication and instructed to take my pressures at least twice a day.
Physically I got better very quickly. My swelling was almost completely gone by Christmas and by New Year’s I was a “normal” weight. (I’m three pounds shy of pre-pregnancy weight right now.) I even started running again last week. I’ve been off the blood pressure medication since January 11th and my pressures have been my regular 90s over 60s. Even my headaches have subsided. My only lingering symptom is the lump in my throat. While physically I am well again, the pre-eclampsia has left my body, I have to be honest with myself. I am not yet mentally well. I can brush it off all I want and make all the jokes, but my emotions are still raw. I’m crushed that I had such a less than perfect birthing experience. I’m scared at how quickly my health deteriorated without me even being aware until it was almost too late. I worry at the thought of my family being left to deal without me. I’m nervous about the brain fog and any lingering effects the whole ordeal may have had on my brain. I’m not afraid of death, I’m afraid of living broken and now that’s just another thing I need to deal with. I haven’t yet completely addressed the whole emotional aspect of everything that happened, and I know I still need to. But for some reason it is the emotional pain that seems so much harder to deal with than the physical pain. What if I’m just not as mentally strong as I am physically?
P.S. The baby is doing very well. The parents did make it in time and were there to hold him right away. He has had no complications and his lungs have proved to be very strong. At the time of this writing he is still in the NICU gaining weight. He was born at 2 pounds, 6 ounces but gaining close to an ounce a day. I am still pumping breastmilk every two hours and sending it to the hospital for them.