When my son was just about to leave the NICU after nearly a month, an MRI revealed that I had a subdural hematoma
. The day before I had experienced slurred speech, and a numb chin, and nose. A subdural hematoma is bleeding outside of the brain. It’s most common for older adults to experience this condition after a fall. I was experiencing it at 39 years old a few weeks after delivery.
I remember hobbling to the NICU in the evening after the very early morning arrival of my son. That’s when it hit me. The most painful headache that I had ever experienced. I said nothing at that point. I didn’t want to be taken from my son who I hadn’t laid eyes on since his birth. But as someone who has suffered from migraines on and off throughout my life, this pain was extremely intense and didn’t feel like any headache that I had ever experienced. And it wasn’t.
That night I went to sleep or at least I tried to. Then at around twenty-four hours postpartum which also happened to be World Preeclampsia Day
, I started to feel pain on what I thought was the right side of my stomach. I called for a nurse and was given a suppository, then Gas X. I was self-conscious about being perceived as dramatic and needy but I had no reference point for this feeling. I was labeling it “gas” and “a stomach ache” because I didn’t know what else to call it. Finally, after a few hours, I pleaded to see my doctor.
Dr. Jill immediately ordered blood work which revealed that I was in the midst of HELLP syndrome
. The gas pain that I was feeling was actually my liver. I was placed back on magnesium and closely monitored via bloodwork and a ct scan. The doctor went to see my husband in the NICU and he had just finished changing his first diaper, not an easy feat for a new Dad and infant who had many wires attached to him. My husband asked Dr. Jill for the worst-case scenario. She broke the news that HELLP could be fatal.
Approximately 45,000 women will develop HELLP syndrome
in the United States each year and 25% of those cases can lead to death due to stroke and/or liver rupture. Because of this, early diagnosis is key. Moreover, the United States is one of the most dangerous countries to give birth in with black women dying at three times the rate as white women (Drenon, Bailey, 2023). These statistics are stark.
Looking back at my advanced maternal age of 39 years old when I conceived, I was beyond fortunate to have gotten pregnant naturally. I considered myself lucky but I was also naive. At this point in my motherhood journey, I knew next to nothing about infertility.
The first weeks of pregnancy were typical. I was tired and hungry but overall grateful and doing ok despite frequent headaches. At two months in I started browning (spotting old blood) which turned out to be nothing. I also found out that I am RH-negative
which is an inherited protein. This was important information to have as it required shots to prevent potential harm to the baby and future pregnancies and it also made me worry.
Then at three months pregnant, I really started to bleed. We rushed to the ER, preparing for the probable fact that I was miscarrying. But I wasn’t. The medical team wasn’t able to give us a definitive reason as to why this happened but did mention that my placenta was low.
As many women report, the second trimester was uneventful until one night when I noticed that I didn’t feel the baby move. An ultrasound showed that the baby was fine but that my blood pressure was high. I returned a few days later for a pressure check and I was then admitted at 33 weeks. Diagnosed with preeclampsia, I was told that I would likely deliver in a few hours. I detached and denied the possibility that this was my reality. The blood pressure medicine made me weak and the magnesium given to prevent a stroke made me sweat and feel terrible.
After a few days of being hospitalized, I was sent home on bedrest. While my blood pressure remained high I didn’t have any other symptoms of preeclampsia: no protein in my urine, nausea, vomiting, or indigestion with pain after eating, shoulder pain, swelling, shortness of breath, or bleeding. My headaches were a constant but they would respond to acetaminophen. Then at 35 weeks some of these symptoms would emerge and I was induced as a result.
I went into labor fairly quickly and promptly got an epidural. I also ended up testing positive for Group Strep B
and just felt utterly powerless. This was the weekend that my childbirth classes were scheduled. And so when I was told to push I mimicked every actor I had seen in every movie and went for it! My son was 3.6 pounds. He was unable to suck, swallow, and breathe and as such required a feeding tube which resulted in a one-month NICU stay. I needed a DNC post-delivery and returned to my room where I shook violently from the anesthesia until sunrise. I thought about my family in New York knowing they were three hours ahead, wanting to call them, but not being able to physically do so.
A few weeks postpartum I noticed my speech was slurring and both my chin and nose went numb. These stroke-like symptoms were in fact the aforementioned subdural hematoma which had been caused by my platelets dropping low due to HELLP syndrome. An MRI showed this bleeding outside of my brain and I was promptly admitted to the wing next to my son. I was monitored for a day. Subsequent MRIs (separated by months) would reveal that the blood cleared up as the neurologist had predicted. Just to be safe, they prescribed me steroids which made me paranoid and on edge. Our son then graduated from the NICU, my husband returned to work and all of a sudden I was home alone with our newborn son, still reeling from my near-death experience.
My pregnancy, the birth of my son, and the beginning of his life were traumatic. This is not what I envisioned and I was scared and lonely. I would see other families in labor and delivery when I was at the NICU and they would be celebrating, slapping each other five, hugging in tears of gratitude for the newest member of their family. This was not the case for us and I have come to know that this is ok. Life often doesn’t look like it does on tv. While most of my family and friends experienced typical births, we didn’t. Still, it doesn’t make my husband and I any less appreciative of our beautiful child. It’s become part of our life story and part of my life’s work.
In the end, we didn’t have any hospital bills due to my husband’s benefits which also included him having six weeks of parental leave. My parents also paid for an extended maternity leave for me so that I could care for our son who had more needs than most other babies. Our stress which was high did not include worry about time off and finances. This and the fact that my son and I are still alive do not escape me. Despite all of the trauma, I know that we're still very fortunate. Our story seven years ago this week could’ve ended very differently and for that I am grateful.