If you’re one of the 85 percent of pregnant women who suffer from nausea or vomiting in pregnancy, you’ll know all about the wave of sickness that can strike in the first few months of carrying a baby. The rush for the bathroom first thing in the morning, the need to nibble on biscuits to keep your stomach from churning and the sudden aversion to everyday smells that will leave you feeling cold, clammy and yes, vomiting.
Fortunately, for most women, morning sickness, which is thought to be caused by the body adapting to hormonal changes, usually sorts itself out by the time three months of pregnancy has gone by.
Why hyperemesis gravidarum isn’t morning sickness
Hyperemesis gravidarum (HG) isn’t like that. Let’s be clear. HG is NOTHING like morning sickness. Yes, it’s an illness suffered by 1-3 percent of pregnant women. Yes, it’s thought to be caused by hormonal changes and yes, it causes nausea and vomiting but there the similarities end.
Sandy Tai, 26, a mum of two from Ballarat, Victoria, knows this all too well. For her, HG began when she was pregnant with daughter, Winnie, now three.
Sandy Tai suffered HG in both her pregnancies. Source: Supplied
‘When I first started being sick, I was a little bit excited. It was all part of the package of being pregnant,’ the doula and birth practitioner explains.
‘But it very soon became obvious that I was vomiting far more than was normal. For me, 10 times a day was usual. I couldn’t eat and was only able to drink small amounts so I quickly became ill and exhausted.
‘I vomited so hard, I tore my oesophagus’
‘At seven weeks pregnant, I vomited so badly that I tore my oesophagus so there was lots of blood.’
That frightening incident ended with Sandy dialling 000 and a trip to hospital but that wasn’t the only time during the pregnancy that HG caused Sandy to be admitted.
‘I lost 10 percent of my body weight and was so dehydrated that I ended up in hospital four times,’ she says. There, the exhausted mum-to-be was put on a drip to replace fluids and given anti-nausea medication. But even that wasn’t without its dramas as it was soon discovered that Sandy was allergic to the drugs.
‘My sight was blurred, my face swollen and I could often sleep for hours,’ she explains. ‘There was even one particular drug which made me violent – apparently, a rare side effect to it.’
The impact of HG
By the time the HG suddenly stopped when Sandy was 25 weeks pregnant, she did not have the strength to walk down the street.
The picture below shows just what an impact HG had had on the young mum.
Sandy while pregnant and suffering from HG and Sandy afterwards. Source: Ballarat Birth Support
Fortunately, baby Winnie was born healthy and happy after a home birth. However, HG had left its mark with Sandy suffering from postpartum depression and anxiety for which she received counselling.
‘I was scared of having another baby, in case it happened again,’ she says. Nevertheless, Sandy pressed on, taking lots of vitamins, minerals and probiotics, eating healthily and exercising every day in a bid to avoid HG in a subsequent pregnancy.
But at just four weeks pregnant with her daughter, Lilly, now six months old, the faintness, nausea and extreme vomiting returned – this time worse than ever.
‘I could not get out of bed, read or even watch TV,’ says Sandy. ‘I tried everything from Chinese herbs, to visiting my chiro , and hypnotherapy to cranial adjustments, plus advice from my GP, but nothing worked.
‘I couldn’t eat or drink’
‘I couldn’t eat or drink, talk on the phone or use Facebook so I gradually became mentally and physically isolated.
‘Every few days I was admitted to hospital to have IV fluids pumped into me and then, as soon as I was well enough to have a shower, I’d be sent home again, only for the whole cycle to start once more.’
For some, HG tails off after 20 weeks, for others it can last the entire pregnancy. This time, this was the case for Sandy and it was when she was seven months pregnant that the most frightening episode of her pregnancy took place.
‘I was finally able to sit up so was sitting in the lounge room with Winnie while she watched Play School on TV.
‘Suddenly, my head started to swim. The next thing I knew, I was on the floor and Play School was ending. I came to but a little while later, it happened again. This time, when I fainted I banged my head on the floor.
‘When I regained consciousness, Winnie said, “I thought we were playing Hide and Seek but you wouldn’t wake up, Mummy.
‘I couldn’t risk it happening a third time while I was alone with a toddler so managed to call 000.’
‘My body was shutting down’
Back in hospital, doctors discovered that Sandy’s body was starting to shut down her organs so her baby could continue to grow. Steroids prepared mother and baby for an emergency birth while Sandy was kept on complete bed rest and also given eight anti-nausea medications, including a drug developed for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, as well as 24/7 IV fluids.
After a week, Sandy was well enough to be allowed home. She even began to manage small amounts of food. But HG had taken its toll.
‘My husband, Liam, had to take time off work to look after me and by the time Lilly was born at 39 weeks in another home birth, I was mentally and physically isolated. I had lost 20 percent of my body weight this time and my muscles were wasted from not being able to move.’
Lilly was born safely and healthily at home. Source: Ballarat Birth Support
Six months on since Lilly’s arrival, Sandy is still battling to regain her strength and has suffered from serious postpartum depression, including thoughts of suicide.
‘Fortunately, I confided in my husband and best friend and we were able to get me the emergency mental health care I needed.’
Pregnant women with HG need support
Sandy’s not alone in feeling the affects of HG, even after birth. Women who’ve experienced HG suffer a lifelong impact from the condition including a greater risk of entering early menopause, osteoporosis, postnatal depression and anxiety. Some sufferers even elect for therapeutic abortions, such is the severity of the illness.
‘Women with HG need to be able to find safe, non-judgemental support and know that there’s no shame in doing whatever they have to do to get through,’ says Sandy.
‘Look at the difference in my pictures. This is not morning sickness, this is a woman with a clinical illness about which there’s not enough awareness. If it wasn’t linked to pregnancy I’m convinced it would be taken a lot more seriously.’