It took a bit of trying for my husband and I to become pregnant. In the summer of 2010, I found out I was pregnant. The pregnancy was rather tough; I was in my early 40s and I was at high risk and my body let me know it. I had constant morning sickness and lots of scares with weight loss due to this. I had carpal tunnel syndrome and horrific issues with edema. I also had a few scares with the fetus as genetic testing and ultrasounds kept indicating problems that would resolve, only for new ones to be discovered. It was not until Thanksgiving 2010 that issues finally stabilized.
The baby continued to develop and I got passed the worst of the morning sickness. I swam and exercised to keep myself fit and healthy for the baby and delivery. On the stress test, the baby did fabulously well. The heart was so strong that it sounded like a horse trotting through the room. I returned the following week for what I thought was a routine appointment, only to learn from my OB that I was to report to the hospital that evening to be induced. The baby was taking its time down the exit ramp so my doctor decided, with my due date so close and my age/risk factors, inducing was the safest bet.
From the evening I checked in and through the night, I experienced a few contractions and went with the epidural to be safe. It was not until the early hours of the morning that my water was broken and labor was induced. With significant pushing for two hours and with little result, my OB used forceps to pull the baby out and I pushed the rest. I definitely gave myself too much of the epidural drug and did not feel contractions. The result was a baby girl whose cries brought tears to my eyes. I could not believe I had given birth to a healthy baby. She passed all tests and was placed on my chest.
All of this time, my OB was growing more anxious. She was performing an episiotomy but I was not delivering the placenta in one fell swoop. Instead, I was delivering globs of blood. I was whisked away to the OR in an attempt to remove the placenta manually. I was sick and terrified. In fact, while they were prepping me for anesthesia, I was experiencing dry heaves and could not relax. My OB was talking me through things and trying to keep order. There were residents all around me and none gave me the confidence they knew what they were doing. I succumbed to the anesthesia and awoke back in my delivery room with a transfusion. I had lost significant blood through the process.
My abdomen was frequently pressed and with significant pain. If that were not enough, the anesthesia resident came to remove the epidural and tape. The mere act of removing the tape on my back made me scream in agony; my entire body was overcome with pain. I was wheeled to the post partum floor shortly after and my new hell began.
I was running a low-grade fever and was given antibiotics via IV. I had already had four ports inserted and my arms were aching; holding the baby was excruciating. All day and night, nurses came through to check vitals or administer meds. I could not make it to the bathroom without an accident and my outputs were closely monitored. Family came to visit the entire weekend and I managed to keep up energy until Sunday, when I was due to leave. At this point, as I went into the bathroom, I leaked urine everywhere and then got the shivers. As it turned out, my staying on was the only option: my levels were quite low and I received another transfusion and more antibiotic IV. I did not know whether to cry or scream at this point. The frustration was beyond anything I imagined. The bonding I had hoped for with my newborn girl was lost to needles, tests, and IVs.
Covering OBs checked my belly and when I mentioned it still hurt, they said they’d see about having an ultrasound done. For two days I waited and nothing came. I chalked the entire thing up to the “taxes of motherhood” (as one covering OB said was the case).
By now, I was in the hospital 5 days and gone through several shifts of nurses. My baby girl was forced to stay in the nursery and wait for her sick mother to recover. She had the best deal: constant attention and admirers! My husband slept on the cot nearby and ran out on errands or bonded with the baby.
For the week that followed my release from the hospital, I continued the antibiotic course as a precaution and maintained a low-grade fever over the Easter weekend. I was spiking a temperature and continued with the body aches and pains and sweats at night. I informed my OB who said it was just the hormones returning to pre-pregnancy levels. What did I know?
The following Wednesday (April 27), when I completed my antibiotics, the symptoms intensified significantly. I did everything I could to stay warm, and ached for bed. My emotions were raw and after a fight with my husband, I screamed and cried myself to sleep. It was a fitful sleep because I perspired profusely and I hallucinated. Every joint in my body ached. I woke up the next day drenched and my husband took my temperature: 104.9. I ordered him to call my OB’s office and she told me to go to the hospital where the baby was delivered.
We packaged up the baby and off we went. In OB triage, a history was taken, tests run, Tylenol given for the fever, and then it was off to ultrasound. The truth revealed itself: there were nine centimeters of placenta in the upper section of my uterus. Apparently, it had been there all week and explained why I was achy and feverish. And worse, it was missed by the radiology techs right after the delivery, as my OB reported. She realized that she should have had more senior doctors reading the intra-operative image but relied on the technician given the urgency of the situation. Too stunned to be angry, I simply asked that more thorough measures be taken to ensure complete removal.
The following morning, while watching the Royal Wedding, I was prepped with more IV drugs and blood products, and a discussion with the OB detailing the plan and deliberate effort to avoid a hysterectomy. The team of specialists on my case were clearly more experienced and worked extremely well together. I felt confident going in. Once the procedure was completed, I was moved to a post-operative room and within moments of coming to, began having shortness of breath, followed by shivers, and all body shakes. My OB clearly knew what was happening and called an “All Hands.” Next thing I knew, there was a room of 12 nurses and 4 doctors working on me. I received an arterial line IV, had an oxygen mask, and saw people standing stunned looking on. My OB was white as a ghost and kept my terrified but outwardly calm husband abreast of the chaos as it was happening. At one point, I told a nurse “just don’t let me die.” I kept my eyes peeled on the clock, perhaps as some sanity check. The time really was irrelevant but I felt if I looked and kept tracking, I was still with it.
I was finally stabilized and the room was cleared for a portable chest x-ray. My husband appeared in scrubs as I was about to be taken back to the OR for space, but an ICU room opened and I was immediately transported. Nurses and doctors continued to work on me there as my temperature continued to hover around 104. I was hooked up to every monitor and people kept stopping in to ask questions or look on in disbelief. Infectious disease doctors were in and out, and an OB nurse and MICU nurse worked on me simultaneously.
My OB indicated that I did have sepsis shock and it was likely because that when she cleaned out my uterus of the retained placenta, the very act of scraping disturbed a hornet’s nest of endo- and exo-toxins. Those toxins were released into my bloodstream and began a war on my system. The medical team threw every conceivable medication at me to battle the fight. She was amazed that I came out of it as fast as I had. She continued to apologize for all of this even happening and the unspoken true message hung in the air: we were all very fortunate that the outcome was not worse.
Following two days in the ICU and then the post-partum floor, I returned home to recover. The physical recovery took about a month as I had lost quite a bit of weight and had to regain strength and do so while caring for a newborn. I also had to take care of some of the effects of the actual birth that were still unhealed.
While difficult, the physical recovery did not even compete with the emotional upheaval I experienced. When I returned to my OB for a 10-day follow up, she asked directly whether I had some PTSD and then shared with me her fears about what had happened. She spoke frankly and disclosed that it was extremely uncommon for this to happen and that many women died in the past from it. I believe what I experienced is known as puerperal fever, and I recall my mother mentioning this at some point while I was pregnant. Never in a million years could I have known it might apply to me. Childbirth classes did nothing to prepare me for this.
I was shaking with fear when the details of the discussion hit me in the parking lot. Everything up until that appointment was surreal. It did not occur to me until later that nothing was offered to help with the PTSD; just a promise to change the practice.
My daughter is 3 now and quite healthy and happy. While I cherish this beyond words, not a day goes by that I don’t think of what – or what might have – happened .