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  • Writer's pictureMichael Pearce

My Mother's Day Emergency: a HELLPful piece of advice about pregnancy

It was Sunday, May 14th. Mother's Day. My husband and I were taking a walk along the Napa River. The sun was bright, and a nice ocean breeze traveled up the river from the San Pablo Bay. I strolled slowly in maternity pants and a light jacket, my steps penguin-like on the dirt trail.

We reached a grassy little park where I had to sit down. My side was hurting again, as it had on and off for a couple of weeks. That day, it began worsening.

"I think I want some noodles," I said to my husband. My stomach was "off" and the only thing that sounded good was Japanese noodles. I caressed my belly trying to ease the discomfort. At a check-up only a week or two before, the OB-GYN told me the pain was my baby's elbow was "poking me."

After making our way back to the car, we stopped for the noodles, and I ate them voraciously. Good thing I did, because it would be the last thing I'd have to eat for a number of days.

Monday, May 15th, hit me like a ton of bricks. Upon awakening to crushing pain below my rib cage, I quickly realized that my legs were not going to hold me up as I walked to the bathroom. So I crawled. My dog was concerned, and I told him to go get Dad. A faithful Golden Retriever, he did just that.

I was vomiting so profusely that I could barely hold up my head. My husband said I was sheet white. Actually a bit yellow, too. He wanted to take me to the ER. I said no. We had gone in just two nights before that after I felt contractions (on top of the pain) while watching Britney Spears perform on SNL. I guess that could give anyone some discomfort!

The hospital released me that Saturday night with instructions to take it easy (they assumed I was just under the weather). So my husband stood in the bathroom that Monday morning, dressed and ready for work, and announced he was not going anywhere. We were heading back to the hospital.

The pain in the right side was strong and sharp, like nothing I'd ever felt. The pregnancy was fine until it wasn't, and after spending all day long in a gown, in a hospital bed, getting poked, prodded, and inspected, I knew something had to be terribly wrong. But nobody knew what.

They tried inducing labor. They ran blood tests. They collected urine. They stood over my bed with serious looks on their faces. They consulted with each other. This went on for 12 hours, at least. I had nothing but ice chips to eat.

Long after dark, a nurse came in and said they needed to prep me for surgery. I had spent the day vomiting and now had no sustenance, no hydration. What was the surgery for? I asked my husband to call my mom. Before I was wheeled away, I heard the nurse tell my husband I had help.

A rapid, blurry sequence of events followed which made me feel out of control and out of breath. I barely had enough strength to ask a question. In a flash, I was told to count backwards from 100. I remember 97.

Later, after an emergency Caesarean section, I was awakened by a nurse's voice sternly calling my name. My husband was near, dressed in scrubs. All I could see was the ceiling. The pain in my side was gone. I had no idea where my baby was.

My original due date was June 9th. The date was perfectly synced with the end of the school year, and the plan was to merge summer vacation with maternity leave. I hadn't planned on HELLP Syndrome taking me away from my students. We didn't think HELLP Syndrome would mean a premature birth for our son. We certainly had never even heard of HELLP Syndrome. Not a single pregnancy book mentioned it (and I read them all).

If one thoughtful nurse in the hospital hadn't thought to run a platelet count, that Sunday would have been my last Mother's Day on earth. And I never would have been able to hold my baby. The platelet count was the clue to HELLP. And the emergency C-section was the only option we had. Our lives were not guaranteed.

On Sunday, May 21st, after a harrowing week in ICU/NICU, we were back home together. I had my baby boy in my arms, but it was several weeks until I felt confident holding him because I was so incredibly weak. And he was so incredibly small.

The fact that we both survived something with a maternal mortality and perinatal mortality rate of 1.1 - 24% and 6.6 - 60% respectively is breathtaking. Descending into HELLP Syndrome on Mother's Day many years ago is not how any expectant mother should spend the day.

The signs were there. The symptoms should have alerted any ER doctor and OB-GYN to the seriousness of the condition. I should not have been told "it was an elbow" and I should not have been sent home that Saturday night with all the symptoms staring the doctor in the face. Every pregnant woman should be aware of the symptoms and advocate for proper care if something's not right.

The bottom line is, we were lucky. My son's birthday and Mother's Day always arrive close together, and not a year goes by that I don't think about what happened with excruciating clarity.

As soon as I feel myself dwelling on the fear, disappointment, and trauma of that day, I make room in my heart for gratitude, joy, and triumph. My son Zach's birthday is more than a birth day.

Combined with Mother's Day, it is a reminder of the strength all women possess to endure frightening situations and overcome complicated obstacles. It's an opportunity for recognizing the amazing ability of a body to grow life. It's a chance to remember not to take anything for granted. Life is fragile.

On this Mother's Day, after a year of significant hardship and loss, it's more important than ever to be grateful for our families and to honor mothers everywhere who go through so much to bring new life into this world.


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