‘Hours after giving birth to my first baby, doctors told me I could have died.’

This post is about five years in the making. Thoughts started percolating not long after the birth of my five-year-old son and I plucked up the gumption to jot them down over the following years. I promised myself I would share this once my childbirth days were over – kind of superstitious in a way. You will understand why by the end.

It is your birthday, again. You’re four years old now. That means if I am writing this it has taken me four years to go back to that day and write this story. That day which should be etched in our memories as one of new life – of you finally entering the world.

Barely 36 hours after your delivery, my obstetrician told me that my uterus might have to be removed. I nodded, listening gingerly as I lay waiting for him to open me up again, my second abdominal surgery in 48 hours.

I lay back in intensive care as you slept peacefully next to my bed, unaware of the flurry of staff saving lives next door. Thankfully my breasts were working so my milk had silenced your earlier cries; you were replete and content. Perhaps you sensed what your Mum was going through, and were on your best behaviour.

Slightly clouded by morphine, I relayed my obstetrician’s warning about becoming barren to my nurse. She had a son with your name and was in tears. For the first time since entering the hospital, I too shed tears.

No mother would want to be told that her womb might be taken from her, only hours after delivering her first child. But my eyes dried quickly and I smiled at you. If you could have held my hand to comfort me, you would have.

Leigh Sales talks to Mia Freedman about the frightening birth of her child. (Post cotinues after audio.)

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Until then, the events following your birth hadn’t seemed so bad. I didn’t know childbirth to be any different. Maybe it was the morphine, the hormones, or both, that helped me ride through that time relatively calmly. The anesthetist told me I was a pretty tough nut, mentally and physically.

Once my condition had stabilised, I learned that during your delivery (a text-book c-section) I experienced a very rare, and often-fatal obstetric emergency called an amniotic fluid embolism (AFE), also known as anaphylactic shock in pregnancy. This means that amniotic fluid passes into the maternal blood stream, and in some cases, prompts an almost allergic reaction by the mum with drastic consequences.

My body suffered a blood clotting disorder (disseminated intravascular coagulation) where I bled uncontrollably. So, although the delivery went perfectly, when I first started to breastfeed you in the ward I began to bleed – a lot. I also vomited – in between midwives hand expressing colostrum from my breast. But as they prodded and examined me, and struggled to find veins to take blood, I was oblivious to the seriousness of it all.

With my haemoglobin dropping, I was moved to ICU and received multiple blood transfusions – about 13 units; almost equal to the volume of blood my body normally carries. Had I been at home or in a hospital that lacked adequate stocks of my rare blood type (O negative), I would not be here today.

My c-section was just textbook, but after that - it was life-threatening.

I was one of the lucky ones, though – I survived. The unlucky ones suffer brain damage, cardiac arrest, organ failure, or do not live. The fatality rate is very high. Some reports suggest a fatality rate of up to 80 per cent, while more recent data suggests 40 per cent. Statistics also vary as to the incidence of AFE – recent research suggests it occurs in about 2.5 of every 100,000 births.

But it wasn’t until we started thinking about siblings for you that I truly had to confront what happened. Your dad and I decided to try for one sibling, and then another, on the basis that such a rare event was highly unlikely to happen again, and relying on a huge amount of positive thinking. I wasn’t aware of anyone who had suffered an AFE twice.

We put faith in my amazing medical team and I found incredible support through the Amniotic Fluid Embolism Foundation and its survivor support groups. The stories of other AFE survivors reveal the brutal and silent underbelly of what childbirth can be like – even in the 21st century.

No one knows what causes AFE, despite it being a leading cause of maternal death worldwide (and the leading cause of maternal death in Australia). A survivor registry has been established to facilitate research into the causes of this indiscriminate condition, which will hopefully provide us with answers.

"I dug deep to find the strength to go into that delivery room twice more, to produce your fabulous brothers." (Image supplied.)

I dug deep to find the strength to go into that delivery room twice more, to produce your fabulous brothers. The decision to have a third child was hard – were we pushing our luck? But that driving maternal force and my gut instinct meant I would regret not giving you another sibling.

When your brothers were each handed to me after being delivered, I broke down in tears – a release of anxiety and utter relief to have a healthy baby. After waiting several hours after each birth we were satisfied that there were no complications. Finally I knew how magical those first few days after delivery are meant to be.

Now there is a real sense of completeness, and a weight off my shoulders knowing I don’t have to put myself through another pregnancy, staying positive and keeping the demons at bay. Admittedly, at times while I was pregnant that resolve escaped me, but my mantra ‘lightning doesn’t strike twice’ kept me going.

This story is not meant to frighten pregnant women – rather to help generate a better understanding of AFE and find a way to one day beat it. So please share this story to raise awareness of AFE and support for the Amniotic Fluid Embolism Foundation. The Foundation is working hard to facilitate medical research into the causes of AFE – which are currently unknown.

Blood donors saved my life – please go to the Red Cross website to find out how you can donate blood.

This post originally appeared on A Curious Dot.

Featured image: iStock

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