pregnancy

'My teeth were damaged from the vomiting.' What it's really like to be sick during pregnancy.

Warning: this post deals with themes related to mental health and suicide and may be triggering for some readers. Please contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14 if you’re struggling with symptoms of mental illness.

As told to Nama Winston by Woollongong mum, Camilla.

I want to share my story of having hyperemesis gravidarum (HG) – severe vomiting and nausea – with all three of my pregnancies, to support anyone who is suffering with it, or has had it and wasn’t taken seriously.

I was so unwell with my second pregnancy that I developed perinatal depression and, in my darkest hours, even considered suicide and an abortion… anything to make it stop.

So I know that HG and its symptoms are very real. But it’s not a well-understood or accepted condition, and HG sufferers have to put up with well-meaning but useless advice like ‘eat a cracker’ or ‘drink some ginger beer’.

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I am now a mum to three beautiful daughters; Ella, three, Evie, five, and Chloe, seven. I’m married to Nick, a coal mine deputy, who worked Monday to Friday, midday until 1am, during my pregnancies. He now works weekends.

My first pregnancy

I was 27 years old when we first fell pregnant with Chloe. By seven weeks I was a mess, and had lost eight kilos.

My doctor immediately diagnosed me with HG, which was awesome (so many women aren’t quickly diagnosed). But there still wasn’t a great deal of treatment options widely available at that time.

I was prescribed Zofran (an anti-emetic), and was told to eat whatever I felt like, whenever I felt like it. This advice is always the first thing I tell other newly pregnant women; we are so smothered in the concepts of ‘eating well for baby’ that sometimes we forget that any eating is better than none.

I lived off schnitzel sandwiches at work, and I ate handfuls of Zofran like smarties.

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I think I spent about $15,000 on medications that pregnancy because Zofran wasn’t covered for HG at that stage.

The idea that kept me going through this first pregnancy was ‘it will get better at 12 weeks’. Then 12 weeks came and went, and I just kept on hoping that tomorrow would be better. Somewhere closer to 30 weeks, I realised I was starting to come alive again.

I never knew HG could return in late pregnancy, so at first I assumed I had a bug. It really lingered, and my very supportive manager at work made it possible for me to finish up on maternity leave well before I intended.

Luckily I did, as Chloe made a very quick appearance at 37 weeks. I threw up all through the labour, but my HG evaporated as soon as she was born.

hyperemesis gravidarum pregnancy
Camilla with her first baby in hospital. Image: Supplied.

The second pregnancy.

I was 29 when I was pregnant with Evie. I was sure I couldn’t possibly luck out and have two HG pregnancies. I remember waking up on the first day of nausea and feeling my heart sink – it was happening again.

I was really emotionally disengaged during this pregnancy.

My husband was so great. He took on the whole house load with cooking and cleaning and seeing to Chloe, who was about 18 months.

I couldn’t hold a conversation, and longed for the day to end so I could sleep... except sleep wasn’t the relief I craved, because it was shadowed with the knowledge that I would wake again at 4am, and the whole nauseating Ground Hog Day would begin again.

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I vomited until my voice went hoarse and I blew vessels in my eyes. My teeth are damaged from the acid from so much vomiting.

I lived on two-minute chicken noodles. I didn’t look at meat for seven months.

Even worse, I couldn’t stomach the smell of my daughter’s breath or hair. I couldn’t handle her climbing on the bed because it made it too rocky.

I didn’t shower for days on end. I couldn’t eat, sleep, watch TV, read, or talk because the nausea was all-encompassing. The medication was just not cutting it.

I was so exhausted that sometimes I would secretly withhold liquids so I didn’t need to get up to pee; I knew the dehydration was bad, but moving from my bed to the en-suite would be enough to trigger a 24 hour ‘laying on the bathroom floor’ style hangover.

Because of all of this, perinatal depression eventually kicked in. I really did just want to die.

I considered an abortion, but couldn’t have lived with myself; I wanted this baby SO much.

But undoubtedly, I felt my life was falling apart.

I remember stoically reassuring my midwife when I scored badly on the mental wellness questionnaire. I explained I only felt that way because I felt so ill ALL THE TIME, and that I knew I’d feel ‘better’ as soon.

But stoicism that also meant I didn’t get the mental health support I really needed. It’s easy to think logically about my needs now, but when you’re in that hole, asking for help is not at the forefront of your thoughts.

So trust me when I say: make sure you get help if you need it.

The third pregnancy.

I was 31 when I fell pregnant with Ella. I really wanted another baby. We just felt like our family wasn’t complete.

Before we started trying to conceive, I saw a ‘specialist of disorders of pregnancy’ at Prince of Wales hospital in Sydney. She talked me through so many different aspects of HG, and made me realise that Zofran only treats one aspect – the vomiting.

We worked out a whole treatment plan from beginning to end, and my GP was given instructions on prescribing.

This pregnancy was a HG sufferer’s dream. Yes – I was sick. Yes – the meds give you side effects (one is marketed as a sleeping pill, and I was taking it 24 hours/7 days).

But to have moments where I could enjoy food, moments where I felt okay, that was heaven. I think I was having ‘almost normal’ days by 16 weeks, and felt recovered by 24 weeks.

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The anxiety was still present, but it wasn’t anywhere near as dark during this pregnancy.

hyperemesis gravidarum pregnancy
"To have moments where I could enjoy food, moments where I felt okay, that was heaven. Image: Supplied.

What Camilla wants everyone to know.

There’s a lot of misinformation about HG out there. For example, home remedies that are meant to make you feel better, but really just make you feel like a failure because you can’t deal.

And even with the increased media around the Duchess of Cambridge having HG, society doesn’t understand the actual level of sick you can feel.

It’s constant, persistent, debilitating, personality-changing.

If you ever suffer from HG, or are doing so now, please make sure you get help. Take your meds, and then take the meds that manage the side effects. Don’t be afraid of the meds!

Eat whatever you feel like. Baby will get what she needs from your own stores - there will be time later in the pregnancy to refuel.

And I repeat: ask for help.

Please ask for help.

If you have been affected by this story, please contact your general practitioner in Australia, Lifeline on 13 11 14, or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. For more information on HG see the Australian government's website for pregnancy.

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