Samantha first knew things weren’t right at around the six week mark of her pregnancy, when she couldn’t stop throwing up.
She went to the doctor and was told it was just morning sickness. Samantha was prescribed a drug named Maxalon which gave her “odd visions” and left her feeling extremely anxious. She was assured the sickness would go away after 12 weeks.
At her worst, Samantha was vomiting up to 40 times a day – so much so that she tore her oesophagus. Not being able to keep food down meant she often fainted, and suffered from migraines. She was plagued with stomach cramps, and her muscles were pulled from the recurrent action of throwing up.
She knew this was not morning sickness. In fact, it felt more like gastro.
It was upon her second visit to the emergency room that Samantha was diagnosed with Hyperemesis gravidarum – the same rare condition Kate Middleton famously experienced during pregnancy.
She was given a printed handout on severe vomiting, and told to come back whenever she needed fluids. Other than that, she was on her own.
“The vomiting causes severe dehydration which I was hospitalised for,” Samantha told Mamamia. “I would need IVs… and my veins would collapse on the midwives and doctors because I was so dehydrated. They would try multiple veins (including ones on my feet). The worst was when I was so dehydrated they had to have the anaesthesiologist place a child’s cannula into my wrist. I still have a small mark three years later.”
Samantha says she could hardly eat and struggled to keep down water. She coped by melting small ice chips in her mouth. During what she terms ‘fluffy’ periods (times when the vomiting decreased to about four to six times a day), she managed to keep one meal down, and as a result became malnourished. Years later, she’s still required to take multiple vitamin supplements because of various deficiencies.
During Samantha's first pregnancy, she estimates she missed around 45 days of work. "The majority of this was leave without pay," she told me. "I used pretty much all my sick leave... and to be eligible for Centrelink you need to either have full leave approved by the doctor with written acknowledgement of the fact or have at least 30 days off work consecutively.
"As I was trying to go in as much as I could, I never had 30 days off in a row. I was also the main income earner so needed to work when I could. I had fear of losing my job (many women do) which also compelled me to attempt to go in whenever I could," she said.
"I'm sure I was not much use at work when I was in as I was running to and from the bathrooms. My work was understanding to some respect but how much can they understand really unless they have been through it themselves? I definitely felt pressure to work, the pressure to suck it up and just do it as 'others were sick while pregnant too'."
On top of lost income, Samantha's medication which treated her crippling symptoms, came to $341 a month.
The drug Ondansetron (sold as Zofran) is commonly used to treat nausea in cancer sufferers going through chemotherapy, and for those patients, it's covered by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS). It is not, however, subsidised for pregnant women experiencing HG. Therefore, the total cost had to come entirely out of Samantha's pocket.
Parking at hospitals was another enormous expense, with each admission lasting no less than five hours.
After the birth of her first child, Samantha was under significant financial strain.
And then she fell pregnant again.
It was about four weeks in that she felt the familiar nausea, and knew almost immediately she was pregnant. Samantha says during her second pregnancy, her doctor took her illness far more seriously, and she felt more listened to.
The symptoms throughout were much the same, and medication helped keep her vomiting somewhat at bay. Without it, she says, the vomiting would quite literally be non-stop. "Even if I had not been able to put any food or drink into my mouth, I would still vomit," she said. "I would constantly be vomiting bile and blood due to tearing my oesophagus multiple times."
Again, her medication all up cost her thousands. Between the two pregnancies, Samantha estimates she spent $800 on parking and lost $13,000 in earnings due to leave without pay.
The condition left her completely debilitated. The day after Samantha gave birth to her youngest daughter Maddie, she was 10 kilos lighter than her pre-pregnancy weight. She suffered chronic constipation, had spots on her eyes, experienced jaundice, ketosis, depression, migraines, her baby was undernourished and her growth was stunted in vitro. Samantha's skin was grey, and her hair was brittle. Her teeth began to rot and break because of it's frequent contact with stomach bile, resulting in her having multiple fillings. This process left her $500 out of pocket.
Today, Samantha still experiences extreme sensitivity to particular smells and sounds. She finds herself more susceptible to illness now, and wonders if that might be because of a "prolonged imbalance of gut flora or the issues with vitamin retention and production..."
Samantha told me she suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) due to her experience of pregnancy, and she now sees a psychologist.
Since having her second child, Samantha has started a blog called Hyperemesis Gravidarium Support Australia with insights on diet and treatment for the condition. She doesn't want any woman to feel as lost and alone as she did when she received a diagnosis.
She's also started a Change.org petition appealing for the government to add Ondansetron to the PBS so that women in the future won't have to endure such enormous financial strain.
When I asked Samantha how she managed to afford the medication she needed, she said, "I didn't".
"I had a credit card which we used a lot and we are still paying the loan... Sometimes I wouldn't buy it because we just did not have the money. We relied quite heavily on my husband's parents to purchase the Ondansetron (which was only one of the four medication I was prescribed). In that respect, we were very lucky...
"If they hadn't I would have just gone without and had to rely considerably more on the hospital system," she said.
Hyperemesis Gravidarium is crippling enough, without leaving soon-to-be mums virtually bankrupt.
You can sign the petition here.