My husband had just proposed to me at the top of Primrose Hill in the sunset on Valentine’s Day. It didn’t come as a complete surprise – I was expecting it – but not when it happened. All the clues were there, but I was so busy with work that I didn’t see them. As I was busy performing and had back-to-back opera productions, we didn’t have much say in when to actually get married. I had a month in between two contracts so we knew I would be free then and we picked the date.
My husband-to-be was very keen to start trying for a baby as soon as we had got married. I remember telling him that I didn’t think it was a good idea; I was going straight into my next singing job for a major UK opera company. I also remember telling him ‘you never know how you are going to feel at the beginning of a pregnancy and I need to be in great shape for this job’. I had no idea how true those words were.
Fast forward to almost a year later when I was exhausted, extremely hungry and emotional and couldn’t quite understand why. I suddenly had this weird feeling: perhaps I am pregnant?! My instincts had been absolutely right: I was pregnant! My husband and I were absolutely overjoyed.
Up until around 4 weeks into my pregnancy, I felt great apart from being exhausted and ravenous. However, my feeling great didn’t last long. One morning, as I got up to go to the bathroom, I was overcome by the smell of the shower gel from my husband showering and I had to run to the loo. That was the start of one of the darkest periods of my life.
The majority of pregnancy books and articles you read will tell you that in the first trimester it is not uncommon to feel nauseated and you may also be sick. Keep eating crackers and keep snacking most people will tell you. So, that’s what I did. As it was our first pregnancy and we were on holiday as well as it was still very early days, it was hard to know if what I was experiencing was normal or not.
I couldn’t be inside at all and spent the next week lying outdoors on the garden sofa. Everything and everyone smelled so bad that any whiff of anything, made me throw up. Luckily, we were by the ocean and the breeze made it bearable (just). During our second week of that vacation, we were going to Vermont to go hiking and had booked ourselves into what looked like a lovely country hotel. To cut a long story short, I couldn’t really leave the hotel room during the entire time we spent there, nor could I really eat or drink anything without throwing up. The overnight flight back to London was hell. I did not stop vomiting the entire 6,5 hours. (My husband, of course, slept through it.) We disembarked and I vomited, I walked about two metres and vomited, walked a few more metres and had to throw up again, and so it continued all the way home from Heathrow.
I had a few ‘good’ days when I managed to perhaps eat one piece of bread and drink a bit of black tea during the entire day. I am sure you are wondering why on earth I didn’t do anything about it? The answer is quite simple: when you are that unwell, the minute you feel a bit better, you think you have reached a turning point and you think you will get better. Being that unwell also really messes with your head and you start almost hallucinating. You get depressed too. You are just too ill to even be able to lift your head off the bathroom floor. One of my worst days, I remember I stopped counting the number of times I had thrown up when I got to 16 (and it wasn’t even the end of the day yet). Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night because I had to throw up. Even the movement of my own eyes made me so dizzy I needed to run to the bathroom again.
At 10 weeks pregnant, my husband took me to the GP because I was so ill I couldn’t stand up. This had all started around 5,5 weeks of pregnancy. I had to lie down in the nurse’s room. I was asked to pee on a stick to check for ketones – the first time I had come across that word – and was so dehydrated I could barely get a single drop of wee out. The GP told me that I had: hyperemesis gravidarum, also known as HG. It was the first time my husband and I had heard that name. I was given some pills, took one and of course, it came straight back up again.
By the end of that day, I was so ill that I collapsed. Luckily our neighbour who is a GP was home. He took a quick look at me and sent me straight to A&E. Once there I was checked for many things to make sure they could safely say it was indeed HG and nothing else. They also checked if I were pregnant with twins. I wasn’t. I continued throwing up without any stopping.
I ended up on a drip and stayed for 5 days. Even though I was pumped full of antiemetics (medication to make you stop vomiting) and various other things to rehydrate me, it still took about 48 hours for me to stop vomiting. At that point, I was so happy to be in the hospital even though I was still extremely ill. I have always been small and I had lost so much weight that at 10 weeks, I think I was barely 44 kilos/just over 6 stones.
After 5 days, I was discharged, had medication and was sent home. I felt comparatively ok although I was still extremely nauseated, could smell the bin in the kitchen with the lid closed and all doors in between the kitchen and our bedroom closed. I couldn’t brush my teeth because the toothbrush made me gag, the smell of the toothpaste made me want to vomit, and in fact, my husband breathing my way made me gag. (For the record, he smells lovely!)
After 1,5 weeks at home, I was rushed back to A&E again as I couldn’t stop vomiting. This time I was admitted for 4 days with the same drips. It took some time before the combination of drugs worked, and eventually, I was sent home. When I was discharged, someone in the medical profession asked if it were a wanted pregnancy. I will never forget that. Had I been better, I would have made a formal complaint, but I was too exhausted.
Although I wasn’t admitted again, I was on medication the entire way through my pregnancy and I felt horrible. I was lonely, isolated and had pregnancy depression (although I didn’t know it at the time).
It is very difficult to explain what HG does to you. What you see is only a tiny part of it. Once your baby is born your symptoms go and you have recovered physically, that is often when your long and very difficult road to mental recovery starts. I was diagnosed with postnatal depression and anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and I had to go to therapy in order to start overcoming the trauma. For HG very much is like trauma. All of those are very common for HG survivors to have to deal with.
I was pregnant five more times after this pregnancy. Every time at 5,5 weeks, like clockwork, I got sick. I have two children. During my last pregnancy, I was hospitalised at 8 weeks and I was more or less in bed during the entire pregnancy. I was in worse shape than when pregnant with our daughter. The only difference was that my husband and I knew what we were dealing with and we also knew that unless I did absolutely nothing, I would spend the majority of my pregnancy in hospital. The anguish, the guilt at not being able to take care of my daughter, missing out on pretty much everything during her first year at school, not being able to smell her (that too made me vomit) are very difficult things to say out loud, but that is the reality for the majority of HG sufferers.
HG changed my life forever in ways unimaginable; I started helping others and created a local community support group called NW8-mums.
Since my first pregnancy in 2008/09, the Duchess of Cambridge has had Prince George, Princess Charlotte and Prince Louis and she is probably the most famous person who has suffered from HG. The more we bring awareness to this debilitating and potentially deadly disease, the more we can help those who are yet to find out they too will suffer from HG and need to survive their pregnancies.
Two important organisations are:
HER (an American support group conducting vital research on HG) and they also helped me tremendously with emotional support when I got pregnant again after my first pregnancy.
Pregnancy Sickness Support (UK based support group)