Vindication. That's the word that comes to mind with the full-scale press that has descended upon the news that Prince William and his wife, Katherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, are expecting their first child and that she is in the hospital for treatment of hyperemesis gravidarum.
Even now, 20 years after the birth of my last child, I am strangely exhilarated by the validation of a medical condition that I suffered with through the pregnancies of all three of my children. I suspect more people than I knew thought I was exaggerating, that morning sickness is routine and I was somehow complaining about an all-too-common condition.
I was the first of my family to become pregnant, the first of most of my friends. About 2.5 years into marriage, worrying that perhaps after years of endometriosis, which I had been diagnosed with at age 18, I might never be able to have children, I had scheduled an appointment with a fertility specialist. Happiness was making that call to cancel, as I found myself pregnant. That glow dimmed as the sickness began.
Within weeks, I found myself plummeted to depths of suffering I had never imagined. Who knew pregnancy caused this? No one I knew had it. This isn't morning sickness. It's morning, noon, and night sickness and every minute in between. Solace was found in sleep and sex. Other than that, every waking second is a battle against a rising tide of crippling nausea that vomiting does not relieve.
Some 26 years after the birth of my first child, I still can't look at wild rice or plain chicken broth. It took me years to be able to eat matzo ball soup, as my mother-in-law, worried sick that I wasn't going to survive this pregnancy, came from dinner at Duke Zeiberts with a big container of soup. Hungry, as I was growing a child in there, I lapped it up. Not 10 minutes later, all of it came back up. Undigested. There is nothing worse than vomiting up undigested food. Whole pieces of it come pouring up in a flood of bile, splashing up in your face. I would shudder with revulsion and then be grateful when vomiting just fluid, not food.
There wasn't a day I felt well. Those pregnancy mothers, basking in the glow of maternal blossoming, were alien to me. In fact, I felt like I was nurturing an alien, a feeling confirmed by a close family friend who, having experienced the same kind of pregnancy, likened it to a parasite. You're the host, they are the organism and as they grow, they're killing you. Remarkably, my babies all got the nourishment they needed, even at my expense. At 5 foot 6 inches, very small-boned and under 110 pounds when I married, my weight dropped precipitously. A doctor's daughter, I prided myself on staying afloat. I knew all about applesauce and bananas and fruit juices to keep the electrolytes up. I tried everything else. Saltines, bread sticks, ginger tea, broth. None of it worked.
With my last child, a daughter after two boys, I lost my grip. Thankfully, one night after falling up the steps, I told my husband to watch out for me. Must have been a sixth sense, or God giving me a nudge, for I don't remember that next day. I only remember opening my eyes, in my own bed, and finding the deeply concerned eyes of dreamy Dr. Heintze looking down at me. Perilously sick, heading into shock, veins collapsing, I ended up on IVs, in my house, for weeks. To compound matters, one of the boys had strep, which I got as well. That necessitated additional infusions. Once a day, a nurse would come, unhook me, help me into a bath, then back into bed. That didn't stop the vomiting or nausea. Now I had to lift the whole contraption over the threshold of the bathroom and squeak my way to the toilet.
By then, there was the suggestion of medication to quell nausea, but I wasn't chancing that. Images of thalidomide babies swam through my head. Four months in, deeply afraid, I called my doctor and said, "I think I'm carrying twins." I was deeply afraid that if that feeling were true, I would lose both babies, as I was so ill. Unhooked from the thread of IVs, my husband took me to the doctor's. A sonogram revealed two small embryos, only one with a beating heart. I don't know how, but I just knew.
Even reading this now I think, "How did I do this three times?"
In fact, I did it five times. I lost two babies in pregnancies that ended, in both cases, at the beginning of the fourth month. In both cases, sonograms showed a perfect baby and we were told we could share our happy news with the world. We were past the point of worry. But what had worried me was that I wasn't sick like the other times. I was nauseated and fatigued, the kind of morning sickness that everyone complains about. But no complaints from me: I could leave my house. I could lead a normal life. Both times I went to my OB-GYN with a feeling that something wasn't right, an uneasiness that life was lost. The first time, I told my husband, called my doctor and went in. There was no sign of anything wrong, just a feeling. In the darkened room, my husband and the doctor laughed together over some shared story, neither worried, as all tests had been perfect. I was the one staring at the screen as the sonogram wand moved over my pregnant belly quietly, saying, "I don't see a heartbeat." The room stilled. The baby was lost.
The second time I didn't tell my husband. Waking on the morning of Yom Kippur, the day in the Jewish religion where one is written in the Book of Life, I had a deeply uneasy, sad feeling that something was wrong. I am Catholic, my husband Jewish, but I knew that on this day, I needed to check to make sure my baby would be written in the Book of Life. Alone I went. This time the doctor wasn't joking around; we both knew that it was a possibility. Even though, same as last time, every test looked perfect and the previous sonogram had showed a healthy fetus, I just wasn't as sick. But it was more than that. It was some deeply-rooted, intuitive connection to this beginning life that shadowed my visit. And my fears were confirmed with this final sonogram that again showed that tiny fetus with a heart now stilled.
In the end, hyperemesis was my salvation. My body's way of maintaining and preserving life.
Michael was born at 8 pounds, 21 inches. My first baby, first birth, first experience with natural childbirth, with no anesthesia. I didn't go into it intending to be brave; 26 years ago, epidurals commonly caused nausea and vomiting. During one of my last OB visits, the female doctor sympathetically nodded, recalling how she vomited during the labor and birth of her baby. That was enough for me. I could take pain, I just couldn't bear another minute of nausea and vomiting. I had no idea. Hours in, there was a millisecond moment when I thought I would mentally splinter from the pain, imagining myself fracturing all over the walls. In that millisecond I pulled myself back up, concentrated on a spot on the wall and just breathed.
Here is the miracle: The minute the baby was out of my body, illness was gone. I felt fabulous, on top of the world, a high like no other. A healthy, perfect baby boy was born. And with his birth, like the snap of a finger -- the cessation of sickness -- an instant return to exuberant health. And so it was for each of my babies. Michael, Nicholas, Laura. The instant they were born, so was I. Borne into motherhood, each child has been the gift of my life, hyperemesis gravidarum a small price to pay for the immeasurable joy of creating a family.
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