No Symptoms Til Birth at 35 Weeks: My Journey Through HELLP

November 21, 2023 By Morgane Dahrup-Andersson

No Symptoms Til Birth at 35 Weeks: My Journey Through HELLP

On February 28th, my husband and I had our 35-week checkup with our midwife. It had been a healthy pregnancy, and both the baby and I were doing very well. We were happily planning for another natural water birth, similar to the one we had with our son. That evening, I went to bed feeling warm with some stomach pain, but I didn't think much of it. The pain persisted, I was burning up and somewhat delirious, but I didn't want to wake up my husband or make a fuss about it, so I kept it to myself.

In the middle of the night, my husband woke up and found me writhing in pain. He immediately called for emergency assistance, and we had to go to the hospital. We left our 14-month-old son with his grandmother, expecting to return within a few hours, not knowing that I wouldn't be back for almost a month. Things escalated rapidly at the hospital. The pain worsened, and I felt increasingly unwell. Five minutes after they checked on the baby and me, I was rushed into the emergency room because my placenta had detached. Our baby girl wasn't receiving enough oxygen, and her heartbeat was declining. The moments after they delivered her were the most agonizing of our lives. She wasn't responsive, and the doctors were silent, unresponsive to our pleas. I prayed for her to make a sound and breathe, and thankfully, our little fighter did just that. At 3.1 kilograms, she exhibited strength and alertness.

While my baby went to the neonatal unit with my husband, I was taken to the recovery room. Fortunately, my baby improved, but my condition deteriorated. The details of that first day become hazy from here. I remember feeling extremely unwell and longing to see my baby. I experienced nausea, received blood transfusions, and had increasing difficulty breathing. Eventually, I was wheeled into her room briefly, but I barely had a chance to glimpse at her before I vomited and was brought back to my room. My lungs were failing. The medical team tried various treatments, including medications and fluids, but my condition worsened.

Suddenly, I was rushed to the ICU, after a nurse had insisted on additional blood tests beyond what the doctors had ordered. This led to the discovery of a severe and rare case of HELLP syndrome. My husband accompanied me, and I painfully remember being administered a high dose of magnesium that felt like fire coursing through my veins. Multiple organs failed: my liver, kidneys, and my lungs collapsed. Over the next few days, I drifted in and out of consciousness. When awake, I experienced excruciating pain throughout my body, and the nurses continually checked my reflexes every five minutes, to ensure I wasn't brain dead. Due to the delayed diagnosis, I had accumulated excessive fluids in my body, causing me to swell like the Michelin Man. Eventually, my condition worsening, I had to be put under dialysis for a bit less than a week, which saved my life. I was traumatized by everything that unfolded—the guilt of not acting sooner on that fateful evening, almost losing my daughter, and looking at my flat stomach, not pregnant anymore but with no baby in my arms.

The medical staff relentlessly worked on my condition, but my kidneys remained in a terrible state. I received a flurry of contradictory instructions about what to eat and drink, and I struggled to believe any after that. My daughter was released from the neonatal unit after a week, but not to further traumatize me, she and my husband (my rock and lighthouse in this storm) were allowed to stay with me, and for that, I will forever be grateful to those who made it possible.

I spent ten days in the ICU, followed by transfers to other departments. I remained extremely ill, unable to move or do anything. I battled a mysterious blood infection, severe kidney issues, frequent blood transfusions, pain, fever, skin falling off my hands, but none of this compared to the anguish of being away from my son for such a long time. Although my amazing parents-in-law took excellent care of him, not being there for him caused more pain than any physical suffering I endured. He visited me when I was stable, but he often failed to recognize the pale image of his mother confined to a hospital bed.

For the first time since everything began, I comprehended how close I had come to death, and the uncertainty of when or if I'd leave the hospital loomed over me. I can't even fathom the trauma my husband endured, caring for our premature baby while fearing for my life and witnessing the entire ordeal. Guilt was his constant companion, feeling torn between being with our baby or me when needed.

Two weeks after giving birth, I woke up with excruciating lower back pain, and no amount of morphine or painkillers provided relief. I was transferred to Denmark's largest hospital, where specialists were already involved in my case. From that point, things gradually improved. Every symptom I experienced was carefully examined and addressed. We discovered I had traces of water in my brain, which explained my altered mental state, though fortunately, I didn't experience edema.

One day, like a fog lifting, my mental state improved. I decided to go home, pushing the saying "Mind over Matter" into action. I devoted all my strength to the endeavor—eating, physiotherapy to relearn how to walk, managing basic bodily functions, and caring for my baby. I showed everyone that I was getting better. Even against some doctors' reservations, I was granted permission to leave the hospital, and although I remained extremely weak with my kidneys in poor condition, I was on the path to recovery. The initial two weeks at home were challenging, but with the constant support of my incredible parents-in-law, we managed to get through it.

Eight months later, I'm still in the process of healing, and my kidneys are gradually improving, aiming for at least 60% functionality. Mentally, I'm in therapy to address the trauma and more. The period afterward felt very isolating, as I didn't know anyone who had experienced something similar. I had numerous unanswered questions, and I had to research much of it myself, which is how I learned about the long-term impacts of the illness. In order to heal, I had to grieve the birth I didn't have, the time I lost with my newborn daughter but also my son, and the postpartum bubble I will never get. Reading the testimonies of other women played a significant role in my healing process and offered invaluable support, which is why I wanted to share my own story in hopes of contributing to someone else's recovery.

Going from being very healthy and active, to the brink of death and then being unable to walk, move, breathe, or perform basic bodily functions was an incredibly humbling experience. It is sad how we take those things for granted and are only grateful for them when they are taken away from us. I am immensely grateful to be here today with my family. From this journey, I focus on the kindness we received, the exceptional care provided by the nurses (without whom I wouldn't be here), and the inner strength and resilience I discovered within myself. I've learned the importance of advocating for myself, and I hope my story inspires you to do the same. I will never again hesitate to seek help when my health is at stake.

My case was unique in that I had no symptoms before my daughter's birth. Nonetheless, awareness and understanding of this rare condition are crucial, and I hope my experience sheds light on the importance of advocating for your health and the health of your baby. To all postpartum mothers, take care of yourselves and pay attention to your well-being.