While Preston’s birth didn’t happen exactly how I had planned, my recovery was better than I could have imagined. It felt great to be able to care for my baby and visit with friends and family just hours after the birth. I remember sitting on the hospital bed the day after he was born eating a delicious plate of lasagna a friend brought over being overwhelmed with how easy everything was compared to my first Cesarean where it took several weeks to feel anything remotely like myself. I took this selfie and sent it to my sister-in-law at about 8 p.m. before we got ready for bed, proud that I was happy and nursing.
Sometime around midnight, Preston started fussing, and I brought him into the bed to nurse. A few minutes later, I felt something change inside my body. I could quite literally feel that something had snapped inside of me. Seconds later, I was overcome with pain and woke my husband up saying, “Take the baby to the nursery.”
Brian gave me a bewildered look as this demand was so out of character for me. Just the day before I insisted that his mom follow the baby to get his first bath with strict instructions never to let him leave her sight. I also made a fuss about doing the newborn exam in our room and wouldn’t let the nurses take him for their nightly weight checks. I can actually count on both hands the number of people who ever held my daughter during her first year. I like to keep my babies close to my heart.
The pain sent my body into auto-pilot, and I knew there was no option but to send the baby to the nursery so that I could take care of myself. I didn’t have a second thought or ounce of hesitation even when Brian told me the baby was hungry and they needed me to feed him or give him formula. I nursed my daughter for 26 months and aimed to avoid formula at all costs, but in this moment the words, “Give him formula” passed easily through my lips.
Once the baby was settled, I tried to rest, but kept feeling like I needed to go to the bathroom. My nurse told me that I probably had gas. I admitted that I had gone against the protocol of a clear diet and eaten lasagna a few hours earlier, which convinced the nurses that once I passed gas or had a bowel movement, my pain would resolve. For the next few hours I made my way between the bed and the bathroom with a writhing pain in my abdomen. Dr. Google confirmed that gas pains were a common side effect after surgeries and the symptoms lined up pretty well with what I felt. It felt like the worst stomachache I could imagine with the pain always present but surging in waves almost like contractions.
While I was making my back and forth trips to the bathroom, praying for the gas to move and pass, there was growing concern among the nurses about Preston’s breathing. Earlier in the day, Brian and I noticed that he was shaking quite a bit and something didn’t seem right when the baby was at rest. We asked the nurse to take a look and test his blood sugar levels again as he was a big baby making him prone to have trouble regulating his blood sugar. Everything came back normal, and it wasn’t until the nurses were sitting with him in the nursery that they noticed he was breathing rapidly, even at rest.
When Preston’s breathing became an issue, I sent Brian to be with him. I was left in my room, alone, wondering how in the world I was going to get past this. At about 3 a.m. I called my mom, who thankfully after so many years as a doula and midwife answers her phone fully functional even in the middle of the night. All I had to say was “I need you to come to the hospital” and she was on her way.
During the time I waited for my mom to arrive, I began to realize that my problem was not gas trapped in my digestive system. My body and mind started wandering. I lost my focus and could no longer hold a conversation. Many times, I was sitting on the toilet and would accidentally pull the string to call for help, but when the nurse got there, I couldn’t tell her what I needed. The nurses became increasingly annoyed that they kept having to come in my room. I was given several doses of milk of magnesia, Reglan and suppositories to help move the gas along, yet nothing was working. What began as an intense pain, was now consuming me.
My mom got to the hospital to find me alternating between resting on the bed and trying to go to the bathroom. One moment I was walking to the bathroom and the next moment I saw feet. So many feet. And lots of yelling. There was so much commotion and I couldn’t understand why I was seeing all of those feet. “Do you know where you are?” Yes, in the hospital. “Do you know your name?” Yes, why are you asking stupid questions?
My husband tells me that he was in the nursery when he heard a code called out with our room number over the PA system. The nurse looked at him and told him that it was serious and he better get to the room quickly because he would probably be kicked out. He says he got to my room just as a large, brawny male nurse picked up all of the furniture in the room and threw it in the hallway to make room for the medical team. He says I was pale, white, cold and sweating profusely and he stayed on the floor by my side trying to talk to me and keep me awake until the staff kicked him out.
My mom remembers walking me to the bathroom and seeing me faint and collapse into her arms and onto the floor. I opened my eyes laying there on the hospital floor and felt stunned. The pain had subsided among the hustle and bustle happening in the room as someone tried to get an IV in my uncooperative veins, a very loud, bossy woman shouted orders about which tests to run, and nurses took turns mashing on my uterus and checking for bleeding.
As the pain overtook me again, I had to hope and pray that these medical professionals could figure out what was happening inside my body. I laid on my left side, which felt the most comfortable, while I was stabilized further. My eyes drifted shut, and I felt so sleepy. My already typically low blood pressure continued dropping. They kept telling me, “Open your eyes. You can’t go to sleep.” I chatted with the nurse who was there to keep me awake, while the rest of the crew finished up there duties.
Just as I was stabilized, Preston was admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit because his breathing was consistently faster than it should have been. The on-call doctor from the NICU came to go over the admitting procedures and initial tests they wanted to run. I spent a few breaths of my own energy on debating the need for a spinal tap before delegating all of the decisions to my husband. I couldn’t focus due to the pain and was in no position to make decisions for my baby.
At 5 a.m. the on-call OB/GYN made her rounds and came to visit me. She saw that I was in pain and massaged my uterus and checked my bleeding, but didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. My doctor came to see me at about 5:30 a.m. and ordered another round of blood tests and said we’d wait for this results before deciding on the next move.
I knew I needed something to happen soon. The waves of pain were getting stronger, I was getting weaker and with each passing moment I felt a little bit of my spirit fading away. As my doctor walked away from my bedside, I reached out and grabbed her hand and spoke words I never imagined I’d speak. “I’m dying. Something is wrong, and I need you to help me.”
My calm, calculated doctor did a double take and stopped to think for just a moment before ordering a CT scan. I went with the radiology technician, gliding down the hospital corridors knowing that whatever was happening in my body was beginning to accelerate. “Please move faster,” I kept telling him. When we finally arrived, two men helped move me onto the machine where I laid as still as I could while writhing and moaning in pain.
Back up in my room, the results from my blood work were finally in with the most remarkable being the hemoglobin levels. Hemoglobin is the protein contained in red blood cells that is responsible for delivery of oxygen to the tissues and is expressed in grams per deciliter (g/dl). The normal hemoglobin level for an adult female is 12 to 16 g/dl with under 12 g/dl being considered anemic and under 8 g/dl is considered critically ill and usually requires a blood transfusion. Even though I felt amazing 24 hours after my surgery and was pushing to go home, my hemoglobin level had dropped to a 12 g/dl which is why my doctor insisted I stay one more night. At midnight it dropped to 11 g/dl and by 5 a.m. it was at 7 g/dl.
Within minutes I was receiving a blood transfusion and soon after that began we received a call from my doctor. She told the nurse that I was NPO and that she was on the way. I looked at my mom for an interpretation. I knew that NPO meant nothing by mouth, but I couldn’t understand why until my mom told me I was going to need surgery.
While we were finally taking action on figuring out why I was in so much pain, my husband was with Preston in the NICU while they completed the painful lumbar puncture to test for meningitis. My poor baby was stuck with so many needles and had the gauntlet of tests run on him to rule out any infections as the cause of his rapid breathing. The procedure took longer than expected and Brian rushed out when it was finished to find out that I was on my way to surgery.
The CT scan showed a hematoma, a collection of blood, in my abdomen and surgery was needed to find out why. By the point, my pain was no longer in waves. It was overwhelming and constant and filling my entire body. It felt like my internal organs were being compressed by a heavy weight.
I am sure things were moving quickly, but it felt like the world was moving in slow motion. From my room to the pre-op area, I begged and pleaded for the nurses to move faster. Brian tells me that the rest of the pre-op area came to a standstill as all hands tended to my care. He realized at that moment how dire my situation was. A pair of nurses kept trying to put in another IV, another nurse had the consent forms as there was talk of a hysteroctomy, another nurse was administering medication and a second surgeon was brought in to help. Even with all of those hands, it was taking way too long. I think I only had minutes to spare when things finally went blank.
I opened my eyes to find myself in the ICU with my mom still by my side to tell me what happened. I suffered an asymptomatic secondary postpartum hemorrhage due to a rare complication from my Cesarean section called a uterine artery pseudoaneurysm. A uterine artery pseudoaneurysm is typically considered a complication of uterine surgeries, but can occur after vaginal deliveries as well though it is even more rare).
Most postpartum hemorrhages present with massive amounts of vaginal bleeding, but my blood collected inside my body forming a large hematoma which is what I felt crushing my organs. My doctor and a vascular surgeon worked to stop the bleeding by cutting off the blood supply to the uterine artery though a uterine artery ligation. My surgery required a gnarly “T” incision, but I was able to keep my uterus.
During the surgery, I began to develop disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC), which is a serious and potentially fatal disorder in which the proteins that control blood clotting become over active. I received 11 units of blood and plasma during the surgery to replace blood lost and combat the DIC. The average adult has roughly 10 units of blood circulating through the body at one time. After the surgery, my hemoglobin had dropped to 4 g/dl, and I received an additional 2 units of blood to help get me back up to normal levels. I can’t quite remember all of the details about exactly how much blood I lost, but my mom remembers my doctor saying I lost twice the amount that was in my body. I am forever grateful for every kind and generous person who donated blood to save my life that day.
Preston’s initial labs came back normal and a he was diagnosed with a lung condition called transient tachypnea of the newborn (TTN) which occurs in one percent of newborns and causes rapid and labored breathing during the first hours of life. TTN requires extra monitoring in the hospital, but typically resolves within the first few days of life.
I spent four days in the ICU fighting to get out and see my baby. Just hours after I woke up, my husband already had a hospital-grade pump in my room and with help from him and my mom I began pumping every two hours even though I wasn’t able to sit up yet. I may have almost lost my life and I lost the ability to nourish my baby for a few days, but I did not want to sacrifice breastfeeding if there was any way I could produce milk.
The lactation consultants at the hospital and my doctors had little hope for me and even discouraged me from pumping so that I could focus on my own recovery. I pumped every two hours around the clock and had all of the ICU nurses and doctors in shock at my dedication. God provided the miracle I needed, and my milk came in two days later. I started with drops of milk that I trickled into tiny syringes to send to the NICU, but before long I was filling bottles.
Exactly one year ago, I celebrated my birthday in the hospital with my husband and baby by my side with my first solid meal in almost a week including a tiny bite of cake. It wasn’t the way I thought I’d ring in my 30th year, but I was just thankful to be alive to see it.
Preston and I were both discharged the following day. I was ecstatic to have my family together again, but completely unprepared for the roller coaster recovery we would both experience in the coming weeks. Read Part 2 here with the ups and downs of our recovery, why we were back at the hospital two days later, the surprising diagnosis that finally solved Preston’s breathing issues and what we learned from this experience.