4 Things I Want You to Know About My High-Risk Pregnancy
My favorite picture of my family is the one we took the day we brought my son home from the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). I had envisioned this picture — or rather this moment — when we would officially become a family of five throughout my difficult pregnancy and the following two months my son spent in the NICU. I held the vision of this picture in my heart during my high risk pregnancy, which consisted of five episodes of sudden bleeding, which led to five emergency trips to Labor and Delivery, 11 weeks of bed rest, 10 total days spent hospitalized, and finally an emergency C-section 10 weeks before my due date.
At the time, I thought this picture was a sign that everything was going to finally be OK. My baby was home. There would be no more driving through the dark and the cold in the early hours of the morning to see my son, no more locked doors and glass of the isolette keeping us apart, no more waking up in the middle of the night wondering if my baby was crying, and if there was someone there to comfort him.
However, in the weeks and months that were to follow this picture, I was to learn that high-risk pregnancies are difficult to recover from, both physically and emotionally. If I could tell the beaming mom in the picture anything about the long-term side effects of having a high-risk pregnancy, I would want her to know:
1. High-risk pregnancies can happen to anyone.
At 30 weeks gestation, while on hospital bed rest, I experienced something called a placental abruption. A placental abruption is a rare pregnancy complication that occurs when the placenta detaches from the inner wall of the uterus before delivery. Placental abruptions can be deadly for both, a mother and her baby, because the abruption can cut off a baby’s supply of oxygen and nutrients, and can sometimes lead to heavy bleeding in the mother. According to the American Pregnancy Association, women are at risk for a placental abruption if they “smoke, use cocaine during pregnancy, are over the age of 35, have preeclampsia or hypertension, are pregnant with twins or triplets, have had a previous placental abruption, experience trauma to the abdomen, or have abnormalities in the uterus.” None of these risk factors apply to me. I have never had a miscarriage, never had any problems conceiving, and have never needed fertility treatments. I don’t smoke, I have never done drugs, and I only drink alcohol occasionally when I’m not pregnant. I researched the best prenatal vitamins before taking them, I kept all my routine pregnancy appointments, I’m at a healthy weight, and make every effort to exercise when I can. My two previous pregnancies and deliveries were totally uneventful and free of any complications, and I’m only 29 years old. I’m a healthy, active millennial, but that didn’t stop me from becoming one of the 1 percent of all women who experience a placental abruption every year.
2. You can lose your job because of a high-risk pregnancy.
Two months before I experienced the first major bleed of my pregnancy, I took a position teaching third grade at a new school district. By Christmas, I had been hospitalized four times and been on bed rest for three weeks, and was instructed by my physician to go on bed rest for the remainder of my pregnancy. Under normal circumstances, I would have used the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to go on disability until my son was born, but because I was a new teacher in the district and had not taught for a full year, I didn’t qualify for FMLA. I could not physically be in my classroom teaching, so I had no choice but to leave my students and a job I loved. Thankfully, my husband has a wonderful job with good insurance, so losing my paycheck and healthcare in the middle of a high-risk pregnancy was not as detrimental as it could have been. If I was a single mother, or if my husband was unemployed, I would have been in a situation where I was unable to work, with no income or health insurance, and would have had no way to pay the hundreds of thousands of dollars in bills that follow lengthy stays in the hospital, let alone the NICU.
3. It takes a long time to feel like yourself again.
By the 30th week of my pregnancy, my body had endured 15 invasive and non invasive ultrasounds, multiple checks for cervical dilation, four shots to speed up my son’s lung development, IV’s and blood drawn for labs each time I was admitted to the hospital, in addition to the normal blood work, urine tests and fetal heart rate monitoring involved in the development of a normal pregnancy. I spent a significant amount of time strapped to machines to monitor the vital signs of my son and I, and I was treated by all seven of the doctors practicing at my hospital, in addition to a high risk specialist and countless nurses, nurse practitioners and ultrasound technicians. After four months of pelvic rest (no exercise, no sex, no heavy lifting) that included 11 weeks of strict bed rest, by the time my son was born, my body felt lethargic, exposed and vulnerable. Though I am thankful for every single medical procedure and every doctor and nurse that helped bring my son safely into the world, I no longer felt at home in my own skin. This was all before my abdomen was cut open and my son was surgically removed from my body via C-section. It is no wonder that it took far longer than the normal six weeks between birth and my follow up appointment with my physician before I started to feel healthy again.
4. You are likely on your own when it comes to dealing with your mental health.
In the three months before my son was born, when I wasn’t in the hospital, I saw my doctor or had an ultrasound scheduled every week. Throughout all of these appointments, when my body endured all the poking and prodding that was necessary to keep my son alive and we benefited from the expertise of many wonderful and skilled professionals, my mental health was never mentioned. When my son was in the NICU, we received excellent support from the doctors and nurses who became like family to us, but my hospital did not provide any services to help new NICU moms process the extreme fear, guilt and shame that often accompanies a premature birth. In the weeks that followed my son leaving the NICU, we would have multiple appointments with his pediatrician and other specialists. Again, competent physicians who took the time to listen to my concerns treated my baby, but there were no resources to help me emotionally recover from the trauma of my pregnancy and my son’s stay in the NICU. Unless I took action and sought support on my own terms, my mental health and emotional recovery was entirely up to me.
Getty image by PetrBonek