Tommy's PregnancyHub

Pregnancy complications like pre-eclampsia are made harder by being misunderstood

Sophie Gardner had a very difficult pregnancy, after suffering hyperemesis, cholestasis and pre-eclampsia before being induced at 39 weeks. Her beautiful son Max is now 9 months old. Sophie encourages women to "listen to your body, never ignore your instincts, and don’t be shy to raise your concerns".

Sophie Gardner had a very difficult pregnancy, after suffering hyperemesis, cholestasis and pre-eclampsia before being induced at 39 weeks. Her beautiful son Max is now 9 months old. Sophie encourages women to "listen to your body, never ignore your instincts, and don’t be shy to raise your concerns". 

Falling pregnant in November 2019...

I was really excited when I fell pregnant in November 2019, although if I’d known then what I do now then I might have felt differently; pregnancy is expected to be such a magical time that it was a real shock when mine became so difficult. I tried to stay positive and remind myself that I’d have a beautiful baby at the end, but it was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever endured – made tougher by the lack of awareness and understanding, which Tommy’s PregnancyHub is working to tackle. 

Experiencing hyperemesis 

When I was around five weeks pregnant, I started to feel exhausted, to the point I couldn’t even get out of bed. Initially I dismissed it, told myself that it’s normal to be tired when you’re working a challenging job and growing another person. But then the nausea hit. I felt sick constantly and would vomit every 20 minutes; I couldn’t even make it through a shower. When I wasn’t vomiting, I’d feel sick and extremely dizzy. Days turned into weeks of never-ending nausea, barely able to eat or drink, bedridden with hypertension and blinding headaches.

It got so bad that I was ringing the doctor almost every day, asking if I could try different treatments I’d read about in my online research, but none of them stopped me being sick. It took almost two months to get my diagnosis: hyperemesis, a condition which causes excessive sickness and affects around 2% of pregnancies. It’s not well understood and easily dismissed; people say, ‘I was sick too, that’s pregnancy,’ and you’re just expected to get on with it. Hyperemesis should never be confused with morning sickness. The only way I can describe it is, imagine your worst hangover then times it by 100, and that’s how it feels 24/7.

At Christmastime I spent three days in hospital because my veins had collapsed from dehydration. I was diagnosed with ketoacidosis, caused by my hyperemesis. Unfortunately, there is nothing that can completely cure hyperemesis, only medication to ease the symptoms – so after being pumped with fluids and electrolytes, I was sent home and continued to suffer with the condition until I was around 20 weeks pregnant. It never completely went away but it became much more manageable; I was only sick occasionally instead of constantly. Some women suffer throughout their whole pregnancy, so I was actually one of the lucky ones!

Developing cholestasis and pre-clampsia

My luck must have run out later in my pregnancy because I went on to develop cholestasis, a liver condition that can make the skin feel irritated, which affects just 1 in 140 pregnant women. It made my whole body itch, especially at night, so not being able to sleep made me feel even worse when I was already so tired from being heavily pregnant. I was having to put an ice pack between my legs and take chamomile baths just to soothe my poor scratchy skin for a few moments.

Again, the symptoms of this severe problem can be easy to minimise and misunderstand. At first, I just put it down to the hot July weather - I didn’t want to be over the top and bother the NHS - but based on advice from Tommy's pregnancy information team, I decided to speak to my doctor. I’m so glad I did because it gave me the confidence that I could raise my concerns and be heard, which just hadn’t happened before. I had blood tests to confirm what was wrong, but the medication they gave me didn’t really have time to take effect, as a few days later things got even more complicated.

I woke up with a headache so bad it sent shooting pains down my neck. I rang my hospital’s triage line and the midwife suggested taking paracetamol, but I could tell something was seriously wrong. Having dismissed warning signs in the past, the main thing I learned from pregnancy was to always trust your gut. So off I went to hospital, where it turned out that my blood pressure was dangerously high. I was admitted straight away and doctors diagnosed me with pre-eclampsia, a blood pressure issue with around 6% of pregnancies that can cause serious problems for mother and baby. Early signs are often nausea and vomiting, but those were such a part of the furniture in my pregnancy that I wouldn’t have thought anything of it.

At 39 weeks pregnant, I went into premature labour...

Pre-eclampsia can only be cured by delivering the baby and the placenta, so at 39 weeks pregnant, I was given medication to send me into premature labour. It was the last thing I expected to happen when I phoned the hospital that morning, but I dread to think what could have happened if I hadn’t. When you’re pregnant, you trust the experts, because they’ve done this before and you haven’t – I didn’t know about any of these conditions before they complicated my pregnancy, so I had to speak up because of course the professionals saw how serious it could be and knew what to do. Listen to your body, never ignore your instincts, and don’t be shy to raise your concerns.

One of the hardest things about having such a difficult pregnancy was that it’s not only the physical symptoms, these conditions take an emotional toll on you too. Hyperemesis was especially gruelling because you literally can’t hold a conversation, go for a walk, even watch telly; it completely wipes you out. You feel like nobody understands, even the most well-meaning friends and family, so it can become quite isolating. Everyone wants to solve the problem, but there isn’t much anyone can do. For anyone supporting someone through a complicated pregnancy, I would say sometimes all you really need to do listen.

Tommy’s encourages pregnant women with concerns to always seek medical advice. Maternity care is essential and services are still running during the coronavirus pandemic.

If you have any concerns about your pregnancy call your GP, midwife, early pregnancy unit or maternity unit. As Sophie says, trust your instincts. Healthcare professionals will be happy to discuss your worries.