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What Does Hyperemesis Gravidarum Feel Like?

06/11/2014 13:50 | Updated 20 May 2015

Pregnant woman unable to sleep

Most pregnant women expect a bit of morning sickness. But no woman expects to be so sick that she drops to five-and-a-half stone at 11 weeks. Yet that's what happened to Jo Dodd.

"Even the saliva in my mouth would make me throw up and I couldn't face the slightly amount of noise or light without being sick," says Jo, whose entire pregnancy was spent either bedbound at home or in hospital.

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My baby could not have been more wanted, but those nine months were the most harrowing, painful and lonely of my life. I had to lie in a darkened room with two layers of dark towels at the window to stop the light.

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"I couldn't speak because it would produce saliva. I couldn't read texts or watch telly and going to the toilet was a huge ordeal which involved me crawling across the floor, usually being sick several times along the way. It was the most isolating experience you could imagine."

In many ways, it's incredible that Jo's baby was born at all. Indeed, such were the sickness levels of her previous pregnancy that she'd felt she had no choice but to go through the traumatic and devastating experience of an abortion.

She explains: "From just four weeks into my first pregnancy, every hour of every day was spent feeling sick or being sick. By five weeks, I'd become so dehydrated, I wound up on a drip in hospital and by seven-and-a-half weeks I had become seriously ill. Nobody was offering me any explanation or treatment and it felt genuinely dangerous."

In fact, one gynaecologist told her it was all in her head and that he'd like to refer her to the psychiatric team. "I thought, if these professionals can't help me, no-one can. It was dreadful."

Such was the trauma of terminating the pregnancy, Jo needed counselling. It was only when she'd come out of this and later learned she hadn't been suffering from morning sickness at all – but an extreme form of pregnancy sickness called Hyperemesis Gravidarum – that she even considered trying for a family again.

The condition, which affects up to two percent of pregnant women, is the same one that the Duchess of Cambridge suffered from, both in her first pregnancy and now again in her second.

In fact, it is this royal experience that has dramatically raised awareness of the condition. "But this was a few years before when there was such ignorance, not just among the public but medical professionals.

"I had to do vast amounts of research to find a specialist who was successful in getting women through these pregnancies and only then did I dare try again for a baby," says Jo.

"It certainly felt safer with him looking out for me. At one point, I was on seven different types of anti-sickness medications and steroids," she says.

But despite the medical interventions, by six months Jo had both liver and kidney problems and by 30 weeks, her baby was potentially in danger as her waters broke. Two weeks later, she was given an emergency C-section, after which she weighed less than she did when she first became pregnant.

As is the case for most women with Hyperemesis Gravidarum, the moment the placenta was removed, the sickness went. "It was extraordinary, it going away so quickly. But because my daughter had to stay in hospital for six weeks, it wasn't the joyous moment it should have been."

She's three now and doing well, particularly for a premature baby. "I feel very blessed," says Jo. But the Hyperemesis Gravidarum isn't all behind her, even now. "I have problems with my oesophagus, because of it," she explains.

Her mental health suffered for some time too. "I had panic attacks and severe flashbacks to my pregnancy. I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as a direct result of the Hyperemesis Gravidarum. Cognitive behavioural therapy was a godsend."

Whilst Jo's story is at the extreme end of the Hyperemesis Gravidarum spectrum, Caitlin Dean, author of Hyperemesis Gravidarum: The Definitive Guide and founder of the charity Pregnancy Sickness Support, says she has heard tales like this more times than she can remember.

"This is a debilitating condition and there is often no relief, even for a few minutes, from the awful feeling of nausea. No wonder so many women seek a termination of their wanted and tried for baby, as the only way out when doctors won't prescribe the safe and effective treatments available.

"Some doctors even suggest it instead of medication and women are made to fear for their lives while simultaneously being made to feel guilty. I know some women who have never had a baby because of it, while many others stop at one," she explains.

As awareness of the condition continues to grow, Caitlin hopes that more people are sympathetic and more medical professions recognise it at an earlier stage.

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You wouldn't believe how many people tell women with Hyperemesis Gravidarum to pull themselves together and try ginger or that they'll be fine at 12 weeks. But this isn't morning sickness. If you met someone with a broken leg, you wouldn't say, 'Oh yes, I stubbed my toe once.'

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It's not helped by the fact that many women themselves don't realise they have it. "Most women expect a certain level of sickness. It's seen as a bit of a rite of passage with pregnancy and the first time you throw up can even be exciting because it proves things are working as they should.

"But if it gets to point where you are struggling to manage it, and no self-help techniques are working, then it's probably a sign that it's on its way to becoming Hyperemesis Gravidarum."

Because early intervention can stop it actually turning to Hyperemesis Gravidarum, Caitlin's advice is to seek advice as early as possible. "If you just put up with it, you end up dehydrated and losing too much weight, at which point it can be more difficult to treat."

Whatever stage it's recognised, women should realise they're not alone and there is support, says Caitlin. "Our charity provides information and peer support. Together with the growing awareness and improving medical treatments, this means that the future is looking better than it ever has before."

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