People have this notion that everbody exaggerates everything, but in this situation you don’t have to exaggerate. It’s as bad as you can imagine.
But as the harrowing pregnancies of moms like Johnson make clear, calling HG a more intense version of the nausea and vomiting that most pregnant women encounter is not just dismissive; it’s potentially dangerous. And it means that many moms-to-be end up suffering alone.
“You just want to yell at people, ‘It’s not the same!’” Johnson said. “People have this notion that everybody exaggerates everything, but in this situation you don’t have to exaggerate. It’s as bad as you can imagine.”
NOT morning sickness
Soon after the most recent royal pregnancy was announced, HuffPost Parents posted a callout on its Facebook page looking for women who would be willing to talk about their experiences with HG. Within 24 hours, more than 100 e-mails poured in from women, many of whom called themselves “HG survivors” and who described battles with extreme weight loss and vomiting more than 20 times a day. Again and again they emphasized one point: Morning sickness and HG are not the same thing.
Certainly morning sickness ― which affects roughly 70 percent of moms in the first trimester ― can be terrible, but it’s generally not harmful for women or their babies, and often fades as pregnancy progresses. HG, on the other hand, can absolutely put women and babies at risk. These are the moms-to-be who vomit more than three to four times a day, who are unable to keep down any food and who lose more than 5 percent of their pre-pregnancy weight. The Oregon-based Hyperemesis Education and Research Foundation (HER) says these women often have nutritional deficiencies and metabolic imbalances that can be life-threatening.
I honestly thought we were dying. I’d cry, but was so dehydrated I had no tears…I was vomiting so hard I hit my head on the toilet and passed out.
“It’s one of the hardest feelings to describe,” a mom who was hospitalized 14 times in the first half of her pregnancy wrote in an e-mail to HuffPost. “Feeling like you’re going to die at any given moment is an understatement. It literally changes your life — being so tired your muscles hurt, so dehydrated your head pounds non-stop, getting so used to throwing up you can feel it a mile away.” “I honestly thought we where dying,” another woman wrote. “I’d cry, but was so dehydrated I had no tears. At one point I was vomiting so hard I hit my head on the toilet and passed out.” She lost her job and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Carla Rose, 30, a single mother of now 1-and-a-half-year-old twins told HuffPost that she was at the hospital two to three times a week to get IV nutrition and fluids. Early on in her pregnancy, she was vomiting more than 20 times every single day. By her second trimester, Rose was on a cocktail of medication that limited her vomiting to five or six episodes daily, but she never got to a point where she was not regularly vomiting or nauseous throughout the full 37 weeks she was pregnant. At 25 weeks, she went on complete bedrest and was forced go on leave from her job as a teacher after passing out in the classroom. She was so weak, she often relied on a wheelchair to get around.
“The only thing you can think about is how terrible you feel,” Rose said. “I would live on the bathroom floor because I could not stop vomiting. I was literally green. Like, people would come up to me and say ‘Your skin color is green.’”
“My girls are beautiful and healthy,” she added, “but they ate me alive.”
No clear answers
The answers to why this happens to some women and not others ― and how many women it actually affects ― remain hazy. Current estimates suggest that between 0.3 and 2.3 percent of all pregnant women experience HG, though it’s possible the numbers are higher because some women don’t seek treatment. The HER Foundation’s executive director Kimber MacGibbon, a registered nurse and HG survivor herself, told HuffPost the site gets half a million visitors every year and has more than 13,000 followers on Facebook.
As for causes, the hormones associated with pregnancy ― namely estrogen ― are thought to play a key role, though MacGibbon told HuffPost researchers are increasingly interested in the role that genetics play. A 2010 study found that HG may be hereditary to some degree, though again the precise causes are still unknown. MacGibbon added that having a seemingly healthy and obviously privileged woman like Kate Middleton become the face of the condition has at least helped to debunk the notion that women affected by HG are simply not taking care of themselves or looking to get attention.
It’s really impossible for a woman without complications to comprehend the turmoil we live through.
And while there are treatment options ― generally through a combination of IV nutrition and fluids, as well as prescription anti-vomiting medications ― full relief isn’t usually on the table. The goal is to keep mom and baby safe from serious complications like low birth weight, thyroid and liver problems and the kind of severe dehydration that can hospitalize women for weeks on end.
“You can treat it, but treatment doesn’t equal zero symptoms,” MacGibbon said.
About half of women find their symptoms subside by the time they’re midway through their pregnancy, while the rest struggle with them the whole time. Women in both groups say the memory of those symptoms ― of hour upon hour spent vomiting on the floor, and ending a pregnancy the same weight they started it ― stays with them for a long time.
Take Robyn, a 47-year-old who asked that only her first name be used, who vomited violently throughout all three of her pregnancies, but had particularly severe HG with her second in 1991. She had to carry around a bucket for her spit because she threw up every time she swallowed. More than 20 years later, she can still remember how she would dry heave for 15 minutes at a stretch, breaking all of the blood vessels in and and around her eyes. Or how she’d sit helplessly, her head hanging over a bucket to let her saliva stream down so she wouldn’t have to throw up again.
“I don’t think anyone truly understands it unless they live it or live with a woman who has it,” Robyn said. “It’s really impossible for a woman without complications to comprehend the turmoil we live through.”