Birth announcements bring joy and smiles to most. Families high five and hug, celebrating the newest addition. Almost instantly social media announces the good news. Well-deserved “congratulations” pour in.
Labor and delivery is a medical procedure, yet to most families it’s also a celebration.
However, not everyone experiences a healthy pregnancy or a normal delivery. Some barely make it out of the birthing process alive.
Kristin fought for survival during and after childbirth and now shares her remarkable story of trauma and faith. Be forewarned. It’s emotion-provoking.
Early Pregnancy Days
Kristin and husband Mitch decided to leave their family planning up to God who blessed them with a pregnancy within a month of trying. Their decision was not unusual, considering she’s the daughter of a pastor, so faith was always part of her life.
Kristin was scared when she learned she was pregnant. The fear of the unknown was quite real. But once the first 9 weeks of nausea, fatigue and morning sickness passed, she felt the excitement of growing their family and the anticipation of joining the world of motherhood. Fortunately, she had a completely normal pregnancy with no concerns. She used this time to read pregnancy and parenting books, completely understanding that there is no way to really plan for the way one’s life changes when a baby comes into your world. She and Mitch also attended labor and delivery classes to get information on the birth experience and what to expect when bringing their baby home. But no book, blog or class could’ve ever prepared them for what they experienced at week 33 and beyond.
Abdominal Pain & Ambulance Ride
Kristin went to the emergency room (ER) at 33 weeks with extreme abdominal pain. After several tests, she was told she was experiencing pre-labor contractions and given a steroid to help the baby’s lung development, should he arrive early. After a night in the hospital, Kristin went home on modified bed rest and took Nifedipine, a high blood pressure medication.
The pain reappeared exactly one week later. This time though she also was lightheaded and faint; pain radiated up her chest and into her right shoulder. She knew something wasn’t right as she dozed on and off throughout the night. At dawn she awakened Mitch and asked for help to the restroom. When he saw her colorless face and that she could barely move, he immediately dialed 911.
Rushed to Operating Room
What happened next felt like an out-of-body experience to Kristin. “Like I was on the outside looking in.” She recalls being poked and prodded and hearing EMS workers discussing difficulty finding a vein or a pulse. She remembers the blaring firetruck and ambulance siren sounds as they made their way to the hospital. And, she remembers praying, “Dear God, please just let this baby be healthy.” Today she still recalls the look on Mitch’s face as the door of the cramped ambulance closed. He was scared.
A team of nurses greeted the ambulance and rushed Kristin inside desperately trying to find the baby’s heartbeat. She saw the fearful look on their faces and knew something was terribly wrong. After painfully rolling around on the exam table multiple times so the nurses could get a heartbeat, it was found beating at 30 beats per minute (bpm)-well below a normal baby’s heart rate of 100+ bpm.
The doctor, who’d taken good care of her in the ER the previous week and whom she trusted, rushed in and immediately directed the nurses to prep her for an emergency C-section. Again, Kristin felt like she was in a movie. “This wasn’t really happening to me, was it? This wasn’t in our birth plan! Where is Mitch? I can’t do this alone; I need him by my side to protect me.”
Kristin saw Mitch out of the corner of her eye being told to put on surgical scrubs. She grabbed for his hand while hurriedly being wheeled into the operating room (OR). Code Pink was paged overhead, meaning an emergency concerning an infant, including a medical complication or abduction, was happening. Mitch knew it was for them, and he was now forbidden from the OR.
Their baby boy was born not breathing at 6:09 am on Sunday, March 4, 2012, weighing 4 pounds and 12 ounces and measuring 21 inches long. He was greeted by the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) staff and given CPR and a shot of epinephrine to get his heart going. His APGAR score was zero.
Kristin’s first memory after delivery was being surrounded by a team of fetal medicine doctors explaining to family what had happened and what HELLP syndrome was. She heard them say that her abdomen was full of blood when they took the baby out. Unable to find the source of blood, another incision was made up to her belly button where they found her ruptured liver-the source of her upper right quadrant pain. The only cure for HELLP syndrome is delivering the baby.
Kristin spent 9 days in the hospital, two in ICU because of a risk of seizures. She was given several blood transfusions and there was concern her liver would rupture again. On day three she was transferred to another hospital better equipped to provide surgical services, if needed. Her baby remained in the NICU where he was born for 10 days on oxygen and with a feeding tube. The doctors were amazed at his speedy recovery and nicknamed him ‘Superman’. Later, he officially was named Owen William.
Because her body had gone through a tremendous amount of trauma, it was extremely difficult for Kristin to care for Owen. She was under medical care herself and unable to be physically present in the same room as her newborn, making breast-feeding impossible. She felt guilty about not being able to provide for her baby as originally hoped.
A great deal of scar tissue resulted from the emergency C-section and from digging around her abdomen trying to locate the source of her bleeding. Three months after Owen’s birth she was hospitalized again for small bowel obstruction. After a week’s hospitalization where the medical team hoped her body would heal itself, she had surgery again. “I remember holding Owen in the moments just before surgery and feeling scared I might not make it through.” She remained hospitalized another two weeks post-surgery. “I was devastated to be separated again from my then 3-month old son.”
The years of abdominal pain and bloating, fatigue and other physical ailments post birth don’t compare to the emotional toll the experience had on Kristin. “Being separated from Owen during the first hours and days of his life was devastating. When I switched hospitals, I remember feeling so anxious and worried about not bonding with him because I wasn’t able to hold him or even be in the same room as him. It was heartbreaking to me that others were able to hold and feed him before I did the first time at 10 days old.”
Kristin exhibits symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Certain triggers cause flashbacks to Owen’s birth. Driving by his birthplace or hearing ambulance sirens cause a racing heart and emotional breakdown. Owen’s birthday, which should be reason for great joy and celebration, triggers flashbacks. Even the weeks before cause considerable anxiety. While she craves more detail about the moments leading up to Owen’s birth and the weeks thereafter, Mitch has repressed the memories. “In my mind, it was the hours and days I lived through that I don’t remember, and it’s difficult having those unknowns and questions.”
Because hers wasn’t a normal birth experience, Kristin often feels isolated and finds it hard to relate to other moms. Joining a group for stay-at-home moms was less than fulfilling. Mom talk about pregnancy, breast-feeding and more children was hard to hear. When she shared her birthing journey, there was often dead silence in the room, making her feel awkward because no one knew how to react to a story they found super depressing, only causing her to feel more isolated. Being around pregnant women, baby showers, birth announcements and newborns is a struggle.
She saw a counselor post trauma and found it beneficial but still feels isolated when random triggers hit her. “I wouldn’t expect anyone to understand my thoughts or feelings when they haven’t gone through what I did.”
1 and Done, But Wait…
Kristin and Mitch will never experience pregnancy again. Blood tests after delivery discovered several blood clotting disorders, which automatically put her at a higher risk for miscarriage or birthing complications. All medical professionals have warned against another pregnancy, though it’s absolutely possible. “There is no way we would risk that now that we have Owen. The thought of him growing up without a mom makes me sick.”
Their early marriage family plan was disrupted but Spring 2016 finds them in the adoption process, which brings all great joy and hope.
Message to Pregnant Women & Obstetricians (OBs)
Kristin admits that even though she was academically prepared for pregnancy and childbirth, she was unprepared for their reality. Before pregnancy she was unaware of any type of clotting factors in her genetics. In fact, she was the healthiest she’d been in her entire life when she became pregnant. She tells pregnant women that no matter how much you plan; it may not go as planned. Additionally, she asks them to trust their bodies. If something doesn’t feel right, get it checked out. “If I had to do it over, I’d have listened to my body and gone to the ER sooner. But when it’s your first pregnancy and everything is new, you don’t know what is “normal” and what’s not.”
She advises OBs who have patients with HELLP syndrome to run a complete blood workup on them looking for blood clotting factors such as Factor V Leiden, MTHFR, or Lupus anticoagulant, which is what she has. She adds that patients with rare blood clotting disorders should be followed by a hematologist.
Faith & Family
This experience tested the faith of every member of Kristin and Mitch’s families, including them. In her unstable condition, Kristin “prayed without ceasing” and trusted that the God who allowed this to happen to her and their son would be the same God who would reveal His healing powers and get her out of it. Understandably, when she was re-hospitalized, she was angry at God. “For any Christ follower who’s gone through tough times, it’s a normal progression to question God and His goodness. For me, this was a necessary step to work through to get me to the place I am at today.”
Kristin hopes that their story will be used to bring others to know God. “Because the God that I serve is the same God who didn’t let me die; He kept me around for a reason.” Admittedly, Kristin doesn’t know the reason yet, but today she’s focused on finding that out and sharing her testimony with others. She counts herself in the group of people who need to “hit rock bottom” or be on the “brink of death” to let go of control and give it over to God.
Though there was concern about brain damage or developmental delays because he was without oxygen and not breathing at the time of birth, today Owen is a completely typical boy. He has one speed and that’s ‘full on’- always physically moving with a mind going a million miles a second. “We joke that it’s because of the steroid and epinephrine shot he received when he was born.” No one would want him any other way.
Kristin & Mitch Today
They live differently today than before this birthing experience. Their faith was made real. Neither takes life for granted and each avoids fretting over little things. “Stupid arguments are just that-stupid.”
Kristin knows she’s a different mom than she may have been had she not had gone through all this. She owns her over-protectiveness of Owen and still struggles with feelings of guilt about her body putting him at risk. They’re both doing their finest to be the best parents they can be and to enjoy every moment while Owen still wants to “hang out with them.”
And, they cannot wait to see how God will use Owen.
Neither can we!
Click here for more information on HELLP Syndrome.
- H(Hemolysis, which is the breaking down of red blood cells)
- EL (Elevated liver enzymes)
- LP (Low platelet count)
How did you react to Kristin’s story and faith journey? When has your faith gotten real?
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©Copyright. April 2016. Linda Leier Thomason
All Rights Reserved.