Mastitis From Hell

by Christine Burke
Originally Published: 
Tharakorn / iStock

When I was pregnant with my son, I was pretty sure I would breastfeed him when he was born. Growing up in family with a staunch bottle-feeding history, I was nervous to take on the challenge of sustaining a tiny human. I read books, took classes, and probed my breastfeeding friends for every bit of advice I could milk out of them (pun intended). When he arrived after an emergency C-section, I did what the lactation consultant told me to do, nervously lowered my gown, and hoped for the best.

In those first few weeks, breastfeeding did not come naturally to my son and me. Quite the contrary, actually. It turns out that I had given birth to a baby whose sole purpose in life was to consume all the breast milk in all the land. As luck would have it, he was born to a woman who was incapable of producing the breast milk he so desperately craved. My boobs were on strike, and there was a lot of screaming. My son cried too. No matter what I did, no matter what I tried, we were a screaming baby and a sobbing mother duo everywhere we went. We were a blast at parties, I assure you.

In my former life (read: my life before I had a baby attached to my chest day in and day out), I was an ICU trained nurse with many years of experience — and I married a doctor. Between the two of us, we actually know some stuff about medicine, but when you are sleep-deprived and delirious, that training goes out the window. I missed the early signs of mastitis because I was just so damned tired.

The first signs of real trouble started three weeks into our odyssey. Because latching on had always been excruciating for me, I didn’t notice the increased pain right away. I did notice that my breast started to look like it was blushing at me, almost as though it was embarrassed from all the exposure. But I still kept on trying to feed my baby. It wasn’t until I was in the doctor’s office for a follow-up visit that it became apparent that I was deathly ill. I had a 104 fever, and I was septic from an advanced case of untreated mastitis.

After a flurry of tests and phone calls, it was determined that I was to be immediately admitted to the hospital for IV antibiotics. I was so sick, in fact, that my doctor drove me the short distance to the hospital in his car. Talk about awkward: Lovely car you have here, Doc… Can we just forget that a few minutes ago you were touching my boobs, and I’m not even getting dinner out of the deal?

Now, a funny thing happens when you marry a doctor. It turns out, they know lots of other doctors, nurses, and janitors. This fact is lovely at hospital cocktail parties and functions, but when your boob is cherry red, you are sort of dying from a toxic blood infection, and you are admitted to the hospital where your husband works, that circle of friends is a whole lot less lovely. And when your husband happens to be the chief resident of the medical service you’ve just been admitted under, things get weird — fast.

There I was, three weeks postpartum, and somehow, I was suddenly in a hospital room surrounded by faces I’d just seen at the hospital holiday party. The peering eyes of the medical students made me feel more uncomfortable than a whore in church. I wanted to die a thousand deaths when I was asked to fully disrobe so that the medical audience around the foot of my bed could “compare fully.” I kept my eyes aimed at the ceiling and silently cursed my husband for knocking me up and getting me into this mess.

Any semblance of dignity was demolished when I was poked, prodded, ultrasound-ed, and examined by just about everyone I knew on my husband’s service. During a particularly painful needle extraction procedure, a resident managed to get the needle stuck in my breast. Stuck. And it required him to leave me on the table to go find help while a nurse and I nervously talked about the weather. When the attending physician, also a friend, walked in and chirped, “Well, this is the weirdest way I’ve had a friend come to visit me at work!” my pride was taken off life support.

Thankfully, after six grueling weeks of home antibiotics and another several months of oral antibiotics, I recovered from mastitis from hell. Well, my breast did, at least. I can’t say the same for my pride, and I still cringe when I think all those eyes on my headlights. But it makes for a hell of a story at a cocktail party…

This article was originally published on