The ads for the HEAR HER campaign by the CDC are everywhere lately. Or so it seems. Maybe I’m just paying more attention now that COVID case numbers seem to be receding in my area.
The campaign is designed to encourage family, partners, providers, anyone supporting a pregnant person to really listen when a pregnant person tells you something doesn’t feel right. The goal is to “to raise awareness of potentially life-threatening warning signs during and after pregnancy and improve communication between patients and their healthcare providers.”
The campaign caught my attention. Because once upon a time, when I was pregnant with my daughter, I wasn’t heard. Despite raising alarm bells for a week, I was written off — and as a result, my baby (who is now eleven) almost died. I might have, too.
My story begins at my thirty-week visit. My regular doctor was away and another doctor filled in. Up to that point, I had a very uneventful pregnancy. I was 27, healthy, and feeling good. My weekly visits were pretty perfunctory.
This one wasn’t. This time, I had a concern. I told the doctor that the baby seemed to be moving less over the last few days. The doctor listened to the heartbeat and told me everything was fine. She explained that the baby was growing and because I have a small frame, the baby probably didn’t have as much room to move. I accepted her explanation and left.
As the days passed, the baby seemed to move less and less. To calm my fears, my husband repeated what the doctor had said. After all, if there was something to worry about, the doctor would have paid more attention.
Finally, on a Thursday night, I couldn’t feel my baby’s kicks at all. I called the emergency line. The on-call doctor also told me that the baby was just growing. This doctor advised me to drink some orange juice and lay on my side. My husband ran out for the juice. I drank almost the entire carton, laid on my side, and cried. The baby did not move.
The next morning, I begged for an appointment. The doctor’s office agreed to a non-stress test. I called my boss and told him I’d be late. My husband and I went for breakfast and then headed to the appointment. I expected to be told that I was again overreacting.
I sat for the test in a room with a handful of other pregnant woman. Another doctor who I hadn’t met before came in to the room and assured me everything was fine. She’d reviewed my file. I started sobbing. Every instinct told me it wasn’t fine. My body felt like it wasn’t fine. The doctor agreed to keep me on the test a little longer.
The test finally revealed a point of concern. A lot of crying on my part followed. Another doctor ushered me into a different room where a technician performed an ultrasound. My baby did not move once during the ultrasound. Not when I laid on my side. Not when she was jolted by the doctor. A third test revealed that it wasn’t just that the baby wasn’t moving, but that her major life systems were shutting down. She was in distress, with hours left to live.
Thankfully, this office was connected to the hospital. A doctor burst into the room and said the baby needs to be delivered now. As in, no-time-to-spare now. In less than an hour, a medical team prepped me for an emergency C-section. As I signed papers and slipped on a hospital gown, a nurse injected me with a steroid to help my baby’s immature lungs and another nurse attached an IV. There wasn’t enough time for any of it to make a difference, but it was better than nothing, they told me.
My baby was delivered via C-section and she did not cry. She was pale and tiny. She needed immediate blood transfusions and interventions. I was told she might not make it through the night. The doctors were also worried that I might bleed out. As it turned out, along with whatever had caused my daughter’s distress, I had a placenta accreta: a rare and serious condition in which the placenta attaches too deep to the uterine wall. While I worried about my daughter surviving the night, the doctors worried that I wouldn’t.
She did, and I did. My daughter spent the next eight weeks in the NICU. She was, and is, a kid who has a reserve of strength that surpasses that of most people I know.
Afterward, the doctor who’d conducted my non-stress test sought me out and thanked me for speaking up. If I hadn’t, my story would have ended very differently.
I didn’t know then that my daughter’s lack of movement was one of the urgent maternal warning signs that signified serious trouble. But it is. Other symptoms that could indicate a life-threatening situation include:
- Ongoing headaches
- Feeling dizzy or fainting
- Vision changes
- Severe swelling on the hands and face
- Difficulty breathing
- Pain in the chest/rapid heartbeat
- Extreme nausea or vomiting
- Stomach pain that persists
- Vaginal bleeding/leaking
- Pain, swelling, and redness in the limbs
- Extreme fatigue
- Thoughts of harming yourself or your baby
In the United States, more than 50,000 pregnant people experience severe pregnancy related health problems. About 700 people die from pregnancy related complications each year. The risks are greater for those in the American Indian, Alaska Native, and Black communities, who are “two to three times more likely to die of pregnancy-related causes than white women.”
Approximately two thirds of those deaths are preventable. Pregnant people must be heard. They must be believed. Dr. Wanda Barfield, Director of DCD’s Division of Reproductive Health noted, “A woman knows her body. Listening and acting upon her concerns during or after pregnancy could save her life.”
If I hadn’t been heard in time, my story could have ended differently. I was lucky. But, looking back, I recognize it shouldn’t have taken days of crying to be heard, to be taken seriously. Hopefully, thanks to the efforts of this campaign, no pregnant person will have to beg to be heard.