HELLP syndrome

I Forgot I Had Had A Baby

I wasn’t sure what had happened but, for some reason, I believed I had been in a terrible car accident.

by Jennifer Donovan
Originally Published: 
I had been admitted to the hospital with HELLP syndrome.
Ariela Basson/Scary Mommy; Getty Images

I woke to the sound of hospital equipment, an incessant buzz of robotic cicadas. Searing pain shot through every part of my body. Groggy and confused, I opened my eyes to find I was alone in a hospital bed. My arms were stained with deep purple and green bruises. Mechanical boots wheezed as they rhythmically squeezed my calves. I wasn’t sure what had happened but, for some reason, I believed I had been in a terrible car accident. Panic set in and I rapidly pushed the call button. A nurse hurried in and interrupted my incoherent blubbering with a gentle hand on my arm. "It's ok," she soothed, “the baby's ok." All the air went out of the room and time slowed to a standstill. I nodded silently, all the while wondering, "WHAT BABY?"

My partner returned from the NICU reporting the same good news: our baby was doing well. But I didn’t feel the gratitude and relief I was expected to feel. All I felt was confusion.

I learned there had been no car accident. I had been admitted to the hospital with HELLP syndrome, a rare, life-threatening pregnancy complication. But I could not recall being pregnant, arriving at the hospital, or giving birth. There was a photo of me holding a baby, wrinkly and new, but I didn’t remember it being taken.

I was 36 weeks pregnant when I began feeling fatigued and breathless. Initially, I chalked it up to normal pregnancy woes. It was my first pregnancy and I had heard how uncomfortable those final weeks could be. As the day went on I began to feel what could only be described as an “impending sense of doom.” Again, I attributed these feelings to the expected anxieties of a first-time mom but decided to go to the hospital anyway, just in case. The doctors ran some tests and, to my surprise, I was diagnosed with HELLP syndrome.

According to the March of Dimes, HELLP occurs in 0.1-0.2% of pregnancies. The cause is unknown but people with preeclampsia or eclampsia are more likely to develop HELLP. It often comes on suddenly, without warning or symptoms. Some patients experience blurry vision, pain in the chest or upper right part of the belly, headache, fatigue, nausea, swelling, uncontrolled bleeding or seizures. Due to its rarity and quick progression, the condition is difficult to study and often goes undiagnosed.

The only way to reverse HELLP is to deliver the baby. I did not have the high blood pressure associated with preeclampsia which made my case even more rare. Due to my dangerously low platelet count I had to have an emergency c-section performed under general anesthesia. I knew I wouldn't be awake for the delivery of my son but I didn’t know that when I awoke I would have no recollection of what had happened. I didn’t know that when I slipped under the darkness of general anesthesia that I would remain in the dark, in some form, for the next three days. My son was born premature, but healthy, and received extra support in the NICU while I recovered in the ICU. I had hemorrhaged nearly 2 liters of blood. A hematoma the size of a melon filled the void where my baby had been.

The following days melted together in a haze of medicine, pain and shock. Bits and pieces of my memory returned only to float away again. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, my brain continued to loop back to the conclusion that I had been in a car accident. The incision across my lower belly, the unused breast pump that stood by my bedside, the photograph, none of it made sense. The car accident was a false memory my brain had created in place of the traumatic event that had taken place but, over the next 48 hours, the true story slowly began to come back to me.

When I had moments of clarity, I was overcome with the guilt of forgetting my child. The anticipated joy of his arrival, the first time I held him in my arms, those all-consuming special moments between mother and child were a rite of passage that had passed me by.

I feared I would not be able to bond with someone I couldn’t seem to remember. I admitted this to no one at the time. After all, what kind of mother forgets her own baby?

I wrote myself notes about what had happened, reminders that I had delivered a baby, a trail of breadcrumbs for me to find my way back to him. On the third day the fog finally began to lift and I felt more firmly planted in reality.

I had the crushing realization that I hadn’t seen or held my baby since the moment captured in the photograph, a period in time that was still suppressed deep in my subconscious. The nurses made arrangements to wheel me up to the NICU, something I hadn’t considered requesting before. As I held my baby for the second time memories flooded back to me, memories I was finally able to retain. I breathed him in and savored the softness of his cheek and the way his tiny hand gripped my finger. I remembered the kicks and the sonogram pictures and painting his room Dodger blue. I finally felt like I had found my way through the woods.

For years I felt cheated, robbed of those first golden hours where a new mother gazes with wonder into their newborn’s eyes. But now, five years later, I have come to realize there are so many golden hours of parenthood and nobody gets to be present for them all. I was there for his first steps, his first words and his first day of school. There will be many more milestones that I will get to experience and some that I will miss. I may not remember those first golden hours with my son but, when I watch him light up with the excitement of trying something new or he looks to me for reassurance as he embarks onto the next adventure, I can still feel them.

For more information on HELLP, visit preeclampsia.org.

Jennifer Donovan is a former medical researcher reimagining her life as a writer. Her comedic style focuses on creating content that sparks dialogue, provides levity and fosters community. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two children.

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