After 3 Years, I Finally Got Pregnant. My Joy Turned Into A Nightmare I Wasn't Sure I'd Survive.

The author at nine months pregnant, in February 2021.
The author at nine months pregnant, in February 2021. Courtesy of Aizhan Yesbolatova

I grew up believing that being pregnant would be one of the best experiences of my life. I heard about the glow and all that bliss that comes with it. I expected nothing less than the pure joy of anticipating a baby, and I never imagined that my pregnancy could be brutally different from the way I had always imagined.

Things began fairly typically. At first I got sick riding in a car and then I threw up again when I got home. The next morning, the nausea was back and remained with me throughout the day. I had been trying to get pregnant for three years, and, after being disappointed so many times, I put off taking a test for several days. When I finally did, the test was positive. Still, I was unconvinced, so my husband and I visited my OB-GYN. My doctor performed an ultrasound and confirmed I was eight weeks pregnant. When we heard our baby’s heartbeat, I burst into tears and finally let myself embrace what was happening.

My husband and I were ecstatic. We hugged and laughed through our tears.  Suddenly I got sick and threw up in a plastic bag. My doctor assured me I was just experiencing morning sickness.

“Just make sure you drink enough liquids and eat,” she said. “You should be fine by the second trimester.”

Just a few more weeks, I thought to myself as I tried not to vomit again.

The situation escalated dramatically in the following days. I was severely sick all day every day — not just in the mornings. I could barely eat anything. Whatever I put in my mouth came back up and was flushed into a toilet just a few minutes later. My nausea was so extreme that it wasn’t long before I completely stopped eating.

Within a week I was so weak that couldn’t even get out of bed. My husband took me to the ER, where they hooked me up to IVs because I was dehydrated, and my ketone levels were elevated due to the loss of fluids. I was starving and in pain and my mind was foggy. I felt like I was dying, but everyone around me kept telling me “This happens all the time” and “Unfortunately, this is just a part of being pregnant.”

The author in August 2020, receiving intravenous hydration at Hoboken University Medical Center.
The author in August 2020, receiving intravenous hydration at Hoboken University Medical Center. Courtesy of Aizhan Yesbolatova

The fluids only offered temporary relief. I sensed that what I was experiencing was different from what others typically went through. Could morning sickness be this brutal? By 12 weeks, I had dropped 9 pounds. There was no sign that my condition would subside by the second trimester, as my doctor had assured me.

Instead of feeling better, I was bedridden and depressed. I couldn’t do anything without my husband’s support. I hadn’t showered once since the day I heard my baby’s heartbeat. I couldn’t brush my teeth. I cried all of the time. Not only was I severely nauseated, I also constantly felt dizzy.

Almost anything — watching TV, listening to music, reading books or walking — could make me vomit. Sometimes I threw up 20 times in a single morning. I tried everything the nurses suggested: bed rest, acupuncture, breathing exercises, herbal tea, ginger chews and therapy. A shelf in our kitchen was overrun with Pepto and Mylanta bottles. Nothing helped. I felt betrayed by my body.

Food, which has always been a significant and joyous part of my life, became my worst enemy. I could barely eat. A few sips of water and a couple of crackers throughout the day was all I could manage to keep down.

Our apartment — filled with piles of dust, unwashed bedding and dirty dishes — reflected my misery. I was locked in our home and I felt as though I had become one with our dreary bedroom. Unable to interact with anyone but my husband, I morphed into a sad gray creature who crawled out of bed only to use the bathroom. Days turned into weeks, and I just tried to hold on until I gave birth and hopefully my nightmare would be over. Outside, the seasons changed and the world went on without me.

When I was about 18 weeks pregnant, after nothing had changed, my obstetrician suggested I might be suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum, a “potentially life-threatening pregnancy disease that may cause weight loss, malnutrition, dehydration, and debility due to severe nausea and/or vomiting, and may cause long-term health issues for mother and [babies],” according to the Hyperemesis Education and Research Foundation (HER). It’s estimated that 1% to 3% of pregnant people suffer from HG, but it could be as high as 10%.

The September 2020 ultrasound photo taken of the author's daughter at 16 weeks.
The September 2020 ultrasound photo taken of the author's daughter at 16 weeks. Courtesy of Aizhan Yesbolatova

At first I was relieved to have a name for what I was going through. It made me feel less alone, knowing that other women also experienced this hell. I could finally stop blaming myself for being so flawed. I naively believed that having a diagnosis meant I could be treated, but my obstetrician crushed my hopes when I learned there wasn’t much she could do, that my HG would probably last my entire pregnancy. I did not know how — or if — I could survive five more months of misery.

My doctor offered me a combination of doxylamine and pyridoxine, which didn’t stop my nausea or end my vomiting, but it did knock me out for 20 hours a day. While I slept, I kept having the same dream: I was at a table filled with delicious food, and I kept trying to reach it, but it was just beyond my grasp. I would begin to howl in desperation, and then I’d wake up — ravenous and nauseated again.

After several days of deep sleep, the drugs seemed to have an effect. I woke up one morning, tried a piece of bread and didn’t vomit. I asked for another piece and then another. Eating bread and not throwing it up right away was the highlight of my pregnancy. The list of foods I could successfully keep down then widened to include boiled macaroni, potatoes, lemon sorbet, pastries and tomatoes. All other food still made me retch.

Though I could eat, my life was stagnant. I was still too sick to do much of anything but doom-scroll between bouts of vomiting. I read about other women’s experiences with HG to feel less alone. I learned that many experts believe my favorite writer, Charlotte Brontë, died of hyperemesis. I tried to find out as much as I could about Kate Middleton’s HG journey, but the only information about the Duchess of Wales’ treatment was a vague statement about how she “may require supplementary hydration, medication and nutrients.”

For some women, HG was so unbearable and life-threatening that they terminated their pregnancies, and others said they contemplated suicide. I was despondent thinking about how many scientific breakthroughs we’ve achieved, but when it came to hyperemesis gravidarum, medicine seemed to be stuck in medieval times, when women with morning sickness were treated with candied orange peels or advised to sniff a violet.

It wasn’t just my physical misery that was taking a toll on me; it was living in a world that refuses to see HG as the debilitating and traumatizing condition it truly is.

The author holding her 1-day-old daughter at Mount Sinai Hospital in March 2021.
The author holding her 1-day-old daughter at Mount Sinai Hospital in March 2021. Courtesy of Aizhan Yesbolatova

People around me, except my husband and parents, didn’t truly believe how dire my condition was. They thought I was being overly dramatic and seeking attention. One acquaintance told me I was “too sensitive” and another suggested I must have had problems with my liver and that next time I should “do some cleansing and proper preparation before getting pregnant.”

The therapist I contacted insisted that my extreme nausea and vomiting were due to my subconscious rejection of a baby. “You just don’t want to be pregnant, and your body is manifesting this,” she said with unshakable confidence.

One of my pregnant friends who didn’t have HG told me she started thinking positively the day she learned she was pregnant, and, thanks to her affirmations, her whole experience was smooth.

So many of the people I knew persistently told me that good nutrition was the most critical thing in pregnancy — as well as “peace of mind.” I had neither. Instead, I constantly worried about my baby, and every trip to the doctor’s office was filled with tremendous anxiety. Was the baby OK? Was she growing? Was the bread I was eating enough to sustain her?

I had been so excited to finally be pregnant, but this kind of pregnancy wasn’t my choice. I wasn’t glowing or feeling as cheerful as I had always imagined I would be. There is no room for my hyperemesis in a space that too often demands the illusion of perfection. There are no movies with a protagonist who has hyperemesis gravidarum and few mainstream articles about trying to survive this condition. Nobody wants to talk about it. I was so grateful to have my husband and my family, but still I felt completely alone — trapped in a body that I wanted to love for creating my baby but that I hated for torturing me.

My HG stopped the moment I gave birth to my daughter at 41 weeks. I suddenly didn’t feel any nausea, and the first thing I craved was the meat that I couldn’t even look at for more than half a year. Motherhood — even with all those sleepless nights, endless breastfeeding and everything else that was demanded of me — seemed so easy after being locked in my rebelling body for 33 long weeks.

The author with her almost 1-year-old daughter in February 2022.
The author with her almost 1-year-old daughter in February 2022. Courtesy of Aizhan Yesbolatova

When I look at my beautiful daughter, who is almost 3 now, I know it was all worth it. I’ve always wanted three children, but my mind and body recoil at the mere thought of being pregnant again, and I do not know if I would willingly accept the nightmare of HG again to have another child. I hope that if I did face HG again, the experience would be different, thanks to recent research discoveries.

In December 2023, a study published in Nature identified a specific hormone, called GDF15, as the probable cause of morning sickness. Researchers suggested that “blocking GDF15 action in the pregnant mother should be a highly effective therapy for women suffering from HG,” which means better treatments for HG could be on the way.

When I read the news, I was overwhelmed with a lot of competing emotions — elation, sorrow, wonder, solace. After suffering so deeply and for so long, I finally felt a shimmer of hope for myself and the countless other women who are battling or will battle HG.

I’m optimistic that this new research and other studies will change how we deal with HG, but I worry about how long it may take before a viable treatment is available. I want to believe the urgency to provide relief to patients is finally recognized, but I also know how frequently women’s medical concerns are ignored or dismissed. We need more clinical trials, faster research-to-medication pathways and multiple approaches to relieving HG so that the needless suffering of pregnant women may finally be eased. I can picture a better reality where no mother suffers what I endured. I desperately hope it comes soon.

Aizhan Yesbolatova is an ESL teacher and freelance writer from Kazakhstan who lives in Jersey City, New Jersey. She is mom to a 3-year-old daughter and hold a bachelor’s degree in English. 

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