What it's really like to suffer from extreme morning sickness like the Duchess of Cambridge

1-2% of women suffer from Hyperemesis Gravidarum (HG) – a severe form of morning sickness [Photo: Pixabay via Pexels]

The Duchess of Cambridge announced that she is pregnant with her third child yesterday and while most of the nation rejoiced at the thought of a shiny, new royal baby to coo over, Gemma couldn’t help but feel sympathy for Kate.

Because Kate and Gemma are among the 1-2% of women who suffer from a condition known as Hyperemesis Gravidarum (HG) – a severe form of morning sickness, which can have very real and very debilitating consequences for both mother and baby.

Pregnancy Sickness Support describes HG as a severe complication of pregnancy. Sufferers can find normal functioning difficult, struggle to maintain adequate food and fluid intake and can experience vomiting in excess of 30 times a day.

“We’re not just talking about feeling a bit sick we’re talking about a nausea that just consumes your whole body,” explains Pregnancy Sickness Support Chairperson Caitlin Dean. “Most women say it’s the nausea that is the most crippling part of it, but the vomiting can be anything from a couple of times a day up to 30/40/50 times a day. And that means you’re not keeping any fluids down and the nausea can prevent you from drinking normally so therefore it leads to dehydration, malnourishment and weightloss.”

HG can lead to more severe complications including oesophageal tears, muscle wasting and risk of DVT from bed rest, serious vitamin deficiency from excessive vomiting and complications from extreme dehydration. It’s hardly surprising therefore that some women with HG do end up terminating their pregnancy.

It is not clear what causes HG but there is evidence that if someone has suffered from it in one pregnancy, they are very likely to when expecting again.

Gemma had HG during her first pregnancy which lead to her being hospitalised five times, but to a certain extent, the condition was controlled with anti-sickness medication. With her second pregnancy, it was a different story.

“It started at six weeks,” she explains. “It was like a switch being turned on where I couldn’t turn it off to stop being sick.”

Just as with her first pregnancy, Gemma needed to be hospitalised. “The last time, I was admitted for 12 miserable, dark days, which was my lowest point. Being so poorly and struggling to understand how it’s possible to be that ill from being pregnant. Being pumped full of anti sickness drugs and steroids and STILL being sick. Even the consultants looked at a loss at what to do.”

Gemma describes not being able to move without being sick and being bed bound for about seven weeks.

“While I was in hospital I had about 30 litres of saline pumped into my veins to hydrate me, but lack of movement meant my body became full of the fluid. My legs doubled in size, my tummy made me look as if I was seven months pregnant and I had a lump of fluid on my back. But underneath all of this fluid, I had actually lost over a stone!”

There were other consequences too.

“On top of the horrific sickness, I was so uncomfortable, and not able to sleep and my stress and anxiety levels were through the roof. Not being able to take my mind off of how poorly I felt through TV, reading, looking at my phone made it even worse. Locked in my own thoughts I was totally miserable. I remember crying non-stop and feeling lost and completely helpless,” she explains.

And the continuous flow of necessary medication meant that Gemma’s cannulas kept failing as her veins were giving up. “One day, nurses and doctors tried ten times to get a cannula in, but it failed every time until about 9.30pm at night when an anaesthetist just about managed to do it, only for it to fail again the next morning. My arms and hands were black and blue from cannulas and blood tests.”

Being away from her daughter for so long took its toll on Gemma too. “I just wanted my life back and to be with her, but at the same time I had to try and protect the new baby I was carrying.”

“Any level of HG is horrible but the severe case I had this time round was actually scary,” she continues. “I honestly didn’t know how much longer I could go on being that sick or how my body could cope. My potassium levels became very low and I didn’t appreciate how dangerous this could be at the time. The next steps would have been to have a feeding tube inserted, but we didn’t get to this, thank goodness.”

Gemma says trying to focus on one day at a time was key in helping her get through the condition.

“I kept the next day might be a little easier. It was very hard though. It’s actually impossible to put into words how awful it was.”

And support from her close friends and family also played a huge role in helping Gemma through, but she was aware of the impact her condition was having on them too.

“My mum was literally falling apart, my husband was totally amazing but lost so much weight and had to juggle a full time job and looking after our daughter, all while trying to be strong for me. My daughter was so brave and resilient, but it ultimately had a huge effect on her too.”

Gemma is keen to raise awareness about the condition so that people understand how severe it can be and that it isn’t just morning sickness. “People that have experienced morning sickness ‘think’ they have been through the same thing,” she explains. “No one can understand hyperemisis unless they have either had it or experienced a close family member or friend going through it.”

This is something PSS are keen to emphasise too. “Morning sickness is a normal part of pregnancy,” explains Caitlin Dean. “Its not very nice but its not harmful and most women cope fine with it even though it can be pretty horrid. It involves occasional vomiting and they are normally better by 12-14 weeks. HG on the other hand is a very serious complication of pregnancy.”

The Duchess of Cambridge is suffering from extreme morning sickness [Photo: PA Images]

“It has other implications for women because if they are that unwell they can’t work, they can’t look after their other children so it has financial implications,” explains Caitlin Dean.

“Then there’s the mental health impact. Its one thing to have a stomach bug for a few days, but to be having weeks and months ahead of you of nausea and sickness on an extreme scale its unsurprising that it leads to depression, anxiety. There has to be awareness about that and women need compassion and understanding.”

And while the Duchess of Cambridge suffering from HG has been great in helping to raise awareness about the condition, the PSS are keen to emphasise that her experience will likely be different from the average sufferer.

“The average woman’s experience of HG is very different to the Duchess of Cambridge’s as she doesn’t have financial worries, she’s has childcare on tap and presumably she has some of the country’s top doctors looking after her. Whereas for many sufferers even accessing treatment can be a real battle,” explains Caitlin Dean.

The PSS advises any woman who thinks she might be suffering from the condition to seek medical help.

The NHS state the following on treatment for HG:

“There are medications that can be used in pregnancy, including the first 12 weeks, to help improve the symptoms of HG. These include anti-sickness (anti-emetic) drugs, vitamins (B6 and B12) and steroids, or combinations of these.”

“If your nausea and vomiting cannot be controlled, you may need to be admitted to hospital. This is so doctors can assess your condition and give you the right treatment to protect the health of you and your baby.”

“Treatment can include intravenous fluids, which are given directly into a vein through a drip. If you have severe vomiting, the anti-sickness drugs may also need to be given via a vein or a muscle.”

More information about the condition and treatments can be found on the PSS website and the Pregnancy Sickness Support Helpline Number: 024 7638 2020 is available from 9am – 4:30pm.

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