The birth of my daughter was beautiful and fairly smooth. It was the most incredible experience of my life. I arrived at the hospital at 7am on a Saturday after two hours of contractions at home that were quickly getting stronger.I was admitted after being told that my water had in fact broken. My daughter was born at 6:26pm that evening. I actually had to wait for the doctor to get there to push; that little one who was three days past her due date was ready to meet the world.
I never expected to be back in the hospital 18 days later.
While holding my daughter in my arms for the first time, the delivery room was still abuzz as the doctor prepared for the delivery of my placenta. I paid her no mind as I nuzzled my newborn and stared at her beautiful cloudy blue eyes. Delivering the “afterbirth” part was going to be easy. None of my friends who had had vaginal childbirths even mentioned that part when they told me their birth stories. I vaguely remember hearing the doctor say something like “it won’t come out” and “the uterus is closing,” but it barely registered until our nurse told me she needed to take my daughter so they could tend to me.
I didn’t realize what that meant, but watched as my daughter was taken away to be weighed and measured. In my dreams, I was going to hold her against my skin for a long time and this wasn’t what I had dreamt of. I glanced down at the doctor and was horrified to see so much blood and pieces of my placenta coming out bits at a time and being dropped into a metal bowl. I have no concept of how long this took, but I know that once the doctor was done, she ordered an ultrasound to be sure all pieces of my placenta were out.
The ultrasound showed there were still remaining pieces, so I was given an anal medication (ick) to help with contractions, encouraged to breastfeed often, and moved to the family recovery room (where I didn’t think I would need to give it any more thought). I continued to bleed heavily throughout the night but was told by the night nurse that it was normal. I was even told at one point, while sitting on the toilet, that it was slowing down, but I kept thinking something wasn’t right.
At 7am the next morning, a phlebotomist came in to take blood and I mentioned to her that I was actually bleeding pretty heavily still. I showed her under my gown and she left without saying a word. A few minutes later, five people were in my room. My husband woke up to me getting an IV set up for pain meds (again), pitocin (again) and the charge nurse barking orders. My husband was so surprised at the amount of blood that he actually almost passed out. It was again a flurry of activity, I hardly knew what was happening other than that a nurse was pressing forcefully on my uterus and I passed so much blood and so many clots that I thought I would pass out. Once it was over, I was again given an anal medication to continue contractions, just in case. I remember a nurse telling me that the doctor (same one who delivered my daughter the night before, but not MY doctor) didn’t think another ultrasound was necessary because I had passed so many clots that surely I was done.
I had a nagging feeling that I should speak up, but I let it be.
I was discharged from the hospital and sent home to start life with my new little family. As the days went on, my bleeding would slow and seem to be stopping and then pick up back up and slow back down again. This happened until I finally called my doctor’s office around seven days postpartum to ask it this was normal. Over the course of the next 13 days I would call my doctor’s office several times, as instructed. I would pass clots that were larger than a quarter, larger than a golf ball, and then larger than a lemon.
While I was pregnant, I heard a story on NPR about a woman who had retained placenta and found herself back in the hospital with an incredibly high fever and she nearly died from toxic shock. This story kept playing in my mind over and over and I knew something wasn’t right. I developed a fever that would lessen with ibuprofen and then return. The clots got bigger. I was waking up in the middle of the night with abdominal pain and a fever even while my newborn was still sleeping. I would breastfeed my daughter and then immediately go to the bathroom and pass a clot. It was making me anxious to breastfeed, but my milk was still slowly coming in so I needed to be doing it as much as possible.
During one of my calls to my doctor’s office, I was prescribed a form of Misoprostol. Between a quick online search and reaching out to a pharmacist friend, I learned that this medicine is prescribed for at home abortions. My husband picked it up at the pharmacy for me and asked about taking it while breastfeeding. The pharmacist seemed very hesitant to recommend it for my situation. My retired nurse grandmother strongly recommended that I see my doctor (whom I hadn’t actually seen since I was 39 weeks pregnant) as soon as possible and forego the medication. It seemed like a lazy way to treat whatever might be the problem. I made it through the weekend and called my doctor’s office first thing that Monday and made an appointment for the very next day.
At now 17 days postpartum, my husband, sleepy newborn and I headed to my doctor’s office. I knew in my gut what the problem was. I was passing large clots, my milk was still slowly coming in and I had a fever of 103 at one point–I can Google enough to know that I still had placenta in my uterus. Even as I described my situation to the nurse that has seen me all throughout my 20s, into my 30s and my entire pregnancy, I was still told “it sounded normal at this point.” Fortunately, my own doctor is thorough and requested an ultrasound immediately. It was surreal to be back in the room with the same ultrasound tech who showed my husband and I our daughter’s toes and her hair and all her little fingers, but to have her be sleeping (thankfully) in her car seat next to me. A quick glance told my doctor and I everything we needed to know. I still had quite a bit of retained placenta. A D&C (dilation and curettage) was scheduled for the following morning at the same hospital where I delivered just two weeks before.
I had an answer, but I also felt absolute heartbreak. Once we got in the car to head home, I lost it. I sobbed in the backseat next to my still sleeping daughter while my husband drove us home. I felt like my body had failed me. And how do you go back to the hospital with a newborn? Would I be able to breastfeed her afterwards? What if my just coming in milk supply dropped? What if the procedure didn’t go smoothly and I didn’t recover? I called my mom, hoping she would be able to come help, but she couldn’t take the day off work. Thankfully my mother-in-law made plans to come be with us while I underwent the surgery.
My procedure was scheduled for 11:30am the next day, a Wednesday. I woke up that morning and planned to take it easy with my daughter and husband until it was time to leave. I nursed her after her nap and felt the same feeling afterwards; I knew I was going to pass another clot. “It’s okay,” I told myself. “I have a plan; we’re headed to the hospital to fix this.” I got up to go to the bathroom and just made it in time before I started to hemorrhage. I frantically called my husband and remember just staring at him watch me bleed in the bathroom, holding our daughter, and asking him what to do. I hastily put on a pair of netting underwear from the hospital, changed my sweatpants that I had bled through, and grabbed a towel before loading our daughter into her carseat to head to the hospital early.
I called the hospital and said I was on my way. I was terrified I was going to lose so much blood that I wouldn’t make it. I was surprised that when I checked in, there was no rush. I sat in a wheelchair, afraid to get up, and waited. It wasn’t a long wait in actuality, but it felt like an eternity. I watched my tiny daughter asleep in her carseat (thank goodness she was still at that age where you can take a baby anywhere and they sleep through it all) and thought again about the story I had heard on NPR. I was that woman, the woman who gets told “call us if this or that or this happens.”
I did and I did and it took me being a forceful advocate for myself before someone finally heard me.
No, I hadn’t delivered a baby or been pregnant before. But I knew my body and I knew that I wasn’t getting better. I was admitted to the hospital and had to have a nurse help me change into a gown. I had bled so much and was still passing clots even in the hospital bathroom. A technician asked if I could give a urine sample for a pregnancy test and I actually laughed out loud. I was bleeding so much I told the shocked technician that I didn’t think I could separate the blood from urine if I tried to pee. I had also just had a baby 18 days ago, it was insane to me that anyone would think I could be pregnant. And, as my doctor pointed out later when I told her about it, my body did still actually think I was pregnant because I still had pieces of my placenta in my uterus. I would later realize this was one possible reason that my milk had taken so long to come in.
I had made progress in breastfeeding and was determined not to lose that, so I brought my pump with me to pump right before the surgery. Once my mother in law arrived, my husband was able to come be with me while I was prepped. I was given pain medication through an IV in my arms, still bruised from delivery. I also wore a gown that sent out heat because I was so very cold and shaking tremendously. I never really got an answer if the shaking was from adrenaline and nerves or from all my body was going through at that moment, including a continued raised body temperature. My doctor came to see me and was very reassuring. She said the procedure would be guided with an ultrasound to be sure that everything left came out. She read over the risks with me. It occurred to me that while a D&C is something that is usually done for abortions, there were serious risks involved, including the possibility that I might never be able to carry another baby. With a brand new baby waiting outside for me, I had to face a thought I wasn’t even ready to contemplate, would I want another child in the future? But what were my other options?
I was visited by two anesthesiologists, who asked me multiple times what procedure I was having to be sure I was giving clear consent. The lead up to the surgery felt long and drawn out and I just wanted to get it done with and be reunited with my baby. My husband said goodbye.
As I was wheeled to the surgery room, I prayed for the first time in a long long time that I would be okay and I wouldn’t become a statistic of our poor maternal health system, leaving my husband a widower with a tiny newborn.
Once in the surgery room, I was told to count back from five. I think I made it to four. When I woke up, I was already in the recovery area and was hazy and exhausted. I was given exactly 30 minutes to recover before being moved to the outpatient area, where my husband could come see me and my vitals were taken again. I didn’t see my doctor again, but my husband later told me that she came out to tell him all had gone smooth and she had removed 3 ounces of remaining placenta from my uterus. Three ounces, even after all the clots I had passed.
I was discharged and sent home with instructions to “call again if this or that or this happens.” Thankfully this time around I was finally able to heal from my labor and delivery and focus on the most important role of my life–being a mother.
At now nearly 5 months postpartum, I don’t know when I will be able to look at my experience with more peace than anger.
I feel sad when I think about the time I lost bonding with my daughter because I wasn’t feeling well. If I hadn’t advocated myself, I don’t know where my family would be. When people ask me about my delivery, I mostly choose to tell them about my smooth birth. “Only twenty minutes of pushing,” I’ll say. I later find that I’m disappointed in myself for not sharing the whole story. Delivering a baby is beautiful and terrifying, no matter how it happens and it shouldn’t be minimized.
We as women shouldn’t have to sugarcoat the traumas we’ve been through in order to make others feel comfortable.
I’ve tried to be more honest about my experience and the postpartum anxiety that I’ve been working through since in an effort to be a person others can find comfort in, should they ever need it.
Becca is a momma, wife, and an elementary librarian. She is passionate about literacy and, now as a mother, bringing awareness to maternal health issues. She loves Texas pecan coffee, chocolate sprinkle donuts, reading in bed, and being outside on sunny Austin days with her beautiful daughter.