The Mom Who Wants More Women to Know About Her Rare Pregnancy Complication

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Like a lot of mothers, Kerry always knew she wanted to have kids. Her husband felt similarly — and was even more eager to get started than she was. The couple didn’t have any trouble getting pregnant, and Kerry’s first two trimesters were uneventful. But after she woke up vomiting one day in her third trimester, the nature of Kerry’s easy pregnancy changed swiftly. She discusses her rare pregnancy complication, finding out she’d be unconscious during her son’s birth, being uncharacteristically nervous during her second pregnancy, and the reason she feels so lucky today.

On what seemed like an easy pregnancy. I definitely wanted to have kids. My husband was the same way. We got married relatively young; I was 24, and he was 26. My husband had an older father, so even more than I was, he was eager to be a younger parent. I got pregnant while I was in grad school. That part was easy.

The pregnancy was easy too: I didn’t have morning sickness. I was maybe a little tired, but overall, I felt amazing. We traveled for about a month during my first trimester. At all my appointments, everyone said everything looked textbook. There was no reason to be concerned.

On what seemed like a sudden shift. When I was 32 weeks pregnant, I woke up very nauseous and throwing up. Since I hadn’t had morning sickness the entire pregnancy, we assumed it was some kind of stomach bug. I remember thinking I should just get through it, since everything had been fine up until this point — like it was time for something to be a little harder. I called the doctor, who just said to stay hydrated and that if I was really concerned, I could come in and get checked out.

We really just thought it was a virus. But in hindsight, I realize I had many other symptoms. The day before, we’d gone to Bed Bath & Beyond to get one of those body pillows you sleep with while you’re pregnant. I remember sitting in the corner of the store because I didn’t have the energy to stand. A few days before that, I put a dish that wasn’t ovenproof in the oven — it shattered everywhere. We just thought the tiredness and fogginess were normal pregnancy symptoms.

I decided it couldn’t hurt to go see the doctor to make sure everything was okay. They checked to see if I was in early labor and decided everything was fine; they told me I just had a stomach virus and to go home and stay hydrated. But once I got home, I started feeling worse and worse. The abdominal pain had gotten really bad. This time, the doctor said I should just go to the hospital.

On the moment she knew something was wrong. We still had no idea it was an emergency situation. We thought I was dehydrated from throwing up all day and would just get an IV and everything would be fine. Now it seems insane. But we were really taking our time, packing magazines, getting a bag together. At the hospital, we didn’t even valet the car — we parked in the garage and walked all the way in.

Eventually, I was put in a labor and delivery room, where my husband and I realized that we’d missed the registration point. So he wasn’t in the room — he was off trying to register me as a patient — when everything changed. All of a sudden it went from a very normal situation to something like 15 doctors in the room. I knew then that something was wrong.

A doctor came over and explained that they weren’t quite sure what was happening, but that something was definitely wrong with my liver. It wasn’t until after my son was born that they were able to tell me it was definitely what’s called “acute fatty liver of pregnancy,” which means that essentially your liver shuts down. Because your liver does so much for your body, when it shuts down, your body shuts down.

On being unconscious during birth. The moment that really hit me, where I got really upset, was when I found out that — because they thought they might have to do more than deliver a baby — I’d be under general anesthesia for the C-section. Which also meant that my husband couldn’t be in the room. Only doctors saw our son’s birth.

We were scheduled to take a birth class in the next week or two, but we weren’t one of those couples who discusses a birth plan right from the start. Discussions of labor, what birth might look like, had never really happened. It really hit me when I asked whether my husband could cut the cord — they were like, “Well, no. He won’t be there.” It’s a small thing, we’re over it now, but it is something I think about — neither of us were there when our son was actually born.

The one thing we’d done to prepare was take a hospital tour. I remember seeing signs for the NICU and thinking, Oh, I won’t need that. Everything’s going fine. I don’t know if that was optimism or naïvete or both combined. Clearly, I was wrong.

On recovering with a baby in the NICU. Everything that happened after my C-section is kind of blurry. I remember someone coming and telling me at some point that it was a boy. I remember being in a recovery room. I remember a close friend who was pregnant coming to see me, and telling her to go get her liver checked.

The first time I saw him was three days after he was born. They were transferring me from the ICU to an antepartum room and they agreed to stop by the NICU. They wheeled my hospital bed into the NICU and showed me my baby. I remember the moment of seeing him the first time. It was all a little complicated, having the bed in the room, but they made it work.

On the “one thing” she could do. While I was still in the hospital, a lactation consultant came to see me. I’d never said it out loud, but I’d always wanted to breastfeed. The consultant told me that I could try to nurse, though I should remember that my body had been through incredible trauma. She told me not to force myself. There was also a question of whether it would be safe for the baby to drink my milk because of a high level of toxins.

In the end, I wound up nursing for two years. It was the one thing I could do. I’d never thought I would nurse that long. Then having a baby in the NICU suddenly meant I couldn’t do all the things I’d imagined I would do for him. But I could pump milk. So I did.

On the upside of having a baby in the NICU. One nice thing about having a baby in the NICU is that once your baby is discharged, a nurse comes to check up on you for a certain number of days afterward. A nurse came to our house and took his temperature and saw that it was low. We were brand-new parents and we didn’t know what we were doing — we’d had no idea he felt cooler than he should have. She told us to call the pediatrician, and I explained they were closed. She said we needed to call the after-hours emergency line, that this was something that couldn’t wait.

Over the phone, they said we should wrap our son in blankets for an hour and see if his temperature rose. It did not, so we took him back to the hospital.

On going back to the NICU. It’s actually not normal that a baby would be readmitted to the NICU — because of the germs they might be bringing in. They tried to admit him to the PICU, but they just weren’t equipped to take care of a baby that small.

They explained to us that he had meningitis and needed to be on a course of antibiotics. It was a hard night, being readmitted to the hospital. I’d been nervous ever since we brought him home; he was so, so tiny, under five pounds. I remember asking my mom whether I was going to be this worried the rest of my life. She said, “Well, when you have a kid, you worry.” It was hard to be back, but a part of me was comforted — the nurses in the NICU knew how to take care of him.

Once we were able to leave, we said good-bye to everyone in the NICU. We were like, “We mean it this time! We’re not coming back here.” Obviously, we were thrilled to be able to go home, but leaving did feel a little bittersweet. The NICU is a really special place. After this experience, I said that if I could go back and do everything over again, I’d become a nurse in the NICU. The NICU really has such a feeling of comfort and community.

On being pregnant again. Thankfully, I think my husband and I were able to put the whole experience behind us and concentrate on being parents. We were very, very grateful for how the situation ended up. Some women who have AFLP aren’t treated in time and lose their babies — or die of the condition themselves.

Two years and three months later, I had another baby. I’d gone through tests to try to figure out whether I’d have AFLP again; there’s some thought that a genetic component is an indicator that you’ll have AFLP. That wasn’t the case for me, so the chances of me having AFLP again were very low.

I’m not an anxious person. The first pregnancy, I don’t remember calling my doctor with any concerns — until I became very sick. This time, I called my doctor all the time, at every little thing. I called because I was nauseous at nine weeks. My doctor was like, “It’s called morning sickness.”

We wanted another baby so badly that I didn’t really think about how it might feel for me to be pregnant again. But doctor after doctor told me it was okay to get pregnant again, that there was a low chance of AFLP and that even if it did happen again, we’d know what to look for. But I don’t think I realized until I was actually pregnant again how nerve-wracking it was going to be.

On being back in the hospital. In the third trimester, they started monitoring my liver enzymes, just in case. They even gave me steroid shots in case the baby was born early again. One day I woke up and I was throwing up. My husband was like, “You’re throwing up in your third trimester again. We are going to the hospital.” I didn’t want to go — I’d just been in for a test — and I was almost embarrassed to be back.

They ran a bunch of tests, and everything seemed fine. They said there was just one more left before I could go back home. That last test showed my liver counts were high. They were like, “You’re not going anywhere.”

But this time, the AFLP was caught so early that it was a totally different scenario. I wasn’t out of it. I wasn’t nearly as sick as I was the time before. I was further along, almost 34 weeks. The doctor strongly recommended that we deliver the baby.

This time, because I wasn’t as sick, I was able to have a regular C-section. I was awake, my husband was there. We thought because we’d done 32 weeks, 34 weeks would be fine. But our 34-weeker had a harder time than our 32-weeker. Now, thank god, you’d never know both of them were born premature.

On the way she thinks of pregnancy now. I never want to tell people who are pregnant what happened to me. I’m open to talking about this, but it’s not like I go around telling everyone I had AFLP, not just once but twice. I had certainly never heard of it, until I had it. It was very fortunate I was in a hospital with a doctor who could recognize it as a possibility. Afterward, it took me a little while to even get up the courage to google AFLP and find out more about it.

Years later, my husband and I just feel so grateful for the way everything turned out. It could have gone a very different direction. We have two very healthy boys, and we feel so blessed to have them.

The Mom Who Was Unconscious During Her Son’s Birth