A Babies Story: Placenta Previa, Graves Disease, and The Little Mama That Could

A Babies Story: Placenta Previa, Graves Disease, and The Little Mama That Could

Some may say it was the perfect storm. I say it was God. No matter what you call it, it is hard to deny when you look into the eyes of our 3 month old twins that it was anything short of a miracle.

My husband and I have been together nearly 15 years. We have a teenage daughter together who is a straight A student and loves to draw.  We have a 9 year old son together who loves math and video games. I was 35, my husband was 34 and we were quite certain we were done having children. We had even been discussing the details of a vasectomy in the near future. We didn’t have a lot of money and like many Americans we were living paycheck to paycheck. But we were both working decent jobs and enjoying life with our perfect little family. Little did we know, in March of 2013, that everything we thought we knew about our future was going to change forever.

Our journey started, like so many others do, with one simple decision. I chose a new doctor. I’d been seeing a doctor who left her office permanently, without warning. So I decided to look online for someone new. I found someone who looked nice and I made an appointment. Upon visiting her, she informed me that I was doing something very bad for my body. My previous doctor had instructed me, due to having very painful ovarian cysts and nasty migraines on a monthly basis, to take active birth control pills month round, never allowing my body to have a period. I had been doing this for well over a year. Now my new doctor was insisting that I take a break and let my body cycle at least once every three or four months. So, at the beginning of March I told my husband we were going to have to be careful and I temporarily went off the pill.

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Within a couple weeks I began to get extremely sick. My hair began to fall out. My eyes hurt. I began to shake uncontrollably. I would sweat for no reason. My heart would start to beat so fast I was scared I’d have a heart attack. I remember one time in particular, after getting out of the shower, I doubled over on the bed. I was actually contemplating calling an ambulance and was scared I would die because I couldn’t breathe. My coworkers said my skin started to look gray. I was miserable. My doctor had no idea what was going on with me. At the worst point of my illness, after these symptoms had been going on for a few months, I began to get a pain in my upper thigh that made it very difficult to move. I would try to simply stand up out of my chair at work and I would be in tears. A couple of times I left work to go to urgent care. No one could figure out what was going on. There were x-rays, ultrasounds and MRIs. There was even an appointment (which I left in tears) with a doctor who told me I was simply out of shape. The only positive thing that was happening was the weight loss. Without changing my diet or exercising I lost a total of 40 pounds. All the while I still had not gone back on birth control per the direction of my doctor. Adding hormones back into the situation before we figured out the problem would only make things more difficult. Finally, after landing in her office, pale as a ghost, shaking and vomiting from the pain, my doctor was fed up and drew 10 vials of blood from me to test for everything she could think of. About a week later I was sitting at my desk at work when I got the call. I had Graves’ disease.

Now, I’d never heard of this before, so I had to really research it. I discovered it is an autoimmune disease. Your immune system actually attacks your thyroid making your thyroid overreact. This was the cause for everything that I had been going through. Even the pain in my leg. It had caused my muscles to be so weak that an insignificant movement had nearly torn a muscle in my groin. So now we had our answer and my next question was, can I go back on birth control? It had been 5 months and my husband and I were getting tired of having to be careful! My answer was no. Not yet. Now we had to treat the disease, get me on the proper medication and get my body all lined out before reintroducing.

The next step was seeing a doctor that specializes in these types of diseases. She was great and in July we started our partnership together to fix me. The decision we made was an option called RAI. It stands for radioactive iodine. It was a very powerful pill I had to take and then I had to stay in isolation for 3 days. The thyroid absorbs most of the radiation from the pill and that is what kills it, rendering it non-responsive to your immune system. However, what your thyroid does not absorb comes out in bodily fluids. Urine, sweat, tears, saliva etc. Anyone exposed to that fluid has a risk of potential damage to their thyroid. So I was a good little girl and in September of 2013 I took this powerful little pill and did my time in solitary confinement. On day 3 the hospital called me in a panic. The lady on the phone asked me if I remembered signing a negative pregnancy test report. They couldn’t locate this paperwork anywhere. One problem. No one ever gave me a pregnancy test. Her sense of panic heightened and she asked me to hang up and drive in immediately. I drove myself the 30 minutes back to the hospital and peed in a cup, all the time terrified of a positive result. Yes, we had been being careful but nothing is 100%. I had been told many times not to become pregnant within 6 months of RAI because the radiation in the pill would have negative effects for the baby. Plus, we had decided we were SO done having kids! So I silently prayed as I waited for the results. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, as did they, when the test came back negative. I drove home a very happy camper.

A few weeks went by. I started improving drastically. I had a follow up appointment with my specialist. Could I go back on birth control? Nope. Not yet. Still had to let my thyroid function die off and get on thyroid medicine. But we were getting close and I was starting to feel great!

The following month my period, that I had now gotten used to putting up with again, never came. I got nervous. I had a couple pregnancy tests under the bathroom sink, so one morning before work, while everyone else was asleep, I took one. I did the whole, pee in a cup and dip the stick thing, and before I even sat the stick down to wait 2 minutes I saw a plus sign! I tried to pretend I didn’t see it. I had to wait 2 minutes right? No way that’s what I saw. But two minutes later that plus sign was still there. I’m not sure why but for some reason I decided I needed a picture of the pregnancy test. Maybe I thought the plus might fade and no one would believe me. Maybe I thought it would be less gross to show someone a picture of a pregnancy test instead of the actual thing. I’m not sure. In any case, I got my phone to take a picture but my camera wasn’t working. So I got my husband’s phone, took a picture and sent it in a text message to my phone. Then I deleted the picture from his phone. I thought I was being clever. However, I neglected to delete the sent text. Without saying a word I wrapped up the test, put it in my bag and left for work. It had only been a little over 6 weeks since RAI. My mind was reeling.

It wasn’t long that morning before the cat was out of the bag. I got a text from my husband, who had obviously seen what I had neglected to delete. “Are you trying to tell me something!?”

I went to my boss and shared the news but asked her to keep it quiet until I had a doctor confirm it. I then went in for a blood draw. The next day the results were in. I asked the nurse over the phone if I was really, honestly pregnant. Her response was “Very much so!” I remember hanging up the phone, relaying what she said to my friend and then stating “Very much so? What’s that supposed to mean? Twins?” I had a good laugh.

I had multiple appointments within days. My regular doctor wanted to see me. She hinted that I might want to consider termination but I refused to hear it. My specialist had me come in. She was in a bit if a panic over the news and nervous about getting me through a pregnancy with Graves’ disease. She also hinted at alternatives and again I refused it.

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One week later, still reeling from the news and quite concerned about the baby due to the radiation, my husband and I found ourselves in a darkened room looking at an ultrasound. The technician was fresh out of college and very sweet. We watched as she did her thing but it was so early on that nothing on the screen was recognizable to us. I watched her label something “baby A”. I thought it was interesting but figured she was going to label different angles of the baby with different letters. I decided to give my husband a hard time though. So I told him “Look! Baby A! Does that mean there is more than one?” He shot me a playful glare and we both chuckled. The ultrasound technician grew very quiet. A minute later she excused herself from the room. Upon reentering, she seemed nervous and sat back down. Starting the scan again, she quietly said “OK. So I am seeing two.” “Two what?” Was my immediate reaction. “Two babies,” she replied gingerly. I looked over at my husband in complete disbelief. He pulled the beanie he was wearing down over his eyes and nearly became a puddle on the floor. Nervous laughter set in and I couldn’t stop it. I laughed all the way to the car. My stunned husband joined me in laughter in the elevator where another couple looked at us like we were crazy. My husband isn’t the type of person to randomly talk to strangers but he was very quick to share our news with them. Just one week ago we were in shock at the news we were pregnant and now we were expecting two? It was surreal! We went out to breakfast afterwards to talk and try to absorb what we just learned. Within minutes of leaving the restaurant I lost my breakfast all over the parking lot.

It really didn’t take long for us to get used to the idea and accept it. We even started to become excited. As long as the babies were healthy, we were happy. Due to the complications I was already starting out with, both the Graves’ disease itself and the treatment I’d undergone, and the fact that I was 35, I was considered high risk and sent to a high risk pregnancy doctor. She was amazing! Through some testing they were able to figure out that I conceived just 5 weeks after RAI but the dose was low enough and enough time had passed that they believed it did not harm the babies. We were ecstatic! We moved forward with the pregnancy with a bit more peace of mind. For months I had my blood drawn every Monday and they continued to adjust my thyroid medication until we finally got the levels where they needed to be. If my thyroid levels were too high there was a high risk of miscarriage. If they were too low there was a risk of the babies brains not developing properly. It was like walking a tight rope but eventually we got it balanced out. Towards the end of January however, things took a scary turn that made Graves’ disease seem like a cake walk.

(WARNING: The following section gets a bit graphic)

By mid to late January I was about 14 weeks into the pregnancy. I was feeling pretty great. Aside from the day we found out we were having twins I had only had one other day when I was throwing up. I was still working full time and we were working hard to reevaluate our finances and prepare for all the changes coming. We were going to need bigger car. We were going to need a bigger house! I was going to have to become a stay at home mom, and was honestly a bit excited about that but it meant becoming a one income family. And we certainly didn’t have any baby items left from our older kids. One thing at a time.

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At this point I was still able to sleep in bed. Later on I would miss that greatly! It was a Thursday evening and I went to bed like any other normal night. At 5 am Friday morning I woke up to the most horrifying feeling I ever remember experiencing in my life. What woke me was a sensation like a dam breaking and I felt a sudden and quite substantial gush of fluid. I was confused at first. Had my water broke? There was no way. It was WAY too early! Had I wet myself? It didn’t make sense. I got out of bed and rushed to the bathroom. My heart dropped to the bottom of my stomach and my vision narrowed as I saw blood everywhere! My mind couldn’t quite grasp what I was seeing. There was only one thing in my mind that this could possibly mean and it wasn’t a scenario I was willing to accept. I sat on the toilet, bleeding so much it sounded as though I was urinating and I felt my mind slipping as the reality of what I thought was happening began to sink in. I expelled a large mass of something into the toilet and I lost control of all emotion I possessed. I became somewhat hysterical and I’m not sure how I was able to pull myself to my feet and get to the bed to wake my husband. I remember thinking to myself that I had to calm down. I didn’t want our kids to be woken up by my sobbing. I could tell my husband was mortified by the scene he was woken up to but he kept his composure to help me. He asked if I was in any pain. I wasn’t. He tried to tell me that I should be in pain if I was having a miscarriage. This helped me to pull myself together a little bit but I wasn’t convinced. It made no sense to me that I could be losing this much blood and not be losing one or both babies. He called 911 unsure of what else to do. The dispatcher immediately sent an ambulance.

I was so grateful the ambulance arrived without sirens. Our 8 year old son was very sensitive to these types if situations and I wanted it to be as low key as possible for both him and our older daughter. What would this do to them? They were getting really excited about the babies.

The paramedics were sensitive and kind but confirmed I was likely having a miscarriage. As they loaded me into the back of the ambulance I told myself I had to calm down. It was hard enough for me to breathe while lying flat and crying was not helping any. As the ambulance sped off to the hospital I was nothing but miserable. I get sick quickly in vehicles if I’m not driving. I began to feel queasy, I felt like I couldn’t breathe and all I could smell was the plastic from the oxygen tubes up my nose. I constantly felt as though I was going to fall off the stretcher as we took turns and went over bumps. And I couldn’t stop silently crying. I became angry. I was angry at God. I prayed but it was in fear. Why would He allow this to happen? We went through so much and it seemed like these babies were very much meant to be. Why would all of that happen just to have them taken away now?

Doctors and nurses at the hospital were compassionate. Although one doctor told us “You’ve lost one, but we still have another one to take care of.” A nurse inspected the mass that one of the paramedics retrieved from the toilet. She was pleased to tell me that it was only a blood clot. I continued to have mixed emotions. Signs pointed to a miscarriage but some things weren’t adding up. After hours of tests and waiting, the bleeding tapered off and I was sent home and told it was a threatened miscarriage. Basically we needed to prepare ourselves to lose at least one of the twins in the near future. It was a very dark day for us.

A few days later, at exactly 5 am, I awoke to the same scenario. This time I lost a lot more blood. Instead of calling an ambulance my husband woke the kids and got ready to drive me into the hospital. I laid down while I waited for them and upon getting back up I felt something massive exiting my body. I braced myself against the bed knowing I was about to see something I would never wish on anyone. I was sure I was about to deliver my miscarried baby. I removed the mass that filled the entire palm of my hand as my husband looked on in stunned silence and then I wrapped it in a towel. God please don’t let this be happening, I prayed.

As we drove to the hospital, way above the speed limit, I continuously prayed “God, please save my babies.” Once again, I was not driving, so the ride included some unpleasant vomiting into a plastic bag. Between the blood and the vomit my kids were really starting to get scared. We had kept them away from our bedroom and bathroom so that they wouldn’t witness what looked like a massacre. But in the same vehicle with them, it was a little harder to hide what was going on. I was thankful I had the strength to remain somewhat calm in front of them.

We arrived at the hospital and began going through the familiar motions. I knew there wasn’t much they could do for me but we had to ensure I hadn’t lost too much blood. This time I had a different doctor. He wasn’t much more optimistic but he decided to order an ultrasound. The technician wheeled in the equipment and sat next to the bed. The screen was turned away from me and he wasn’t allowed to tell me anything. It was killing me to not be able to see what was going on. My husband positioned himself just right to see the screen. I watched his face intently hoping to get some clue of what might be happening. Relief washed over me as his eyes lit up. He held up 2 fingers and made a motion with his hand to imitate a heartbeat. There were 2 heartbeats! It turned out that the mass I delivered was once again a very large blood clot. And again I was sent home on bed rest and on alert of a potential miscarriage.

I immediately made an emergency appointment with my high risk prenatal doctor and went with a very heavy heart to see her. I had talked with a friend who had worked in a maternity ward and she had told me there was something called placenta previa that could cause bleeding. It’s a condition where the baby’s placenta partially or totally covers the opening in the mother’s cervix. I thought for sure that if that was the case the doctors at the emergency room would have said something about it. My mom went with me to the appointment and we sat quietly as they performed an ultrasound. I prepared myself for the worst. When the doctor came in she delivered the best news we could have possibly heard. Both babies were healthy and strong! Neither one was even in distress! I truly did have placenta previa and with bed rest everything should be just fine. What amazing news! I left the doctors office feeling lighter than air and went directly to my husband’s work to deliver the news. It wasn’t until later that I became frustrated and upset with the emergency room doctors who neglected to look for, or even mention the possibility of previa. For now I was just thrilled that God had heard my prayers and our babies were thriving and growing. I was on bed rest for an undetermined amount of time and therefore unable to return to work but our babies were fine and we couldn’t have been happier!

I was on bed rest for a couple months. As baby “A” grew and moved, the placenta was also expected to move and everything was then going to heal nicely. I’m sure any woman who has been put on bed rest may agree, it isn’t fun. I was instructed to lay flat as much as possible. However, lying flat made it hard to breathe. My breathing problems went from irritating to absolute panic attacks within a couple of weeks. I eventually ended up in a recliner in the living room around the clock. Lying down just wasn’t an option. It immediately made me feel like I couldn’t breathe. Even in the recliner, I would start to fall asleep and within a minute or two I would jolt awake in a panic feeling like I hadn’t been breathing. Sleep deprivation got so bad I was absolutely convinced I was going to go to sleep and never wake up. My ritual became a trip out to the front porch for some cold winter air and a repetitious mantra/prayer convincing myself that I wasn’t going to die and asking God for peace. I came to find out later that this kind of “air hunger” is somewhat common in Graves’ patients and having two little lives crowding my insides certainly wasn’t making it any better.

For 6 weeks I rested, hardly leaving the house for anything other than ultrasounds to monitor the placenta. Fortunately I did not have anymore bleeding episodes. Finally, in March I was cleared to be off bed rest and I returned to work part time. Going to appointments seemed like a part time job as well. I tested positive for gestational diabetes and anemia. I had dealt with both in my previous pregnancies and after Graves’ disease and placenta previa they were a walk in the park! At 30 weeks I was getting too uncomfortable and exhausted to work anymore. I was absolutely huge! My prenatal specialist was predicting very large babies, larger than she had ever seen.

One night about 6 weeks after leaving my job I awoke in the middle of the night. Something wasn’t right. I just felt off. My face felt very warm and my whole body just felt weird. I had a home blood pressure cuff so I took my blood pressure which is usually perfect and it was through the roof! My feet had been swollen more than normal and hurt pretty bad. I looked up the signs of preeclampsia and as I read I was able to check too many of the boxes. The next day after calling ahead I went into the hospital to be checked out. I was 36 weeks along. My doctor’s last weight prediction for the babies was over 8 pounds each! My c-section was scheduled for 9 days from then. They kept me overnight for observation. The next day, once things started to happen, they happened very quickly. I did in fact have the beginning stages of preeclampsia. I could stay there in the hospital being monitored and continuing to get more and more sick until my scheduled c-section or they could deliver the babies that day. So within a few hours I found myself on the operating room table, my husband by my head and family anxiously waiting in the waiting room.

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I will never forget the sound of Maggie’s cry as she was brought into the world. My husband remarked that she sounded like Donald Duck and she did! But to me it was beautiful. There were so many people in the room, with a station and a team for each baby. I was able to see her though, across the room, but 60 seconds later a second cry filled the air as little Dylan was born. By this time I had tears of joy streaming down my face. His station was a bit closer to me and I could see him better. I laid there helpless as these strangers worked with my babies. Maggie weighed in at 7 pounds 5 ounces and Dylan was 7 pounds 12 ounces!  Dylan was brought up close to me and I was able to kiss him before they whisked him away. Little did I know that kiss would have to hold me over for some time. I never got close to Maggie.

Both babies ended up in the NICU. Maggie was having blood pressure issues and Dylan had fluid in his lungs and was having difficulty breathing. I had never been through anything like this before. Our other two kids were born healthy and full term and placed with us immediately. Being in a room without my babies felt so unnatural to me. I had heard a lot of stories about babies in the NICU and never thought much of it. No one ever tells you how hard it is. How being separated from your babies and unable to hold them and take care of them goes against every natural instinct you have as a mother. It absolutely drove me crazy. I was completely unprepared for the emotional distress of the situation. I was able to see them for the first time in the middle of the night but I wasn’t allowed to hold either one. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. Maggie seemed to be doing well but Dylan’s condition broke my heart. His chest and stomach lunged and caved in very unnatural ways as he tried to breathe. They eventually had to put him on a CPAP machine. It was in those moments that it hit me. He could be in some serious danger.

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Maggie made a full recovery and was only in the NICU for a day and a half. She was discharged with me a few days after the birth. They were going to have to keep Dylan longer. I was heartbroken. I asked if I could stay. I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving him there and driving away without him. We lived 45 minutes from the hospital. I was told at first that they would give me a room and I could stay, but then I was told that Maggie could not stay too. I had to choose. What a horrible position to put a new mother in! After reasoning that Dylan had a whole team of doctors taking care of him around the clock and there wasn’t much I could do for him, I decided with a very heavy heart that my place was at home with Maggie and our other 2 children.

We traveled back to the hospital every single day to see Dylan. He was a fighter! Every day we would show up and hear about how he had pulled an IV out or pulled his oxygen tube out of his nose. I would never have let a day go by without seeing him but it was an exhausting and emotionally draining time. I would sit by his little bed, looking at all the tubes and wires and monitors and just cry. I became so exhausted I couldn’t even pray anymore. We were blessed to have various people from our church bring meals to our home. It became a routine to get home in the late evening and discover a hot meal waiting for us on our front porch. They had all signed up through an online program called “Meal Train”.  While this was a tremendous help, as were all the prayers going up for our family, I was still struggling badly. Psychologically I felt like I was slipping. I knew I was missing a part of me so even when Maggie was sleeping I couldn’t. I averaged about an hour and a half a night for some time. I struggled with postpartum OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), something rarely ever talked about. Obsessive thoughts about things I would never in a million years actually do, flooded my mind making me feel like the worst person in the world. Graphic images would play in my head making me almost feel as though I was possessed. It was perhaps the darkest week of my life. I took myself off my pain medication early because I felt they were making it worse. I knew I had to get sleep to make it better, and I knew I needed my baby home with me.

Finally on June 30th Dylan was discharged from the hospital and we were able to all go home together and be a family. My heart soared with joy on that familiar and final drive home with both babies strapped safely in the van. Everything we had been through felt worth it in that moment. I knew that for these babies I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. As we pulled in the driveway our older two kids and a family member that was staying with us for a while greeted us with signs and balloons welcoming home both the twins.

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Throughout the entire pregnancy and the aftermath of the c-section I had amazing support from my husband, who never once questioned my sanity even when I did. Well, at least not to my face! He never grew annoyed with my constant worrying and my continual high-maintenance issues. During the week little Dylan was in the NICU I swear I cried all the time and he never grew tired of comforting me. Husbands, fathers, significant others: You can and do make all the difference!

The following 3 months would continue to be challenging, but worth every moment. The twins are just now starting to sleep 5 to 6 hours a night in a stretch and life feels like it is getting back to normal just a little bit, although our definition of normal has definitely changed! Now I cuddle with my precious, perfectly healthy little twinnies and I see the joy they have brought into our family and I could not be more thankful for the double blessing we have been given!

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I hope that my story can help shed some light on some complications others may face during and after pregnancy. I was so unprepared for how hard things like having your baby in the NICU would be. I didn’t know Placenta Previa existed. Maybe if I had I wouldn’t have gone through the emotional trauma of thinking I was losing our babies. I didn’t know I was at risk for postpartum OCD. I only looked for signs of postpartum depression and it was so different. These things are out there and while we love to, and absolutely should celebrate the beauty and love of our pregnancies, childbirth experiences and babies, sometimes we should talk about the hard stuff so women going through these situations don’t feel alone. People say you shouldn’t go online to find medical information, but if I hadn’t I wouldn’t have learned so much and known how to get help. It’s just a matter of trusting the right sources. Better than that though, is the idea that we start talking about some of the lesser-known issues that might arise and support one another through them!

by Heidi Wolf

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