Hyperemesis turns pregnancy into nightmare

The sickness flooded my body in stomach-cramping waves, leaving me curled in a ball on the bathroom floor and forcing me to throw up anything I consumed. Soda crackers. Prenatal vitamins. Water.

For seven months, I was forced to make near weekly trips to the emergency room, where doctors used an IV and stomach pump to deliver fluids, nutrients and eventually Zofran, the same medication chemotherapy patients use to quell nausea.

Halfway through my pregnancy, I barely had a baby bump. And you can forget those pregnancy fantasies about satisfying cravings with ice cream.

Why? Because I suffered from hyperemesis gravidarum (or HG), a rare pregnancy disorder that causes debilitating nausea.

For many women, the disease can be life altering, requiring them to take extended sick leaves or quit work and rely heavily on loved ones to carry the household load while bedridden. Some women lose their teeth or have permanent esophageal damage from the repeated vomiting. Others find their babies are struggling to thrive inside a mother deprived of nutrients. (In utero, my own child lagged in development for months, in part, because I wasn't able to keep down food.)

Even worse, some women such as Amanda Tynes, the wife of NFL player Lawrence Tynes, have such severe HG, they're told they need to choose between aborting their babies or dying while they try to carry their child to term.

Tynes was slated to appear before Congress this week to discuss the disease as part of the first annual Hyperemesis Gravidarum World Awareness Day. Advocacy groups representing women who have the disease are pressing lawmakers to help allocate federal funding to discover a cause and a cure. In the meantime, the Hyperemesis Education and Research Foundation, is spearheading efforts to educate physicians about the disorder so that women can receive proper care.

I was my OB/GYN's first case of severe hyperemesis gravidarum and the two of us learned together about how to best treat the disease.

We went from brainstorms about grinding up prenatal vitamins into a powder and mixing them into juice (nope, didn't stay down) and farfetched theories about gallstones before we finally arrived at an answer.

According to Vanessa Pack, founder of the Ayden Rae Foundation, a support group for women suffering from HG, the disease doesn't discriminate.

"It destroys lives and families everywhere," says Pack, who has seen firsthand how the pressure to care for a spouse who is ill with a disease some doctors think is "all in her head" has torn families apart.  

The disease strikes roughly two percent of pregnant women, according to the American Journal of Perinatology. While the cause is unknown, researchers believe there may be a link between the rapid increase in pregnancy hormones during the first trimester and the way some women's bodies react to those changes.

Interestingly, the disease has also been around for ages. Author Charlotte Bronte is thought to have died from it after a four-month bout of extreme nausea that left her dehydrated and emaciated.

It's also a disease that appears to be hereditary. If a woman's mother or sister has had HG, she has a higher chance of developing the disorder.

For the "lucky" women like myself who can afford the expensive treatment (or whose insurance will pay for it), companies such as Alere (formerly known as Matria) provide home health aides, IV hydration, daily phone calls from nurses, nutritional counseling and a Zofran stomach pump which administers the nausea stemming medicine throughout the day through a small needle inserted into the stomach.

I often wore one of these under my maternity clothes while navigating Capitol Hill as a reporter. Aside from the occasional beeping from the stomach pump -- an alarm signaling it was running low on meds or had a tangled cord -- none of my colleagues were any wiser. (I usually blamed the beeping on television equipment.)

But there is no clever trick around this fact: If a woman has had HG in a previous pregnancy, there is a higher likelihood that she'll develop the disease in future pregnancies.

A year and a half after delivering a healthy baby girl, I'm wiser about exactly what our dream of expanding our family may mean.

We're in the process of updating paperwork in the long quest for our social services adoption -- a journey unto itself. And we've also started the IVF process to help us overcome infertility and get pregnant.

And I've made sure to eat a few extra scoops of ice cream, just in case.

Halimah Abdullah enjoyed her time as TODAY.com's "Woman in Washington." She is moving on to report for CNNpolitics.com and blogs about parenting and politics at domesticpolichick.wordpress.com.

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