Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge might look like she’s over the worst of her severe morning sickness, but if her illness is anything like that experienced by Auckland mum-of-two Kathryn Swallow, she will still be struggling in private.
Kathryn (35) was struck with hyperemesis gravidarum when she was six weeks pregnant with son Sam (5) and two years later with daughter Elsie (3). She was so seriously ill her rib muscles tore from constant retching, she missed her brother’s wedding and lost 10kg in three weeks.
“I was just being hammered. I couldn’t hold down anything and there was a massive sense of fatigue,” says Kathryn.
Now the duchess is entering her second trimester, it’s likely her condition will be improving. But in Kathryn’s case, she didn’t stop vomiting until she was 30 weeks pregnant with Sam. Her sense of smell became so acute that almost anything could make her vomit. “If I smelled the neighbour in the downstairs flat making coffee, I’d throw up,” she says.
She believes most people won’t realise just how sick Kate must have been with hyperemesis during the early weeks of her pregnancy. “People don’t understand how debilitating it is. I couldn’t stand the smell of my husband doing any cooking. I could even smell lettuce.”
Like Kate, Kathryn and her husband Nick, a marketing manager, had to reveal their pregnancy before they were ready because she was too sick to work in her job as a communications manager.
“I couldn’t leave the house,” she says. “I couldn’t even get out of bed. I missed my brother’s wedding – my only sibling. I knew I wasn’t up to the flight to Wellington or the reception where people were eating.”
Kathryn was hospitalised three times and her torn rib muscles also needed to be strapped. In what’s believed to be an unrelated condition, her appendix burst and she needed emergency surgery at 28 weeks while Sam was in her womb.
The nausea became so bad, that at times Kathryn felt like she couldn't go on – if it wasn’t for the support of her husband. “I was so overwhelmed and not coping that I was thinking ‘Maybe I just can’t do this.’”
Kathryn weighed 62kg before getting pregnant with Sam, but dropped 10kg in three weeks. It wasn’t until her third trimester she began healthy weight-gain. Eventually, Kathryn was able to stomach toast and crackers and occasionally fried chips.
In the second half of her pregnancy, she returned to part-time work after she was given medication which is used for treating nausea in chemotherapy patients. But back at work, Kathryn got into a routine of vomiting in the car park before going to her desk, which helped her avoid vomiting until lunchtime.
“At about 20 weeks I felt like I’d turned a corner, but I didn’t stop vomiting until I was 30 weeks pregnant,” she recalls.
When it came to having her second baby, Elsie, Kathryn desperately hoped that she wouldn’t feel as sick – but she was wrong.
Kathryn was bedridden for the first trimester and had to get a nanny to care for Sam because she was unable to. “I still couldn’t make food for Sam and I couldn’t take him places. I didn’t feel like a very good mum.”
The hardest part of the illness was the lack of understanding at how seriously sick Kathryn was. “Lots of people compared my nausea to their own morning sickness. I never contemplated that my pregnancies could ever be that bad.”
“You just have to focus on whatever it is that helps you get through and hang in there for a beautiful result.”
What is hyperemesis gravidarum?
Hyperemesis gravidarum is a condition that affects up to two percent of pregnant women. Characterised by nausea, vomiting and dehydration, it is often difficult to distinguish from common morning sickness. Most often, women will experience relief from the sickness after their second trimester, but in some cases, women are ill right up until they give birth.