'I've been there, Kate, and it felt like being poisoned': One mother tells of her extreme morning sickness
Sonia Purnell was 34 when she suffered hyperemesis gravidarum – the same condition as the Duchess of CambridgeHere she tells how the joy of being pregnant was overshadowed by an onslaught of violent nausea
08:53 GMT, 4 December 2012
News of the Duchess of Cambridge’s admission to hospital yesterday, suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum – extreme morning sickness – instantly made me relive the agonies of my first pregnancy 15 years ago.
How I feel for our future Queen.
I was 34, just over three years older than Kate is now. I remember how the joy and excitement at the thought of a baby on the way was overshadowed by the sudden and violent onslaught of nausea that took hold at about four weeks.
‘Oh, it will go away quickly enough,’ said everyone kindly, passing me ginger biscuits and cups of peppermint tea.
So ill: Sonia Purnell, from Hammersmith, suffered the same condition as Kate but went on to have a healthy son.
It felt like being poisoned: Sonia Purnell struggled with acute morning sickness just like Kate
These homely ‘cures’ for morning sickness did nothing. In fact, they only made things worse.
Strangely, to start with, I found passing relief from chewing the toughest of American hard gums. But even this home-devised remedy was soon powerless against a tide of nausea so strong, so all-encompassing, so toxic that it sucked all the colour out of life.
I could think of nothing but the nausea and the metallic taste in my mouth – and soon the vomiting began.
It sounds a strange way to describe a pregnancy, but it felt as if I was being poisoned.
The nausea was there every waking minute, but the actual vomiting could be triggered by almost anything, ranging from certain colours (there is still a certain shade of pinky-red I can barely look at), smells (even the supposedly friendly camomile) and any attempt to eat or drink.
Even water, however slowly I sipped it, was impossible to keep down.
At my worst, I was sick up to 30 times a day. All morning, yes, but also noon and night. The name ‘morning sickness’ came to sound like a cruel joke. The great convulsions of my body each time I made a mad dash to the toilet terrified me.
When I visited my GP after ten days of this hell I was told to pull myself together.
Only when I failed to make it to the door of her surgery without retching over her yucca plant – a spasm triggered by her perfume – did she agree to take my pulse and blood pressure.
Fortunately she decided to send me straight to hospital in a cab, with me clutching on to the inside of the door, willing the contents of my stomach (already very sparse) to stay down.
My head was pounding and I was beginning to feel quite confused. My skin was itchy and dry.
At Queen Charlotte’s, a specialised maternity hospital in west London, they were both immediately attentive and kind.
At last, what was happening to me was not seen as fabricated or beyond help.
There is something very isolating about this condition when you compare it to the glowing health and poise of so many women who make pregnancy look easy. I seemed to be making such a hash of it.
Yet I discovered that up to one in 50 women suffers some form of hyperemesis gravidarum (which literally means very severe pregnancy sickness), but only a handful have it as badly as I did.
Nausea: Sonia purnell, who suffered extreme morning sickness, feels for Kate, pictured last week
Poorly: Kate Middleton has been taken to hospital with hyperemesis gravidarum, which usually leaves women on a drip because they can't eat or drink
I saw on my notes that I had three plus signs against my diagnosis, meaning I was a particularly severe case.
It is likely it became so serious because I was not treated straight away – not all GPs are on the look-out for the condition and there is a widespread assumption amongst some doctors that a fuss is being made over mere ‘morning sickness’.
I trust that, at the King Edward VII hospital in central London, Kate is receiving the early and assiduous treatment she needs to keep it under control.
One of the immediate steps is likely to be rehydration. The reason that my skin was so dry and itchy – and looked like that of a woman 30 years older – was that I had failed to retain any water for many days by this stage.
Doctors put me on an intravenous drip, swapping the bags between saline, sugar and potassium.
Nobody ever told me what the potassium was supposed to do for me. I was ordered to stay in my bed and rest – not a difficult instruction to follow as by now my legs felt like jelly.
At first the vomiting continued. One terrible night – the loneliest of my life – I remember I was bringing up scary quantities of blood.
Extreme: Even sipping water was impossible to keep down according to Sonia Purnell, who suffered the same condition during pregnancy as Kate, pictured with Prince William
It turned out that I had ripped my oesophagus, which was excruciating as the bile (by now the only contents of my stomach) burned the wound as it passed up through my body.
The doctors moved me to a room of my own and posted a ‘nil by mouth’ sign above my bed, as anything passing my lips could trigger yet more vomiting. Even a toothbrush was banned.
Meanwhile, they started to pump Zantac (normally used for ulcers but intended to help my oesophagus heal) and anti-sickness drugs into my veins. I pleaded not to have these drugs, remembering all too well the terrible effects of thalidomide on an earlier generation of pregnant women.
But the serious look on my doctors’ faces as they sat next to my bed made it clear I had no choice.
So uncomfortable was this method of administering the drugs that the doctors switched to injections.
My backside – now quite bony anyway – was soon too black and blue to lie on.
Gradually, though, I started to feel more human, and the doctors thought I was well enough to explain that my condition was caused in effect by a severe reaction to the pregnancy hormone HCG (human chorionic gonadotropin).
HCG can trigger the mildest of reactions, such as a passing morning sickness, or at the worst, a virtual bodily shutdown, as I endured.
Care: Sonia Purnell describes the medical care given to her when suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum. The Duchess of Cambridge is receiving treatment at the King Edward VII Hospital in London pictured
Doctors ran constant checks to make sure my vital organs were still functioning. It is possible that this severe reaction may run in families; another school of thought attributes it to the mother’s blood group being negative when the father’s is positive.
I just hope that Kate is not at my end of the spectrum – and that her suffering passes, as it sometimes does, at around 13 weeks.
Mine continued at varying levels, requiring further hospitalisations, right to the end. I lost a lot of weight even though I was pregnant. It worries me that Kate herself has so little to lose as it is not uncommon for sufferers to shed up to a tenth of their body weight.
My condition almost certainly triggered my waters breaking at 33 weeks and the premature birth of my son, Laurie.
Yet bizarrely as soon my waters broke, the symptoms disappeared entirely and I ate my first meal for seven months before I went into hospital. I still remember the joy.
I hope Kate will be lucky and that early intervention will save her some of the agonies I endured.
Treatment is improving all the time, as is recognition of the condition. The danger of accompanying depression is also now better understood.
My own case was, I know, studied with interest by medics. But if left untreated, hyperemesis can be dangerous for the baby and the mother too, particularly if she becomes too dehydrated. The
Victorian novelist Charlotte Bronte is understood to have died from it – and deaths, although rare, are not unknown even now.
I loved my son so much when he arrived I was able in time to put the whole experience behind me. Surely it could not be so bad second time round, I thought. So I got pregnant again two years later.
Ladies, I went through the same hellish experience. So I stopped at two children. I rather wonder if the royal couple will do the same.