Jennifer Donovan woke up in a hospital completely unaware of why she was there. She felt groggy and every part of her body hurt. She thought she had been in a car accident. In reality, she had given birth. She just didn’t remember having a baby.
Little did she know she had HELLP Syndrome.
“Groggy and confused, I opened my eyes to find I was alone in a hospital bed,” Jennifer wrote for Scary Mommy.
“My arms were stained with deep purple and green bruises. Mechanical boots wheezed as they rhythmically squeezed my calves. I wasn’t sure what had happened but, for some reason, I believed I had been in a terrible car accident.”
Jennifer called a nurse in to question what had happened. The nurse gently informed her that her baby was okay.
All the air went out of the room and time slowed to a standstill. I nodded silently, all the while wondering, “WHAT BABY?”
Jennifer’s husband returned from the NICU to confirm that yes, their son was doing great. But Jennifer wasn’t relieved. She was just confused. She didn’t remember having a baby or even being pregnant.
“I believed I had been in a terrible car accident”
Jennifer was told she wasn’t in a car accident. She had been admitted to the hospital with HELLP syndrome, a very rare pregnancy complication. At 36 weeks pregnant she had an emergency c-section under general anesthesia.
“I knew I wouldn’t be awake for the delivery of my son but I didn’t know that when I awoke I would have no recollection of what had happened.
I could not recall being pregnant, arriving at the hospital, or giving birth. There was a photo of me holding a baby, wrinkly and new, but I didn’t remember it being taken.”
Jennifer woke up three days after she gave birth. Her son was born premature but healthy and was in the NICU. She was in the ICU, recovering from a severe blood haemorrhage. Over the next few days, her memories of having a baby started to return only to fade out again.
“The following days melted together in a haze of medicine, pain and shock. Bits and pieces of my memory returned only to float away again. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, my brain continued to loop back to the conclusion that I had been in a car accident.
The incision across my lower belly, the unused breast pump that stood by my bedside, the photograph, none of it made sense. The car accident was a false memory my brain had created in place of the traumatic event that had taken place but, over the next 48 hours, the true story slowly began to come back to me.”
What happened? HELLP Syndrome explained
At 36 weeks pregnant, Jennifer started to feel fatigued and breathless. She chalked it up to normal pregnancy woes. As the day progressed she started to feel incredibly anxious and had an “impending sense of doom”.
She went to the hospital just to check everything was okay. At the hospital, she was diagnosed with HELLP Syndrome.
HELLP (Hemolysis, Elevated Liver enzymes and Low Platelets) syndrome is a life-threatening pregnancy complication usually considered to be a variant of preeclampsia. However, Jennifer didn’t have high blood pressure due to preeclampsia, making her situation even more rare. HELLP can come on suddenly and without any symptoms which is one of the reasons it’s so dangerous.
The only ‘cure’ for HELLP is to deliver the baby.
In the days following her c-section, Jennifer realised she had, in fact, given birth, not been in a car accident. However, with this realisation also came an incredible sense of guilt. Jennifer was so excited about her son’s arrival, for the first time she held him in his arms, for all of those ‘rites of passage moments every new mum dreams of for nine months.
“I feared I would not be able to bond with someone I couldn’t seem to remember. I admitted this to no one at the time. After all, what kind of mother forgets her own baby?
I wrote myself notes about what had happened, reminders that I had delivered a baby, a trail of breadcrumbs for me to find my way back to him. On the third day the fog finally began to lift and I felt more firmly planted in reality.”
It was on the third day that Jennifer finally got to hold her son, for the second time, but for the first time that she could remember.
“As I held my baby for the second time memories flooded back to me, memories I was finally able to retain. I breathed him in and savored the softness of his cheek and the way his tiny hand gripped my finger. I remembered the kicks and the sonogram pictures and painting his room Dodger blue. I finally felt like I had found my way through the woods.”
Jennifer’s son is no longer a newborn. He is a cheeky five-year-old. It took several years for Jennifer to overcome the trauma and the pain of missing out on those first golden hours with her son.
“I have come to realize there are so many golden hours of parenthood and nobody gets to be present for them all.
I may not remember those first golden hours with my son but, when I watch him light up with the excitement of trying something new or he looks to me for reassurance as he embarks onto the next adventure, I can still feel them.”