Postpartum healing: hysterectomy

On November 11th, 2017, at 16 days postpartum, I had an emergency, life-saving hysterectomy. I had no warning signs, no symptoms, and no knowledge of just how serious postpartum healing really is. My story is not an anomaly.

On November 10th around 11pm, after over two weeks of normal postpartum healing, I felt a gush of blood. I passed a large blood clot about the size of a golf ball. After that, the bleeding stopped, and a quick Google search told me that my bleeding wasn’t abnormal – at two weeks postpartum the uterus often makes a big contraction as it regains its original shape, causing a temporary increase in bleeding. Regardless, I decided to play it safe and make a trip to the one Urgent Care center that was still open – only to be turned away because they didn’t take my insurance. Not yet worried and still needing to care for my 13-month-old and newborn, I decided to go home, lie down, and self-monitor my bleeding.

Jessica in the hospital

I woke up around 2am to check my bleeding, stood up, and felt another huge gush. I walked the 30 feet to the bathroom, feeling blood clots falling out of me as I walked. My baby brain still wasn’t worried – maybe this is what the internet meant by “increased bleeding”? Maybe this was normal? I made myself believe it was normal, and stood in the shower, blood running down my legs, as I tried to clean myself up.

At 2:30 am it hit me: get yourself to the hospital. With no family nearby, I pumped a few bottles of milk for my newborn, left her with my husband, and drove myself to the hospital. I walked into the emergency center around 3 am, and within 5 minutes they had sent me up to triage on the Labor and Delivery floor.

By 4 am, my husband was able to join me at the hospital. I was bleeding uncontrollably and my veins were collapsing as the medical team tried to run diagnostic tests to move ahead with the treatment. Two hours later I was ready for surgery.

Around 6am the doctor decided to look for retained placenta. Still bleeding, they took me in for a D&C procedure, but the results were negative. At 7am the doctor sat down with my husband and I to suggest a second surgery – a balloon ablation. I was getting weak from blood loss and I was exhausted from the stress and anxiety. She explained that if the ablation didn’t work and they had to take more extreme action that it was possible I wouldn’t be able to have any more babies. My husband and I nodded to each other, and they took me back to the operating room.

8am: an hour and four blood transfusions later, it was over. I had lost the part of myself that carried my babies, the part that sustained the two perfect little lives I call my son and my daughter. I felt empty, grief-stricken, overwhelmed, and thankful to be alive. In the end, the doctor diagnosed me with placental site involution (PSI), which basically means that something unidentifiable happened to my uterus that made me spontaneously hemorrhage. The small amount of research that has been done on PSI all points to the same conclusion: it is rare, but also very underrecognized and thus underdiagnosed.

Jessica’s hysterectomy scar and newborn baby

This is what I took away from my experience:

1. Listen to your body. Even if you’ve had children before and feel confident that you know what’s going on, if something feels off, just get it checked out and don’t take no for an answer. The postpartum body needs time to heal, and if this healing is disrupted you may not be aware of how to best handle complications on your own. After passing the first blood clot I called my mom, who told me to go to the hospital right away. I didn’t feel the same sense of urgency she did because I did not feel that my own wellbeing was a priority. Once a baby is born they become your whole world, and it is easy to overlook your own needs. In my case, this lack of recognition could have cost me my life. New mothers need to be surrounded by people who help them help themselves; we cannot self-advocate if we do not allow ourselves to think of the “self”.

A self-portrait by Jessica, following her hysterectomy

2. Gratitude is a band-aid solution. I don’t know how many people told me that I should be thankful: to be alive, to have two beautiful children (one boy and one girl, they liked to point out), and to be able to move on with my life. Of course that is all true, but telling someone to be grateful is also very dismissive of the feelings that are harder to process. Leaning in to the sadness, grief, and trauma makes you feel guilty because the world is telling you how grateful you should be. I am still learning how to let myself feel the negative emotions. It’s been almost 8 months since my surgery and I still haven’t let myself cry about what happened. But I do know that allowing myself to feel this range of emotions is the only way I will truly heal, and I am working to surround myself with people who I know will support both my gratitude and my grief as part and parcel of the same journey.

I wrote this story in the hopes that it encourages other postpartum people to stay connected with their postpartum bodies, allow proper time to heal, and seek help at the first sign of any concern. Sometimes this means prioritizing ourselves over other important things. Sometimes it means we will have to advocate for ourselves (or maybe you have a postpartum doula or partner who can help with that). And it always means that we have the right to feel the full range of emotions that come with postpartum and, in my case, loss.

Jessica is from Toronto and currently lives in East Lansing, Michigan, with her husband, John, and their two children, George and Dorothy. She loves thrifting, sewing, and DIY projects and has combined these passions to start a new business upcycling t-shirts into jumpsuits for toddlers (@remadebyjg). She has a Master’s degree in Indian Buddhism and learning ancient languages. You can follow her healing journey, parenting adventures, and DIY projects on Instagram @itsjessicagrace.

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