Kristen Kemp remembers lying on the floor of her bathroom believing she was being engulfed by unseen flame. Seven weeks pregnant with twins, she was hallucinating due to dehydration, which is what happens when you vomit nearly nonstop for several days.
There is morning sickness, which up to 90 percent of pregnant women get to one degree or another, and then there is its monstrous cousin, hyperemesis gravidarum. Only 1 to 2 percent of pregnant women are afflicted with the violent version, and those who have had it are sending particular sympathy to Kate Middleton today, after hearing she is a new member of their club.
“I wanted to kill myself,” says Kemp, a children’s novelist, whose doctor hospitalized her after that hallucinatory episode. “My hyperemesis put my whole family -- and me -- through hell. It’s a depressing and crazy-making illness.”
Some of the “crazy,” she says, comes from being treated like this is all in your head. When she arrived at the ER, she says, “the nurses didn’t take me seriously. They said, ‘You just need to relax, drink some water, take some ginger.’ But this isn’t morning sickness, it’s a disease. It doesn’t feel like morning sickness, it feels like you’re gonna die.”
Cali Ressler describes it much the same way. Pregnant for the fourth time three years ago, she suddenly found herself too sick to function. “I started to think, ‘It’s not worth going on,’” she remembers. A specialist in workplace reform, and co-author of “Why Work Sucks and How To Fix It,” she called her own mother one day, crying so hard she could barely speak. “I can’t do this anymore,” she remembers sobbing, and she didn’t just mean being pregnant.
“I’m coming to get you right now,” her mother said, and Ressler spent the next two months living at her parents’ house, surrounded by signs her mother made with sayings like “You Can Do This,” just to “get me through the day.” Her three young children would come to visit, confused and cautious.
“They would run to hug me, but I couldn’t bear to have anyone touch me,” she says. “The only thing that got me through was the thought that if I’m going to be alive for them when this is over, then I need to be here and they need to be there.”
Ressler’s hyperemesis lasted for all of her pregnancy, though it ebbed somewhat after 28 weeks. Kemp’s lasted for five months, then ended as suddenly as it began. A year and a half after her girls were born, Kemp was pregnant again.
Why go through it another time? “Babies are cute,” she says. Also she knew that hyperemesis is more common with twins and therefore a second pregnancy would be different.
It was. It was worse.
Like Ressler, she now had other children to care for. But she was so sensitive to smell -- and scent was so distorted to her -- that she could not bear to be near her daughters. “Their skin smelled like old, and their breath smelled like Korean food,” Kemp remembers. “Their diapers sent me over the edge.”
She abandoned a looming book deadline, hired two babysitters to cover the hours when her husband was at work and sequestered herself on the third floor with a 24-hour IV nutrition line. Every night, she says, her family “ate sandwiches in the basement. They were not allowed to cook anything. If they cut an onion, I could smell it three flights up.”
The smell of food, in fact, was the first thing Kemp thought of when she heard that the pregnant duchess was hospitalized. “Kate is stuck in the hospital now, which is a really tough place to be,” she says. “You simply can't control the odors there. She will be able to smell all of the food during the other patients' mealtimes. That was torture. At least at home, you can control your environment somewhat.”
Kemp gave serious thought to terminating the pregnancy. “My doctor told me, ‘Some people abort at this stage. If you can’t take any more of this, you can abort.’" After spending time on message boards filled with fellow sufferers -- some of whom had terminated, others who did not -- she decided to continue with the pregnancy.
Kemp's husband had a vasectomy two weeks after their son was born. Ressler says that she and her husband have also “made it biologically impossible for there to be any more.”
What got her through, Kemp says, was focusing on the fact that “this will end.” She urges Kate Middleton to do the same. Also, she advises, “taking care of a newborn was a breeze in comparison.”
For those seeking advice, information and community around hyperemesis, both Kemp and Ressler said they found that on website of the HER Foundation (Hyperemesis Education & Research).