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“It’s like Bella, without the vampires” – how a YA novel helps me explain Hyperemesis Gravidarum (#HGDay15)

Today, May 15, is Hyperemesis Awareness Day. Hyperemesis gravidarum, according to the Hyperemesis Education and Research (HER) Foundation, is an extreme form of pregnancy sickness, defined as “unrelenting, excessive pregnancy-related nausea and/or vomiting that prevents adequate intake of food and fluids.” Affecting about one to three percent of pregnant women, HG can lead to weight loss, malnutrition and dehydration. In severe cases, it can lead to miscarriage and, rarely, it can be fatal.

Karen Jensen here at Teen Librarian Toolbox also suffered this disease with all of her pregnancies and has written about it here and here. This year, her “HG sister” and friend, writer Cindy MacDougall, shares her thoughts on spreading HG awareness with an unlikely help, the final book in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, “Breaking Dawn”.

My third child and only daughter, Naomi, was born in 2006, after a long and hard battle against a hyperemesis gravidarum, or HG. I had two normal pregnancies before this, so the fight I had to put in for my life and Naomi’s life was a shock.

I spent months on my bathroom floor, vomiting into the toilet; I lost 15 to 20 pounds; I broke the blood vessels in my eyes from throwing up. I spent a lot of time in the hospital getting IV fluids and medication.

During all this, my poor husband, Clayton, was frantic. He had to care for me and our two boys, along with running his own business. He was frightened I was going to die. In his stress and his worry, he sometimes lost patience with me, even though he knew the illness wasn’t my fault.

Nevertheless, we made it through those hard times, and Naomi was born alive and healthy.

When Naomi was two years old, Little, Brown published the last novel in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, Breaking Dawn.

Like more than a few grown women I know, I enjoyed Meyer’s novels despite myself.  I knew the writing could be weak, and I understood the relationship between Edward and Bella was problematic and potentially abusive. However, I couldn’t help liking Meyer’s characters, and especially appreciated the positive and rounded representation of Aboriginal youth from the Quileute reservation.

So I picked up a copy of Breaking Dawn that August of 2008, expecting some light reading, and the chance to see the resolution of Edward and Bella’s star-crossed relationship.

I wasn’t expecting to be rocked to the core.

Of course, as we all know now, Bella becomes pregnant soon after her marriage to Edward. The pregnancy is abnormal in many ways (what could you expect from a human-vampire hybrid?), with the baby growing very quickly and it being very strong, to Dr. Cullen being unable to see it through X-ray or ultrasound.

But it was Bella’s illness, her inability to keep down any food or drink, that reminded me forcefully of my pregnancy with Naomi. Bella was going through an accelerated version of HG, and it was killing her.

On page 171, Bella’s best friend Jacob, who is also in love with her, sees her for the first time since the pregnancy began: “There were deep circles under her eyes, dark circles that jumped out because her face was all haggard…Her skin seemed tight – like her cheekbones might break right through it…There was something about her fingers and wrists that looked so fragile it was scary.”

I remember looking in mirrors, seeing my cheekbones jutting out and huge dark circles under my eyes – what many sufferers call “HG eyes.” I remember my family and friends being horrified by how ill I looked.

There’s another part of Bella’s motherhood in Breaking Dawn that I can relate with as well: her absolute determination to protect her baby at any cost, while the family around her want her to live.

Both Edward, her husband, and Jacob, her best friend, are terrified she will die, and are angry at her for risking her life for her baby. While my family supported my choice to fight for my baby, they were extremely worried about my health and the risk to my life.

On page 190, Bella and Jacob discuss the pregnancy and her possible death, as he tries to convince her to have an abortion to save her own life: ”’I’m not going to die,’ she said through her teeth, and I could tell she was repeating things she’d said before. ‘I will keep my heart beating. I’m strong enough for that.’”

Reading Bella’s struggles, which eventually conclude with the birth of her daughter Renesmee and her near death, followed by vampirization, was incredibly painful for me. I had flashbacks to my own illness, and my old IV scars would throb. I cried a lot, too, so much so I began to wonder why I was reading the book at all.

But then it started happening – people started asking me about my illness in relation to Bella’s.

“That vampire pregnancy Bella has sounds a lot like yours!” various friends and relatives said. “What did you have again?”

Other times, I would mention HG, and when asked what it was, I would reply, “It’s like Bella Swan’s pregnancy, but without the vampires and drinking blood. Basically, you can’t keep anything down, lose weight, and get very sick. It sometimes kills women.”

Whereas before Breaking Dawn, people seemed to have no way to relate to my experience, other than to suppose I had morning sickness and was being a drama queen, now many people had a cultural touchstone for what I had gone through.

When I had my second HG pregnancy in 2010, more people could grasp the concept of pregnant and starving to death.

Breaking Dawn gave me one last gift, as well. Near the end of the book, Bella buys her daughter a locket inscribed with the French phrase “Plus que ma propre vie,” which means “More than my own life.”

When I look at my children, and think of what I struggled through to have my last two, and to keep myself alive to mother my two oldest, that phrase whispers through my mind.

They were worth more than my own life. They will always be worth it. And it was a “teen novel” that helped me put it into words.

Meet Our Guest Blogger:

Cindy MacDougall is a writer, mother of four, PR professional and former journalist. She survived HG twice and is a volunteer with the Hyperemesis Education and Research Foundation.

More on HG:

The ABCs of HG: an unconventional picture book (Karen’s story)

Teen Issues: Teen Pregnancy and Complications

Teen Pregnancy and Complications, HG and pregnancy termination (An anonymous story)

Life’s Bilest Moments, HG poetry

There’s No Sister Like an HG Sister

We were going to have a brother but got a sister instead, a tween’s story

World HG Awareness Day, just the facts

Chocolate Chip Cookies and Turkey Sandwiches

Fighting the HG War, an anonymous guest post

My Brother’s Sweatshirt, a story of HG

Sunday Reflections: Why I Care About Kate Middleton’s Pregnancy

Please share with others to help us raise awareness.  The key to a successful HG pregnancy is early and aggressive treatment.  Get more information at the Hyperemesis and Education Research Foundation (HER) at www.helpher.org

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