Thembi Johnson remembers the last real meal she had when she was pregnant with her daughter in 2011. She was about six weeks along and went out for pizza. She didn’t feel great, but she managed to get down a slice or two. The next day, everything changed. Every single food she put in her mouth came right back up. Every single smell made her nauseated.
Johnson went to her doctor for answers and was diagnosed with hyperemesis gravidarum (HG), a condition marked by severe nausea, vomiting, weight loss and dehydration during pregnancy. Johnson had all them. Two weeks after she was diagnosed, she was hospitalized for severe dehydration. Soon after, she went in again, this time staying for almost a month. Johnson eventually required a home nurse who helped her get all of her nutrition intravenously, and was hooked up to a portable pump that fed her a constant stream of anti-nausea medication. She did not consume any actual food for more than a month.
“I remember one day I got back from the grocery store and I was so weak, all I could do was get to the front door. Then I crawled to the bathroom and laid there ― after dry heaving ― with my cheek on the tile floor,” she recalled. “Two hours later, that’s how my husband found me. The door to the house was wide open. The car door was open. He saw my feet hanging out the door and thought I was dead.”
Hyperemesis gravidarum is back in the news again with the announcement that Kate Middleton ― the world’s most famous HG sufferer ― is pregnant with her third child and once again struggling with the condition, cancelling planned appearances and missing the first day of school with her son, George, on Thursday. And while Middleton has done more than just about anyone to draw attention to HG, some have been quick to dismiss her diagnosis as nothing more than an overblown excuse to lay low. “Why the fuss over morning sickness?” said one commenter on The Daily Mail. Headlines and articles have unwittingly downplayed the seriousness of HG by labeling it “severe morning sickness.”
People have this notion that everbody exaggerates everything, but in this situation you don’t have to exaggerate. It’s as bad as you can imagine.
But as the harrowing pregnancies of moms like Johnson make clear, calling HG a more intense version of the nausea and vomiting that most pregnant women encounter is not just dismissive; it’s potentially dangerous. And it means that many moms-to-be end up suffering alone.