The Postpartum Symptom Nobody Warned Me About

I thought I was going to ace this whole delivery and postpartum thing. Then just about everything fell apart.

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m a very Type A personality. I overprepare for everything. When I was a child, my favorite thing to do was making lists. I’m not kidding. I have the journals to prove it. I was that kid.

Needless to say, having a baby wasn’t exactly unexpected. It took a leap of faith and a lot of letting go of the idea that all my ducks had to be in a neat little row. If I waited until I was 100% ready, I would probably never be ready.

Once I became pregnant, I researched everything. Craving salty snacks? *Googles if that means I’m having a girl or boy.* When does morning sickness go away? *Asks every woman I know who has ever been pregnant.* Feet swelling in the first trimester? *Calls OBGYN panicking.*

I obsessively counted baby kicks in the last trimester, read about baby schedules, stocked up my freezer with easy meals, pinned breastfeeding snack recipes on Pinterest (helloooo, Boobie Bites), called the hospital and my insurance company to get estimates on what our bills would look like (LOL if you know our birth story), took a birthing class, breastfeeding class and a newborn care class, typed up a birth plan, etc.

I thought I was going to ace this whole delivery and postpartum thing. Then just about everything fell apart. I’ll save Emerson’s story for a different day, but having your child in the NICU when you weren’t expecting it is enough to throw anyone off.

Instead of resting and enjoying my sweet newborn at home like you’re supposed to do postpartum, I spent the first 3 days at the hospital toddling down the hall back and forth to the NICU to feed and hold my baby. After I was discharged, I didn’t go home (which was 45 minutes to an hour away from the hospital) but instead spent the next three weeks bouncing around from a hotel to the Ronald McDonald House to the RMDH family suite in the hospital and finally to a room in the NICU itself. Basically, I did way more walking around and driving back and forth than I was supposed to. Plus, feeding myself nutritious food was not exactly my highest priority.

Two days before we were scheduled to take Emerson home, I moved to a family room provided by Ronald McDonald House inside the hospital. My husband had already gone back to work the week before. My mom stayed with me for a little while, but also had to go back home. So that night I had to lug all my stuff I’d been carrying around for the past three weeks from my car in the parking garage into the hospital by myself. Not that big of a deal normally, but after giving birth to a 10-pound baby just a few weeks before, with stitches holding together one of the most delicate parts of me, I was weaker than I want to admit.

So when the pain started in my back, I thought I must have overdone it and pulled a muscle. I had back pain and sciatica while pregnant, so it didn’t phase me too much. I laid down on the bed and called to talk to Dallas to distract myself. But it only got worse, spreading like fire in my chest. I remember feeling like I couldn’t move, but kept imagining the walk to the ER, which was just around the corner from my room. I was staying in the suite alone and the RMDH volunteer had already gone home for the night. I felt totally helpless. After about 30 minutes, the pain subsided and I was able to go to sleep, thinking it was weird but assuming it was muscle pain.

The next night, I moved again to a room in the NICU. Emerson was officially discharged and Dallas and I were “rooming in” with him as a trial run before we took him home. Dallas drove up after work and brought me Chipotle. I wore my nursing nightgown and robe that I bought especially for our first night as a family. I was so excited to just watch TV, breastfeed without wires, and finally enjoy some snuggle time together.

A couple hours after we ate dinner, I fed Emerson and laid him down to sleep in his bassinet. Dallas turned the TV on low and we cuddled up for the night. I can’t remember if I fell asleep or not, but the pain I felt the night before was back and this time it engulfed my whole chest.

The only way I know how to describe it is that it felt very similar to labor pain. The way it wrapped around my abdomen felt very much like a contraction, except much higher in my chest. And instead of coming in waves the way contractions do, this pain kept building and building until I felt like I couldn’t breathe.

If you’ve followed my blog for awhile, you’ll know that I’ve struggled with anxiety for as long as I can remember. Not being able to breathe very much caused me to panic. I became nauseous and was having a hard steadying my breath. I asked Dallas to call a nurse, even though I knew I wasn’t technically a patient and the nurse was for Emerson.

Eventually, I made it downstairs to the ER. The nurse paged the Emergency staff and took Emerson (who was still fast asleep by the way) into the nursery. Once in the ER, they assessed me and ordered a CT scan of my heart right away since I kept telling them my chest was tight. After the CT scan, nausea overcame me and I completely emptied my stomach. Like magic, I felt instant relief.

I sat there feeling stupid while the doctor explained that my heart looked normal and that my symptoms were consistent with food poisoning, probably from the Chipotle bowl I ate for dinner. They discharged me and sent me back upstairs before I could argue that I’ve had food poisoning before and it has never felt like that.

The diagnosis didn’t feel right, but I was happy to not be in pain, and even happier that I finally got to bring my baby home. I wanted to forget that entire hospital experience. Once we were home and settled, I told myself I’d follow up with my doctor but life with a new baby kept me in survival mode and my health was not my first priority.

Months went by in the blink of an eye. I occasionally had similar symptoms, but not as severe. I’ve always had a sensitive stomach, so I tried not to worry much about it. I’d pop some antacids and extra strength Tylenol, and sit in bed with a heating pad until the pain subsided. When Emerson was four months old, I decided to completely cut out dairy from my diet because he was having digestive issues and was diagnosed with eczema. His pediatrician recommended that eliminating dairy from my breastmilk might help. And it did; I ended up feeling much better too.

At the beginning of August though, I had another episode. We had just eaten grilled salmon for dinner, put Emerson to bed, and sat on the couch to watch a little TV and eat a few Oreos (which are vegan, by the way) before going to bed ourselves. An hour after eating, I felt the pain come back and this time it kept building up like before. I tried to use a heating pad for relief, took some antacids, and laid down to ride it out but it wasn’t subsiding. Luckily, my mom only lived a couple miles away at the time so we called her to stay with the baby while Dallas drove me to the local ER. I rode the whole way with my head out of the window, dry heaving. Once we got to the ER and they checked me in and asked a billion questions while I’m doubled over in pain, a nurse hooked me up to an IV, gave me a stronger antacid, and explained that the pain medication they were going to give me wouldn’t allow me to breastfeed that night. Before they administered it though, a wave of nausea overtook me and, like before, I emptied my stomach and felt instantly better.

I made a follow-up appointment with my doctor the next week. I told him I suspected gallstones. After doing some research (I already told you that I’m that person who Googles and WebMDs everything) I found out that it’s fairly common for gallstones to develop during pregnancy and lead to attacks postpartum, and that pregnancy itself is a risk factor for gallstones. Losing weight too quickly is also a risk factor.

My doctor reviewed my file from the ER and diagnosed me with gastritis instead. In the ER I was more sensitive on the left side of my abdomen than my right when the doctor examined me. The gallbladder is on the right and the stomach is on the left, so he suspected the pain was caused by an inflammation in my stomach lining. He gave me a prescription that should heal it in 30 days and sent me home without further evaluation.

At first, I was relieved that it was just gastritis, which could be treated with Prilosec and a bland diet for a few week and not gallstones, which might require surgery. It really felt like the medication was helping. However, two weeks in, the pain woke me up at 1:00 in the morning. I sat up with my heating pad, watching Dallas sleep, terrified to wake him and tell him it was happening again. As if not saying it out loud would somehow make it less true. I stayed up for an hour, watching the baby monitor and waiting for it to get worse. It stayed steady and passed, so I figured the medication was doing its job and went back to sleep.

I finished the 30 days of my prescription in October. I was still eating dairy-free and relatively low-fat, but I ended my bland diet and began reintroducing some comfort foods back into my diet. I was also definitely surviving off of coffee every day (because #momlife). A few days later though, I woke up at 6:30 a.m. Emerson was still sound asleep and Dallas had left for work already. It took me a few minutes to realize why I was awake. My abdomen felt like it was burning up from the inside.

I stayed up for about 90 minutes trying to convince myself that it wasn’t that bad. Then it was that bad and I couldn’t sit still. I got up and paced and tried to make my body get rid of whatever it was in my stomach that was making me feel this way. But it had been about 12 hours since I’d eaten, so not much was happening. By some miracle, Emerson chose that day to sleep in a little. I finally called Dallas, not knowing what to do. He told me my mother-in-law was on her way. While I waited, I somehow managed to get Emerson from his crib and breastfeed him. I just kept thinking if I had to go to the ER again, he was going to need milk and there was very little stashed in the freezer.

I waited until about 9:30 before finally asking my mother-in-law to take me to the ER. I pulled breastmilk out to thaw and my sister-in-law stayed with Emerson. I don’t remember how long it took to finally get pain medication, but it felt like forever. When I was pregnant, everyone told me that labor pain would turn me into a monster but I never really felt that way when I delivered Emerson. Maybe because I had nine months to prepare and knew a baby was coming. But this attack was not going to give me a cute, squishy baby. I think at some point I begged the nurse for pain medication. After that, it’s really blurry. I think I slept, but I have groggy memories of an ultrasound and a cat scan.

Guess what they found. Hint: it was gallstones. Maybe Google and WebMD know what they’re talking about sometimes.

It is now the end of November. I have been to a gastroenterologist, had an endoscopy that checked my upper digestive system for any other issues (I also have esophagitis and acid reflux, which could explain feeling tender on my left side), and referred to a surgeon. I’ve been spending time every day pumping and storing breastmilk in my freezer in preparation to have my gallbladder taken out on December 1st. I’ve also had another middle-of-the-night attack since the last ER visit, but thankfully they sent me home with a strong prescription (probably because they’re sick of me coming in bitching about gallstones and pain medication and telling everyone 8 million times that I breastfeed).

I’m now pretty much scared to eat. The attacks can happen at any time but are more likely after a large or fatty or spicy meal. I haven’t really found a particular pattern that triggers one for me so I’ve cut out caffeine, alcohol, dairy, fried foods, fatty foods, and spicy foods. I’m also trying to eat smaller, more frequent meals that are easier for my stomach to digest.

I already mentioned that quick weight loss is a risk factor for an attack, but when you’re scared to eat everything and threatened with the worst pain of your life if you cheat on your diet, you’re going to lose weight. I didn’t weigh myself after birth until I went to my OBGYN at three weeks postpartum, so I don’t really know my initial weight loss. But since then I’ve lost about 50 pounds, 20 of which has been in the last couple of months. Everyone assumes that weight loss = healthy. And even though, yes, I needed to lose the weight, this is not how I’d choose to do it. If I didn’t have issues with food and anxiety before, I definitely have them now. Everyone keeps telling me how great I look and I want to say, “Thanks, but I’m f*cking miserable!” but I’m trying not to come across that crazy so I bite my tongue.

I’m not really sure what the takeaway from this post is, other than to explain what’s been going on with me and why I’ve lost so much weight. I always strive to be honest here and on my social media and I don’t want to contribute to the idea that women need to pop out babies and shed those pounds immediately. I don’t want anyone to compare their real life to my highlight reel on Instagram (because I know I catch myself doing that and have to actively remind myself how I may come across on social media). I didn’t get to join in on everyone’s Thanksgiving feasts this year. All I want in the world is the ability to eat a cookie on Christmas and not be scared that I’ll be in pain later. I also haven’t heard many women talk about gallbladder problems postpartum even though my surgeon tells me it’s extremely common, so if I can help one person be more aware then I’ve done my job.

I promise to update you all on my surgery. It should be a quick outpatient procedure and I’ll be home recovering for a few days. My biggest fears revolve around Emerson. My surgeon advised me not to breastfeed that day (which is why I’m saving up as much milk as possible) and I can’t lift him for a few days either. He’s been experiencing some major separation anxiety lately, so I’m not sure how he’s going to take that. Wish me luck! And if you’ve ever had gallbladder problems or any weird postpartum symptoms, I’d love to hear from you. Comment below!