My lowest point of 2020 was lying on a hospital bed in the emergency room hallway terrified I’d never see my three-week old daughter again. But I also knew I was lucky to have listened to my body’s warning signs, all thanks to a single comic book.
For most of my life, I didn’t know if I wanted to have kids. They seemed like a lot of work and sacrifice. As I got older, the prospect of having children was more daunting. First, there were lifestyle changes just for being pregnant. Nine months of no alcohol and no raw sushi? No, thank you. Then, there were the changes after birth. Freely traveling, going to art shows and theatre would be curtailed.
But there were health considerations as well. In 2016, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a form of inflammatory bowel disease. While talking to my gynecologist about pregnancy, she mentioned that there was a one-in-three chance that my Crohn’s could get worse in addition to morning sickness, back pain, and all the other indignities of pregnancy.
Then there was preeclampsia. I had never heard of it until I happened to be reading Chicago-based cartoonist Lucy Knisley’s graphic memoir Kid Gloves: Nine Months of Careful Chaos (2019). Knisley is one of my favorite cartoonists; her book Relish, a series of short non-fiction stories about food and memory, remains one of my favorites. As a result, I read anything she wrote. When I finished Kid Gloves late one weekday night, I found myself sobbing. The book was filled with Knisley’s honesty and humor about being pregnant, but the ending was quite unexpected. After a challenging delivery, she ended up back in the hospital in a coma due to undiagnosed preeclampsia, a dangerous condition that pregnant people may develop. Symptoms vary from high blood pressure, proteins in the urine, and more. Untreated people can have seizures, damage to internal organs and more; it can cause death in the parent and the unborn child.
Reading her experiences freaked me out. I knew historically childbirth was very dangerous and that there were still many risks, but here was a story of someone who was like me who nearly died from pregnancy.
But the jury was still out on whether I wanted kids and still have the lifestyle I was accustomed to. I knew that all these health issues were risks, not certainties. I knew a lot of fierce smart women who had children and loved it. Colleagues, National Geographic explorers, and other capable women had children and fascinating careers.
After a lot of soul-searching, my husband and I decided to try to have kids. I became pregnant almost immediately. When we went to our first obstetrician appointment, we were both surprised to discover I was already three months pregnant. No morning sickness! Unfortunately, it happened to be the day that the World Health Organization (WHO) announced COVID-19 as a pandemic.
We played it safe and stayed home, fortunately our jobs permitted it, but the axe fell at the beginning of the third trimester. Gestational diabetes. Now I had to check my blood sugar four times a day, and eventually take insulin once a day. I was going to the doctor’s office once a week to make sure the baby was okay, but I also knew that the diabetes put me at higher risk for preeclampsia. Were my swollen hands a normal pregnancy or something more sinister?
Towards the end of the pregnancy, my concern about preeclampsia grew. I knew that I had to be an advocate for myself; Knisley wrote about how her doctor had dismissed her concerns and it nearly killed her. When my doctor mentioned that they found protein in my urine, I told her about Kid Gloves and my fears. She said that Knisley’s experience was extremely rare. Most people took some blood pressure medication and were okay. It was somewhat reassuring but I was still nervous.
Thankfully, childbirth was not as terrible as I feared and I brought a healthy and lovely girl into the world.
Two and a half weeks after childbirth, I noticed that the swelling in my hands had continued. Doctors told me it should have gone away with birth, along with gestational diabetes. Remembering Knisley’s own symptoms, I made a call and got a doctor’s appointment. At the visit, my blood pressure was concerning but not dangerously high. I was advised to take it several times a day and call the doctor’s if it went over 140/100.
Three days later, my blood pressure clocked in at well over 160. At the doctor’s advice, we rushed to the emergency room where I was immediately admitted. It was the last place I wanted to be in the middle of a pandemic and away from my baby, but they quickly diagnosed me with preeclampsia. My treatment would be more involved than just some blood pressure medication. I was going to have a magnesium treatment that would require me to stay in bed for a full 24-hours to prevent seizures or worse. It meant that I would not get to see my newborn child for at least two days. My husband was responsible for caring for her and the dog by himself, on top of the pandemic (with some babysitting help from my best friend Christina so he could visit me in the hospital).
The treatment worked and I was released home to my baby and husband with a prescription for blood pressure medication. After about two weeks, I was off the meds and back to my (new) normal life.
I credit it to Kid Gloves. The book informed me of a real serious medical condition that pregnant people can experience. Knisley let me know about the symptoms to watch out for. Her story also told me that I would have to be my own advocate for my health. Without her book, I don’t know I would have known what to look for, muchless known when I needed to seek medical attention.
Thanks to Kid Gloves, I’m here to tell this tale.