I awoke in a fog to the rhythmic sound of the breathing tube still lodged down my throat. I was surprised at how anti-climatic it all felt. There I was, lying again in the same ICU room attached to what appeared to be all of the same machines and equipment. Having only a slight awareness that it was late into the evening, I began trying to sort through the sequence of events. My mind was hard at work grasping for the few details I could recall. Briella. Her name came to me first. Yes, I reminded myself, I now had a set of four little women. My family was complete. But how can she be okay if I am here connected to all of these tubes? Panic began to set in as I wondered where everyone was…where my baby girl was. Wait, I thought, am I really here? I’m assuming I survived whatever the heck just happened…otherwise, why would I be in this sterile, cold, loud ICU room void of any sense of nurture or comfort?
The panic did not sit well in my stomach and the questions brought forth attention to the pounding in my head. I was only awake for a matter of seconds before every last bit of substance from my stomach began hurling itself up and out of my poor beat up body as if it was expressing it’s bitter grief for all it had endured in less than 24 hours. Bile filled my throat and mouth and began to rob me of the air my lungs weren’t strong enough to reach for anyway. My poor mother, who unbeknownst to me, had nodded off after one of the longest days of her life only to be awakened by the stench of my vomit and the sound of my desperate pleas for air. I was helpless lying there, restrained and at the mercy of those willing to care for me in those moments. The irony still causes me to take pause. Like an infant entering into the harsh circumstances of life outside the womb, I too was tended to with a maternal love that can only be described as ferocious. My mother’s care as she helped clear the vomit from my mouth and call out for assistance assured me that I was very much alive. I must have fought hard to be here. Of course I fought hard to be here.
My mother tended to my needs throughout the remainder of that awful night as my body continued to be repulsed by the cocktail of narcotics, fluids, transfused blood and anesthesia it had been forced to receive during both the c-section and hysterectomy as well as the emergency surgery to address the hemorrhaging. All the while, Brian was mothering our new baby girl in his own room on the Mom-Baby floor of the hospital. He held her all night long mutually offering and deriving comfort in an effort to tend to the emotional trauma they’d both endured. It was one heck of a dark night of the soul for all involved, but the dawn finally appeared and with it came a new hope that the storm might actually be over.
They were able to remove me from all of the life-saving machines by midmorning and transferred me to a new room to recover and reconnect with that little human that needed her mama, her home, her person. And what a glorious reunion it was. Briella was accompanied by her big sisters and the man they are lucky enough to call their father and I am honored to call my partner in this wild life. Faith, our then 12 year old, was the first to speak, “Mommy, you look so much better!” The relief in her eyes revealed that these spoken words were more characteristic of a sigh of relief than words of affirmation for my own encouragement.
That day was filled with doctors filing in and out of my room attempting to construct the narrative of exactly what had happened in both of my operations. In the initial cesarean section, the doctor discovered early on that not only was it apparent that I had the condition everyone had warned me about (called Placenta Accreta) where the placenta attaches to deeply to the uterine wall, but that the presentation of this condition was in it’s worst form. The life source for Briella while in utero was actually jeopardizing both of our lives all along as it’s blood vessels had grown through my uterine wall and out into my abdominal cavity adhering slightly to my bladder as well. Had any of those blood vessels ruptured throughout my pregnancy both Briella and I would have been in grave risk of fatality. It was this condition that necessitated an emergency hysterectomy once Briella was removed from my body. There was an injury to my bladder during the removal of the uterus that required initial reparations from a urologist and because of the presence of a benign tumor, my right ovary was removed as well. As a result, the blood loss I experienced put my life on the line as the surgeons and anesthesiologists worked tirelessly to transfuse enough blood product to stabilize the borderline DIC condition of my body. After six hours, everyone that mattered believed I was stable enough to be sent to the ICU for monitoring.
It was only a few short hours later that they discovered I was hemorrhaging. With an estimated two liters of blood in my vaginal canal the doctors believed that their only option was to conduct an exploratory abdominal surgery to sort out where the bleeding was coming from. Though they were never able to confirm the source of the bleeding, they inspected and re-sutured organs that had been impacted most by the previous surgery. They also transfused even more blood product which likely provided the balance of blood and platelets still needed for my body to stabilize. At that point, everyone collectively exhaled a sigh of relief as it appeared all would be well. Once all of the doctors were finished explaining the outcome of my surgeries, I was left with a catheter that I would have in for two weeks as my bladder continued to heal. It was difficult for my mind to rest comfortably in the hope that all of this trauma was behind us, though the doctors all agreed I was now on a relatively short road to recovery.
The glimmer of hope that the doctors had dangled before us was snuffed out before we could ever grab hold of it. Later that first night out of the ICU, I heard those infamous words once again, “Don’t worry too much…” a nurse responded after I communicated that I was experiencing lower back pain on my left side. Yet again, those words did not provide the comfort they were likely spoken to deliver. Instead, my mind fell easily into the trap that trauma creates. What if something else is wrong? How can my body possibly endure another surgery? What if coming this far was just so I could have a day to tell everyone how much I love them…but now that I’ve been afforded that luxury, perhaps it really is my time to go. These were the thoughts flooding my mind. I was drowning and a voice of reason or a reassuring statement were not an adequate life preserver.
My fears weren’t silenced by sleep that night. Instead, I repeatedly woke up feeling like fluid was escaping every pour of my body. At one point, I sat straight up in bed (a painful thing to do after undergoing two abdominal surgeries) and woke Brian to check and see why my back was drenched with some kind of fluid. He was confused as he felt my hospital gown and realized it was dry. It is a strange thing for a therapist who has studied the impact of trauma to observe oneself experiencing symptoms of PTSD. I oscillated between the triggered panic and a reflective awareness that sounded a bit like, “Ahhh…so your brain is in a state of hypervigilance and hyperarrousal, Shauna. Don’t worry too much…it’s just your brain.”
By morning, though, the pain in my lower back had not dissipated or decreased. In fact, over the course of the next four days the pain went from bad to worse. The first couple of days, nurses and doctors alike presumed that the pain was from the excess fluid my body had retained after the two surgeries. One nurse even suggested that it could be gas. Looking back on those conversations now can at times send me into a conversation with my inner critic:
Why didn’t you trust your internal voice, Shauna? Why was it so hard for you to listen to your body and all the ways it was still trying to tell you that it was not okay? When did the voices of strangers, medical professionals though they were, become more important and more trustworthy than you own?
But even now as shame tries to weave its way through every step of those questions, I know the answers already and can always find my way back to grace. I learned early on, like many other victims of abuse, to disconnect from what my body was feeling. So much of my journey has been about finding my way back to wholeness, and I have made such significant strides in that direction, but there are wounds that may need tending to for many years to come.
On the third day of experiencing excruciating pain while on morphine, I met my limit of tolerance. I remember thinking at the time that the pain in my back was far worse than any labor experience, which would explain why mentally I went to a different land entirely. I hope to never have to re-enter that territory for the rest of my life. It was a desolate land where hope was non-existent, where the desire to live had no place to call home in my being any longer. Whatever survival instinct I had tapped into the few days prior had abandoned me in that place. I just wanted the pain to end.
Once again, it was my own mother who came to my rescue. She trusted the pain in my body more than I had been able to and she became the bullhorn I desperately needed her to be.
“SOMETHING IS WRONG. FIGURE IT OUT NOW!” She demanded and they finally ran enough tests to determine that during my second surgery, the surgeon had somehow obstructed both of my ureters. Your ureters are tiny little straw-like organs that connect your kidneys to your bladder. They are a very necessary part of our drainage system. So for days upon days, urine was backing up in both of my kidneys, but most significantly in my left kidney. MY POOR KIDNEYS WERE LITERALLY DROWNING IN URINE. Had it been another couple of days before the identified the injury, I would have likely lost at least my left one.
What we had been told previously would have been a relatively short road to recovery became a 5 month ordeal filled with what I not-so-fondly referred to as “pee bags,” multiple tubes inside and outside my body, a ridiculous number of trips to and from various doctors offices, on-going infections leading to on-going bouts with Thrush, and nearly a dozen invasive procedures ALL involving my lady parts. It was one of the most vulnerable, life-altering, perspective-shifting seasons of my entire life. It is not something I can tie a pretty little bow on…and thank GOD, because bows are overrated and overused. But what I can tell you is that this story, like any story, is connected to the grander narrative of my life- a life of trauma and healing, a life of desire and loss, a life of grief and glory. It’s messy. And I like it that way…because I’m really good at sifting through the mess.
Thank you for entering into this ridiculously long and drawn out story. Though I have gifted all of you with the major details in this four-part series, there is plenty more I have to say about the meaning(s) I’ve discovered along the way.
*Our first night home from the hospital. After going over a week without eating food, I was under strict orders from the doctor to drink lots of milkshakes!