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Conditions that threaten women’s lives in childbirth & pregnancy

Women's emergency experience

We spoke to women who had experienced different life threatening conditions during childbirth. These are sometimes known as ‘near misses’ and are described in ‘What is a life threatening condition in pregnancy’. These illnesses are rare, affecting less than one woman in every hundred giving birth* and can be caused by several conditions (e.g. placental disorders, blood pressure, heavy bleeding / haemorrhage, thrombosis- the formation of a blood clot inside a blood vessel, septicaemia - blood poisoning). These different conditions mean women’s experiences of their emergencies were very varied. But what they all had in common was a life threatening traumatic birth they had not expected. Reading and hearing some of these experiences can be distressing.
 
Women may need to be in hospital for days or weeks being monitored closely before their baby is born. This may be so doctors and midwives can monitor their high blood pressure (which can be an indication of pre-eclampsia or HELLP syndrome). Sometimes women needed to stay in hospital because of a condition called placenta praevia (where the placenta is in the wrong position and blocking the birth canal), which can have a high risk of haemorrhage.
 

When she was 26 weeks pregnant, Alex started bleeding. Scans showed she had placenta praevia and...

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Age at interview: 37
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 36
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I don’t know how much of that’s just coincidence or your sub conscious but I’d done all of that, and then I was 26 weeks 26 + 2 I was, on that Saturday and my husband had gone to Spain on a stag weekend [laughs] and I was walking my daughter in the buggy in town coming up that big hill you came up today [laughs] and I could feel blood running down my leg. 
 
And so I got… oh and [first daughter] said to me, “Mummy why are walking so fast? And why are you crying?” And I was like, “No, I’m fine, I’m fine. Mummy’s just a bit scared.” “Why are you scared.” And then she sort of followed me into the bathroom and I was like, “No, no, no. Mummy needs to go on her own.” And so I called the hospital, and they said, you know, to come in now. So I had to try… I couldn’t get hold of anyone. My husband was away and your mind goes a bit blank. 
 
So I thought I’ll ring my Mother-in-law and she was in London which was, you know, instead of ringing friends locally. I couldn’t get hold of her, I couldn’t hold of my Father-in-law. Couldn’t get hold of my brother-in-law and ended up leaving [first daughter] with a neighbour across the road and just driving myself to hospital and then the hospital called me on the way and said, you know, “Are you on your way?” I said, “Yes, I’m just trying to find money for the parking meter.” And they said, “Well can’t the driver sort that out? You need to come up here.” And I was like, “Well no, I drove myself in” [laughs]. “You should have got an ambulance.” “Oh well you didn’t tell me that” [laughs]. 
 
And by which time, I managed to get hold of my Mother-in-law, so she arranged to come down to be with me. My Father-in-law came back to pick up [first daughter] and take her back to London with him. And sort of went into hospital. They strapped up to all the monitors, the midwife said, “You know, calm down, your heart rate’s nearly as fast as your baby’s” [laughs]. And so they checked the extent of the bleeding and all the rest of it, and then sent me down for a scan. And then diagnosed it as a grade four, placenta praevia then. 
 
Sent the paediatrician in, and I, even then, had absolutely no comprehension at that time that the baby might come that day, and so, “What are you…” And by that time, my Mother-in-law thankfully got there, so there was someone with me. I still hadn’t even got hold of my husband at that point.
 
So he got back in the wee hours of the morning and got home just in time to see the consultant the next day, who was absolutely brilliant at explaining things. He was, both times, he came in much later in the piece because my consultant was off sick when the decision was made to do the procedure and explained everything again and his explanations were brilliant. 
 
And I mean, so he came in, I got transferred to a private room and that was sort of it. They said, “Make yourself at home. Why don’t you bring your own duvet in?” So we you know, started putting pic…, you know, my daughter’s drawings on the wall, and I had my own pillows and duvets and trying to, to make it as homely as you could. And then it was just sort of getting through it.
 
And then I didn’t have any more bleeding for another four weeks, so you sort of start thinking oh this is a bit of a, a bit melodramatic and a bit of a joke and I think, you know, when I got too complacent, then they began to sort of say, you know, you mustn’t do this, you must do this. And I think the words that stuck in m
 
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Sarah had placenta praevia and had to spend the last few weeks of her pregnancy in hospital. She...

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Age at interview: 29
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 24
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I sort of subsequently found out that from that that, I wouldn’t be going home until the baby was born. I was given two lots of steroid injections, on that day, the day I was admitted into hospital to strengthen the baby’s lungs, just in case they had to deliver early. At the time I must have been… 32 weeks pregnant I think I was. And so, they said… so I had the injections then we were shown round NICU unit to show where the baby would be coming if she was born early.
 
And then literally I was just on bed rest then, until… it’s a hard, it is a hard, hard few weeks. I was in… I didn’t have her delivered… the date planned for delivery was the 23rd January, but between the 9th December and the 23rd January, it was a long time. It had massive implications for us a family, because my husband couldn’t work. We had two little girls at home that were only, well [eldest daughter] yes, she was under three. She would have been three at the Christmas. [Second daughter] was only seventeen, eighteen, seventeen eighteen months old. 
 
And there literally my husband doing everything. Financially even from a small point of view, like how much the telly costs you per day in the hospital, and parking, and you know, it’s all those kind of things was just you know, sort of really, really built up, and then… 
 
It was really difficult because I felt really ill. I was very anaemic, because I’d had these bleeds and then I literally would do nothing, and then suddenly I’d have a bleed. They’d then take me down to the delivery suite. I was then given like IV lines and things. I’d then have to go and sit on delivery until the bleed either progressed or stopped. So if the bleed progressed more than they’d take me down for emergency section. If the bleed stopped then, stopped for five hours, then I could go back up on the ward. That just went on and off, on and off, like the whole time, until I finally had her.
 
So every two days or…?
 
Yes, literally every couple of days, I would literally I’d literally. It was literally every couple of days I’d have a bleed and then a small bleed, sometimes larger bleeds, and then it would literally stop again, and then I’d be allowed back up. So it was as well as up and down, I’d had so many cannulas put in because every time I had a bleed, I had to have one of the large, like operation cannulas. Just in case, because they need to keep the vein open, so you can’t have like the small ones. So I had that, and luckily our house was literally just round from the hospital. 
 
And sort of like a couple of weeks had gone on. And I was like, I would say to them like, “Oh I haven’t had a bleed now, for like eight hours. Can I pop home for two hours and then come back?” And they would let me do that, but I… its only because I could almost see our house from the hospital. Ordinarily they wouldn’t have been able to do that, but when I had like two other little, little girls at home as well. And it had really, really, you know, tough on them, because I was a stay at home Mum. I never worked while they were little. So my husband went out to work and I stayed at home. So they’d never ever spent any time away from me at all. So it was really, really tough. 
 
You were in hospital for six, seven weeks?
 
In total, in total from start to finish, I was in hospital for two months. I went in on the 9th December and I was discharged on the 8th February. So yes, so the actual… I mean I did, nobody seemed to really know a lot about what was going to happen and for me th
After being closely monitored, a worsening in their or their baby’s condition can lead to a sudden need for women to have their baby delivered. Sometimes women become seriously ill very quickly. Helen was monitored for a few days before she was admitted to hospital, where doctors diagnosed HELLP syndrome (a combined liver and blood clotting disorder).
 

Helen developed HELLP syndrome and her son was delivered early by caesarean. She and her partner...

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Age at interview: 31
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 31
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And then we just, the rest of that day, I think, we were just completely shell shocked. We just had a parade of, you know, anaesthetists, neonatal specialists, just every single specialist coming in and giving us information that I’m sure didn’t sink it at the time at all, and we just, you know, we were flabbergasted by all these people coming in and out and everything that was going on and all of the rest of it, and it’s really funny actually. 
 
I look at, we have photos from that day, and like one of the anaesthetists came in and he, [husband] was all dressed up in the blues to go into surgery, and like there’s this photo of us and we’re both smiling about this day, and I just look back at it now, and think how were we smiling? [Laughs]. And we’re just, I think we were just shell shocked. We just had no idea of what had hit us, you know, it was so far from what we’d anticipated for the birth of our child. It was just bizarre.
 
So yes, we had all that, and it took a lot longer than what they thought. They sort of wanted me in surgery as quickly as possible, but basically my platelets were very low and they wanted to know just how low, before they took me into surgery. They’d already pretty well decided that they had to do a general anaesthetic rather than an epidural because of the low platelets, but they wanted to know exactly how low before they went in and basically the lab lost the result, so they had to redo it. So it all dragged on until the afternoon, basically.
 
So yes, and then, and everything was fine. I mean everyone was pretty relaxed. [Son] was being monitored and stuff and at one stage I think his heart rate had just started to slow and we could tell that they were starting to get a bit panicky that these results hadn’t come back, and anyway, they eventually decided to just go ahead anyway, I think. And so, we went into the theatre, which again we were just surrounded by people and, and all the rest of it. And so then, yes, then they knocked me out and did it, and which was weird. Those drugs are so powerful I never felt any… I felt it was just bizarre. I was saying some… I can remember some of the things I was saying. They were strange and I was just off my trolley, but anyway [laughs].
 
And I can remember coming round and we were in high dependency by then, and I can remember waking up and [son] was in my left arm. I can remember holding him. [Husband] said I was off my trolley and just completely woozy, but I do have a memory of him being in my arms, which is a really nice thing to have, and then I’ve got no memory of kind of the rest of that day, and the next few days are really, really hazy because I had to stay in the high dependency unit, because I had to have some very strong drug I think to get my blood pressure back down, so I couldn’t go and see [son] for about two days. And I was just in this high dependency bed. 
 
 

Doctors were monitoring Julie’s blood pressure and tried to induce her labour. She describes...

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Age at interview: 34
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 32
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Yes, on the Sunday night. So I still felt exceptionally unwell with this severe headache and visual disturbances. And of course my blood pressure just kept going up and up and up. They put me on fluid restriction and obviously every time I went to the loo I had do it in a pot so they could monitor what was coming in and out. I was strapped to the bed strapped to the bed with the monitoring equipment on. So I couldn’t really, it was quite how I thought it never would, because I was hoping for a natural water birth. I thought, I thought it was just going to all beautiful and lovely.
 
So I had all the monitoring on. Wasn’t allowed to go anywhere unless it was to the toilet so I really, you see I wasn’t allowed to eat or anything, just 100 mls of water an hour that was it, that was all I was allowed.
 
So I got induced probably about 9 o’clockish - 10. Between 9-10. And then probably at about half past eleven at night I just thought phew I have a really bad back ache. Really horrendous back ache. So I thought, I got out of bed, I’ve got to get out of bed, because it was… I felt like someone had just kicked my spine round the back. It was horrendous. So I sort of got up and sat on the birthing ball that they’d eh, left for me. 
 
I sat on that and then all I could feel, it was just contraction after contraction after contraction. They were literally there. I’d gone from absolutely nothing to full on contractions within probably an hour and a half.
 
So they came and examined me again and gave me some gas and air because it was just, well the pain, well I’ve never felt anything like that before. Obviously I was still monitoring and everything, but I hadn’t progressed. I think I’d gone like 1 cm and nothing was happening. So they were like, “Right, well we’ve got a long way to go. But obviously see how you go. Just try and relax. Try and have some sleep.” But it was getting, the contractions were coming faster and faster and faster. And obviously as that was building up, so was my blood pressure. It was getting higher and higher and higher. And I just felt like I were on a different planet.
 
I’m still getting little sketches bits of information coming back to me, because I was just so out of it and they gave me some Labetalol I think it was called to bring my blood pressure down. Which, it did work, it brought it down, but by then, I think I’d sort of gone to a different level. I mean all I kept saying is, “I want to go to sleep.” Because I felt that poorly I just wanted to go to sleep. And they were all like, “No come on, you’re all right. You know, we want to get this baby out.” And then they tried to come and cannulate because they obviously knew something was, something was kicking off but they didn’t say anything to me, they were just very calm, and very relaxed, saying, “You know, we’re monitoring you.” Because I knew my blood pressure wasn’t right. But at that point everything else. Yes, we weren’t progressing ready to deliver, but we were, knew everything was, you know, baby was okay.
 
They tried to come and cannulate me but at that point I started to shut down, so they couldn’t get anything in me. So I ended up with probably, well my arms were black and blue, because they really tried bless them. I felt quite guilty because there was just nothing, they couldn’t go anywhere.
 
Then they still kept monitoring my blood pressure and baby. But my blood pressure started to come back up again even though I’d had Labetalol it was still, it was, you know, obviously I just needed to have the baby there and then. 
 
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Samantha had an emergency caesarean because she had developed pre-eclampsia and very high blood...

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Age at interview: 32
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 31
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So we had an emergency caesarean. From, I think from the time of the really high blood pressure reading until my daughter being delivered was probably about two hours. But that was only because they very kindly waited for my husband. It was getting to a stage where they were, unfortunately he got stuck in traffic, but it was getting to a stage where they were going to have to just go ahead and do it. But luckily he arrived just in time, and he arrived, they threw some scrubs at him, and we literally went straight into theatre, with all the usual sort of paraphernalia that happens with a Caesarean. In the time that we were waiting for my husband to arrive we obviously had a, the anaesthetist come and talk to me. 
 
And what about you and your health over that weekend. Did you feel, I mean you described sort of being in denial almost, but were you frightened? Were you concerned?
 
No, I, even when I had these, the really bad spikes in blood pressure, you know, because, because the, any time it happened my consultant was here straight away, saying, this is, blah, blah, blah, blah. “This is what we’re going to do.” I don’t, I never felt scared at all. The only time I felt really scared was when sorry, even at the stage, sorry I’m rambling a bit. Even at the stage where my consultant said to me, “We’re going to have to deliver the baby.” I didn’t feel scared then. I felt really scared when the anaesthetist came to speak to me. Because obviously they have to say everything like, you know, “We’re going to be putting this in your back and blah, blah, blah, blah. And there’s a one in five thousand chance that this could happen, and that could happen and that sort of thing.” And all of a sudden you’re having lots of forms shoved at you to sign, and you know, because it was an emergency situation it was all happening quite quickly, and that’s when I got quite scared and actually when they wheeled me down to theatre and I was sitting on the edge of the bed when they were getting ready to put all the things into my back, I was, I was physically shaking, and I’ve never felt like that before. I was physically shaking. I was crying. And I think I was scared, but then I thought to myself, well if I don’t calm down, they’re not going to be able to put in the epidural and spinal block and all those sorts of things, and that actually made me worse. But then even in theatre when I don’t think I felt it at the time, but when I look back on it now, everything was such a well-oiled machine. You know, no one was in there that didn’t need to be in there. Everyone that needed to be in there, came in there at the time they needed to be there, they weren’t just hanging around and they obviously do so many of them, but it was, when I look back on it, it was, yes, it was so well organised. But it was just incredibly scary, because I’ve, I’ve never spent any time in hospital, never had an operation, and I remember saying to my husband, “Am I going to be okay?” And he bless him was trying to, at his best to just be sort of jolly and make it feel a lot less scary than it was actually was.
 
But I think, yes, I think it was when things started to happen very quickly. While things were sort of, you know, going along quite slowly, I was quite happy, but when it all started happening very quickly. Lots of people coming in and talking to me, lots of things to be signed. That’s when I really got scared.
 
And you were awake during the delivery were you?
 
Yes.
 
Some women develop symptoms quite suddenly at home which mean they have to rush to hospital, sometimes by ambulance. These experiences can often be very frightening, and women may not really understand what is happening until much later. If this happens several weeks before the expected birth date, women may feel emotionally unprepared for birth. At 36 weeks, Kate developed high blood pressure and severe pains in her chest and she went to her local hospital where her baby had to be delivered during the early hours of the morning by emergency caesarean. The suddenness of the birth left her feeling “just completely mind blown.” Often women we spoke to didn’t realise how seriously ill they were.
 

Kate developed pains in her side and high blood pressure. Doctors diagnosed HELLP syndrome and...

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Age at interview: 35
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 34
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And yes, I had to go and have an emergency C Section. But the consultant didn’t seem to think that it was an emergency as such. It wasn’t desperate. But I was just wondering why they weren’t helping me and taking the pain away [laughs].
 
You know, I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t mentally prepared. I certainly wasn’t emotionally prepared. Luckily I’d had some time to sort out a moses basket and some clothes and nappies, but that was what the last four weeks were for. For reading the books. For doing some research. For decorating the nursery, you know, getting it all set up. That was going to be the joyous moment of preparing. And that was all taken away from me, I suppose. Well from us.
 
But so, I went into the theatre, just completely mind blown. And then the next minute I heard a cry and the doctor said, “Well he’s fine.” And I found that I couldn’t really sit up. So they cleaned him up and then they, they put him next to me. I couldn’t really see him. I was like this. And so we were together for about fifteen, twenty minutes. This tiny little boy. I was expecting a nine pounder [laughs] and he was only five pounds. 
 
So we had a little boy and he was fine. He just needed steroids for his lungs and a feeding tube a bit later. 
 
And then it all went a bit blurry, and I didn’t know it, but I’d gone very yellow. I must have been jaundiced, and I don’t remember a lot about it from then on. I just remember lots of movement and fuss and the baby was taken away from me, and then I was in an ambulance, because I had to get transferred to the A & E… and it was very bumpy. I remember that. 
 
I didn’t really understand what was happening. And then I was in Intensive Care for two days. Obviously kept on drugs , with my catheter [laughs] and I had wires in my arms and my legs, because they ran out of space in my wrists. So they had to go through my legs. They took my blood pressure every fifteen minutes. It was just being monitored. I just remember hearing the beeps of the machines constantly. 
 
Yes, so that was that for two days. But I was better than some people. I mean the woman next to me was in a coma, so, [laughs] she wasn’t much fun. And then I was transferred to high dependency and I was allowed my partner to visit and a friend. Sorry can I have a tissue? I’ll get some kitchen towel. I should have been armed with a tissue shouldn’t I?
 
 

Jo started bleeding at home, an early sign that her placenta was breaking away from her womb. The...

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Age at interview: 34
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 30
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So I went and I said to [husband]… you know, “I’m bleeding.” And he said, “Oh shall I ring the labour ward then?” So he rang the labour ward, and the midwife said, “Oh well, just make your way in, but if it gets worse phone an ambulance.” And by this stage I’d never heard of placental abruption. I didn’t even know what a heavy blood loss in late pregnancy would be an indication of. I had no idea.
 
So as [husband] sort of went back to go, well he had to go back to get his wallet together and phone and stuff to drive me into the hospital, I said, “Ooh actually I think I’m bleeding a bit heavier. Could you phone an ambulance?” And although I am prone to a little bit of neurosis. It would be very unlike me to say, “Phone an ambulance.” Because I would normally, “oh no, I don’t want to trouble anyone. I’ll make my way in”.
 
But, so anyway, they turned up about fifteen minutes later, took me downstairs to the lounge where they did a sort of very quick examination and said, “I think we’ll, we’ll take you in.” I still had no idea that what was going on was so serious. Even though I was in considerable pain, by this, by this stage, it was agonising, continuous pain. And so I lay in the back of the ambulance and I remember the paramedic, she kept saying to me. “Do you feel like you’re in labour?” “I don’t know. I’ve never been in labour before. I haven’t got a clue.” “Do you feel like you want to push?” And I said, I was clear that no I really, do not want to push, and it was. I’m still amazed even now. I think it must be an instinct or something that I knew that pushing would be a very bad thing to do. But I knew that panicking would be a very bad thing to do. And ordinarily, I quite like a bit of a panic, but I just, I just knew that I had, I just had to stay calm.
 
The ambulance seemed to take forever to get to the hospital, because they got lost coming out of the village. So we trundled along and eventually got there and everything was still quite calm in the ambulance, the paramedics hadn’t put their siren on or the lights on. So I just thought oh this is just a routine journey.
 
Anyway as we pulled into the entrance of the hospital, I obviously passed a massive blood clot at that stage and then the ramp got stuck on the back of the ambulance. They couldn’t get me out very quickly. But even so I was just sort of lying there thinking, okay, something, something is happening here. And as soon as, the minute that they got the ambulance door to work, as soon as the wheels on the trolley hit the ground, then there was sirens and an awful lot of people, and running down the corridor. Like, well it was like something off Casualty really, and I heard someone shout, ‘Crash team’.
 
It sounds quite dramatic [laughs]. At the time I was thinking crikey, crash team. Whose dying? Is it me? Am I dying? I don’t feel that bad. I mean I’m in quite a lot of pain, but I don’t think I’m about to die. You know, is the baby okay?
 
And, and then they cut my clothes off. I remember getting hold of my crocs and throwing them across the room. And waving a consent form in front of my face, saying you know, “Do you consent to you…” Well I don’t even remember what the consent form was for, but, and they put the Doppler on my on my tummy which was, I’m so glad they did that, because then they made a point of really saying to me, “You can hear that can’t you? You can hear him can’t you?” I was like, “Yes.”
 
And the next thing I was be
Sometimes women need to go to hospital days or weeks after the birth of their baby due to a life-threatening illness such as a blood clot in their lungs or in their leg. Cate developed a blood clot three weeks after her daughter was born, while Sophie experienced a haemorrhage several weeks after she had given birth. Sepsis or septicaemia (blood poisoning) is another reason why women may need to go back to hospital as an emergency.
 

Anna developed septicaemia (blood poisoning) very rapidly after birth. She was rushed to hospital...

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Age at interview: 22
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 21
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But like my mother-in-law ended up coming up as well, up the stairs to find out what was wrong. And she was like, “No I think we just need to ring somebody now, because this isn’t normal.” And my stomach was hurting and my chest was like, it was really tight. And they ended up calling the delivery, you know, the midwives, the ward at the hospital. But they said, “Do you think it’s serious enough to call an ambulance?” And I was like, “Yes.” At this point I was like I just need somebody to help me.
 
So the ambulance, so the rapid response team came out first, basically assessed everything, but when my boyfriend phoned for the ambulance they literally said to him, get any dogs or anything out of the way, any pets, anything out of way, make sure the runway is clear, and he didn’t even have time to put the dogs out in the back garden before they were here. And then, that was the rapid response team. 
 
And then two minutes after that the main ambulance came. Basically put stuff in me and put oxygen on, and then I ended up being taken to hospital.
 
It’s all very varied when I get to hospital. Like I can remember things being done, but I can’t remember the order they were done in. So I know as soon as I walked in it was literally like something out of casualty. There was nurses, doctors, everything. I was like this and they were just taking blood. Taking blood, and I had people testing everything. I was literally just covered in people. And I just laid there and let them do it. I was just thinking you know, I wasn’t really thinking anything. 
 
So then once they’d all finished I was, I was able to talk, you know, I wasn’t like, I was just disorientated and I was saying you know, “What do they think is wrong with me?” And at this point they thought it was a clot on my lung. So I was given morphine and they couldn’t decide between whether it was my chest or my tummy. They couldn’t decide what, you know, whether it was a clot on my lung or whether it was something not quite right with my stomach. 
 
So they were choosing between the gynae team or the surgeons. I think it was at the time. So I ended up having a MRI, a CT scan, the one with the doughnut, like the big…

It was a CT scan?
 
Yes. CT scan of my whole body. Sort of to look at both and then I ended up having another one later on, um, just of my stomach. I had swabs done of you know, of up there. I had x-rays. I had ultra sound and none of them were really saying anything apart from the swab. I ended up being admitted that night into Intensive Care. So that was the 22nd I was in Intensive Care. And… I can’t remember exactly when, but I’m sure, it must have been the 23rd I was diagnosed because I remember them saying, “We’re going to try and fight this off. This is what you’ve got. We’re going to try and fight it off with two of the most powerful antibiotics we’ve got.” And if, you know, I remember them saying, “If that doesn’t work, we’ll have to go on Plan B.” And I just said, “Oh what’s Plan B?” And he looked at me like, “Why are you asking that?” Because most people, I got told by a nurse afterwards that most people don’t ask about Plan B, because it’s the “bad plan”, it’s not a plan you really want to know about. But for me, I wanted to know the worst scenarios so I could prepare myself. Because I’m sat in Intensive Care I think, you know, subconsciously, I knew it was serious but my brain never actually registered it was. Not at one point was I scared for my li
Some women were not really aware of the medical emergency for much of the time, as they were not conscious or had a general anaesthetic. In these cases, the women had to piece together what had happened to them after they woke up (see Understanding what happened). Alison T had amniotic fluid embolism (AFE), a very rare complication of pregnancy in which amniotic fluid, fetal skin or other cells enter the woman’s blood stream and trigger an allergic reaction. She remembers a sudden severe pain in her head and back within minutes of being induced and being rushed to theatre and having a general anaesthetic. She woke up 4 or 5 days later in intensive care. Debbie also had only partial memory of her emergency.
 

Debbie had a uterine rupture (a tear opening the womb directly into the abdominal cavity) during...

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Age at interview: 31
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 29
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And every time they time to lean me back to do the internal examination I couldn’t breathe. It was like pressure on my diaphragm. So eventually they either, they somehow managed to lie me down. It obviously happened in a very short space of time, but it felt like a lot longer. And when she did the internal examination, she, I just remember lights put on, buzzers put on and everyone said, “Code One Caesarean. Emergency Caesarean. Everyone to theatre.” And they all rushed me out and [Husband], my husband was just sort of standing. Didn’t know what was going on.
 
So they wheeled me through and I just, I think I remember shouting at the poor woman and grabbing hold of her, “Please, Help. Help.” And I didn’t know what was going to happen. And then obviously they gave me the, the mask for the general anaesthetic. And then obviously everything’s a blur.
 
And I woke up well I think it was the same evening, I think a couple of hours after [second daughter] had been born. They didn’t say much at the time about it, they just said, “Things have been complicated.” And I assumed it was similar to [first daughter]’s. So I think it was probably the following morning that I realised the full extent of it. He said it was a complete uterine rupture, so [second daughter] was completely out-with the womb. She was bobbing about in the abdominal cavity, which is just horrific to think about really. But they’d had to resuscitate her. I think her APGAR score was zero, initially, but she picked up very quickly within a couple of minutes. So she didn’t go to special care. She was there when I woke up which was great.
 
I’d had, they said the pain I’d felt in my upper abdomen was to do with the blood from the womb gushing up and that was what the pain was, it was kind of pressing down on everything. So that explained it all. And they had to fit a drain in my tummy to take all the blood and goodness knows what else. So apart from that I was quite upbeat. Because I felt like its fine. We’re both here. That’s the main thing. We’ve survived. 
 
Rachel was concerned when she couldn’t feel her baby moving. She went into hospital and a scan showed her baby had died. This was probably because she had developed a form of temporary diabetes in pregnancy (gestational diabetes) which was not diagnosed but can threaten the life of the baby. When she was induced to give birth to the baby, she started bleeding internally and developed amniotic fluid embolism.
 

Rachel started to bleed internally as she was giving birth to her stillborn baby. She remembers...

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Age at interview: 43
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 32
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And my parents arrived and then I went into labour and the induction, the inducement material wasn’t enough so they gave me more. Which is what threw me into a tantrum, the body into a tantrum, because basically it threw too much adrenaline into the system which ruptured the main artery on the right hand side that feeds the uterus. And I started bleeding internally, but they didn’t know that at the time. So here I am trying to push the baby and they wanted to give me an epidural and I didn’t want it. And that saved my life, because had they given me epidural I wouldn’t have been able to push the baby, I would have just died from the internal haematoma. 
 
Anyway, so I was still in control and the baby, but what happened was I collapsed. I had a bit of water from around the embryo going into the blood stream. It’s called amniotic fluid embolism, and women 99% of the time die from it, because it goes into the brain.
 
So I collapsed and they sent a sample of my blood to the laboratory during the time I collapsed and the lab thought that this must be a mistake because it was from a live lady. So they thought that the sample, the, the container must have had a bit of water in it, otherwise how come this lady’s still breathing and you know.
 
So at which point, you know, they called the top surgeon, to be involved because they didn’t, they didn’t foresee that it was going to get so complex, and somehow miraculously after 30 minutes of being out of it, I got back into consciousness and pushed the baby out. And it was just, I remember, I’ll remember until I die. I held him. [Husband] got one of [son]’s old baby grows and we wrapped him up in that. He looked so much like [son]. It was bizarre and then I felt this huge gash of blood coming out and it was like, you know, when you a tap really, really to the full in the bath say. I’m dying. I said to [husband], “Help me I’m dying.” And I collapsed again.
 
And all I remember after that is that I’m being rushed on wheels somewhere, it got dark, you know, I was on the way out. But I remember that [husband] was running as well trying to cover me, because you know, in hospital they put you in this kind of gown which is quite open at the back and as they were busy rushing me into theatre, he was running with that on top, and that was the last thing I remember.
 
And then I was out for twelve days. I was in a coma in which time they did four operations and they tried to save my life, because they couldn’t find a leakage, they couldn’t find that artery that was leaking. At which time, you know, it’s a huge haematoma and it’s just a mesh of blood and…
 
What happened was that they first took, they first opened me, the first operation and looked what can be done? And tried to put gauze there to stop the leakage and so on and it didn’t stop. And the second time they opened they were getting the uterus out. And the third time, and that didn’t help either. 
 
And I lost 96% of my blood and I remember there was this nurse who told us this story later on, about how she, I mean my Mum told me this story, about how she saw this nurse standing there and sweating away try to get the blood into me, with the [bang bang bang] blood sachets, quicker than they went out.
 
So… I was the illest person in that hospital for twenty years. I got that in writing [laugh]. So I mean they were losing me. So what they did, because I was young, they decided to invest money. It cost them a lot of money. They, they flew in a helicopter from [name] another hospital, with a team of eleven people who did this extra operation. At the time it was qu
In some cases, women had an emergency caesarean and then their condition worsened.
 

During the birth of her second child, Hannah had a uterine rupture. She was taken through for an...

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Age at interview: 36
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 34
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My husband was there. They started the Section and almost immediately, there was something in the room, having had a previous Section, which was an emergency but had gone quite smoothly, knew that there was something wrong. And what had happened was when they’d opened me up, they’d sliced open my bladder. Because they didn’t… What they didn’t know was that my bladder had stuck to the previous Section scar. Which is one of the things they warn you about, actually, when they do their five second thing, before you sign the form to go into Section. So, there is a risk of bladder injury, blah blah blah. But you think oh that’s not going to happen to me, and what could you do about it anyway? To be honest, baby’s got to come out. There had been clues about this actually while I was pushing, the midwife kept asking me if I’d emptied my bladder, and I kept saying, yes, I have. And it was empty. But of course the reason why she thought I hadn’t was it was in completely the wrong place, but it hadn’t been spotted at all. 
 
And so they were all calling for a gosh, what is it, what’s a bladder specialist called?
 
A urologist?
 
Urologist yes, and baby was out by this stage, baby was absolutely fine, huge, 9 3 but fine. And they hadn’t thought it was big, they’d said it was a normal size, so that was another reason why it was all a bit…. 
 
Oh yes. They were calling for a urologist and I was in my haze of drugs and weirdness and thought they were shouting for a neurologist, and thought there was something wrong with the baby, but there wasn’t. Our baby was fine. 
 
Then started to be able to feel. This had gone on for quite a while now. I was losing a lot of blood and at this stage, other things had gone wrong. It’s while they were trying to fix that, because the bladder was fixed quite normally, well somehow my uterus was injured and it caused another rupture in my uterus and another area of bleeding as well in my uterus. It wasn’t really explained. No one really knows what happened. So it started bleeding out basically. 
 
And at that stage, because we’d been in there for quite a while, the anaesthetic wore off a bit, the epidural wore off and so I started to be able to feel things. So started shouting and the anaesthetist quickly put me under and my husband was sent out. And at that stage, of course, I didn’t know anything about it. So I was actually fine, and then it was him sitting outside for a few hours, you know, that had this nightmare of you know, sitting there with a lovely baby, but not knowing what was happening to me. 
 
And then, you know, they battled on and eventually I was okay. And I was sent up to intensive care, because I was really quite ill. And woke up in the intensive care as they were taking the breathing tube out. And woke up with various, you know, all of the lines and stuff and two catheters, internal and external and all the business you have in intensive care. Which was quite a shock, because I thought it couldn’t get any worse than the last birth. But it had [laughs].
 
Although their conditions were life-threatening, several women described a calm, confident atmosphere around them. Even though things were happening quickly, and they were scared, they felt reassured by the professionalism of medical staff.
 

Alison had a haemorrhage and hysterectomy after her son was born. She said the atmosphere in the...

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Age at interview: 32
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 30
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Really calm. Really calm, yes, yes. It was to be honest the whole time the room was, never felt any sense of panic or even, I never really got a sense that there was anything particularly wrong. So they had taken my husband and baby out. And I just, my main memory was laying there, thinking I’ve been here for quite a long time [laughs]. Is that right? Because I’d not done it before, you don’t know that that’s not right. 
 
And I do remember them talking about blood, and I think, I thought, that’s a bit strange and I remember them talking about they were talking about O negative and I do remember laying there saying, thinking, but I’m O positive. Are they going to give me the wrong blood? Oh my goodness, they’re going to give me the wrong thing. And trying to catch the attention of, of somebody who was there, saying, “Excused me, I hear people talking about O negative and actually I’m O positive.” And they said, “We know you’re O positive, its fine. You know, it’s not the thing to worry about.” But at the time, is lying flat on your back with lots of people around you, it’s a little bit, it’s a little bit scary when you think you might be given the wrong, the wrong blood. 
 
And were there a lot of people in the room?
 
Yes, but I’d been expecting, we’d done ante natal classes and had been prepared for when you have a Caesarean there can be sort of twelve people or more in the room at the time, and it didn’t feel like that there were lots more than that in the room. So I wasn’t particularly put off by the amount of people here. It was more just lots of faces and its quite a strange angle to see people from as well, laying, you’re laying down and all you can see is faces peering at you [laughs]. It’s a little bit weird. But yes. I did seem yes, it was just, it was quite calm and I was, may be because they’d given me various drugs to sort of keep me stable and that kind of thing. I guess. 
 
I did feel quite relaxed and I do have, there are certain things that really did stick in my mind. One is somebody squeezing my arm very, very tightly to try, I think to try and put a line into my arm to… obviously give me fluids or blood or something like that. And I remember thinking that’s really painful, don’t do that, but, and then at one point I felt like I was suddenly really struggling to breathe. And being quite frightened that nobody had noticed. Not, kind of really forgetting that there was somebody obviously monitoring me quite closely [laughs] right by my head. But because I couldn’t see them that was quite scary. I suddenly thought, oh my goodness, I’m going to stop breathing and no one’s going to notice. And it’s really, it’s really strange in the cold light of day and your rational mind thinks that would never have happened but at the time, you don’t, I guess you don’t think particularly rationally about those kinds of things so… 
 
But they’d spotted it and they gave me some oxygen and you know, it was fine. And then, even though I felt I had been there a long time, I didn’t really have any recollection of how long I’d been there and I do have a memory of looking at the clock and seeing it was 2 o’clock. And my son had been born at quarter to twelve and I thought, that’s a really long time. And then obviously at some point quite close to that they said, “We’re going to give you, we’re going to put you to sleep for a little while.” But I still didn’t know why. But it didn’t really concern me, I wasn’t really bothered about the fact that they were putting me to sleep. I j
 

Karen had a haemorrhage after her son was born. As doctors struggled to stop her bleeding, she...

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Age at interview: 44
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 42
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So I was in reasonable spirits you know, with the aid of drugs as well, and so we went into theatre. Everything was fine. Baby was born, [son], healthy nine and a half pounds. And then and then that’s when really it kind of started to go wrong. 
 
I was aware that things were taking longer than they should. You know, I was told that it should take about half an hour from when you go to having the baby to when they wheel you out to the maternity ward. And I was just aware that there was a lot of things going on. I wasn’t aware at the time that I was haemorrhaging. My husband kept coming in and out of theatre. And I remember a lot of activity, a lot of people in the room. I remember a sense of urgency. A lot of very serious faces and I don’t know whether it was the drugs or whether it was because I’d lost a lot of blood. I think within the first four hours I’d lost something like 5 litres of blood. So whether or not that was making me drift in and out of consciousness as well.
 
But basically from when I went in to have the C Section to the moment they decided to do the hysterectomy was four hours. But it seemed like half an hour. I was really surprised when I found out that that was about four hours. And basically that in between that time they were trying all sorts of methods to stem the bleeding, you know, doing various things to my uterus. Putting you know, uterine balloons to try and create pressure to stop the bleeding. Basically what was happening was that my uterus wouldn’t contract. I had an atonic uterus and so the way it wouldn’t contract the blood was just pouring out of… out of me.
 
So I remember, like I say, coming in and out of consciousness. And various people looking down at me, and I remember trying to cheer people up because I couldn’t understand why there was so many sad faces and so many serious faces and I wanted to try and… I thought, I kept thinking this should be a happy time. And I kept trying to cheer, cheer people up, you know, make them laugh.
 
And then I remember them saying, “We’re going to transfer you now onto a bed to take you to ICU, and thinking what’s ICU? I have no idea what ICU was? And lying there they were waiting for the phone call from ICU to say that they were ready for me, to receive me. And then I remembered the obstetrician saying, “I’m not happy.” Because I think at that point they thought they’d stopped the bleeding and I remember the obstetrician saying, “I’m not happy because the, her heart rate’s rising and the blood pressure’s dropping.” And she said, “No, I’m not happy to transfer her.”
 
So they went to put me back on the table and I remember them saying to me, “Karen we’re going to have put you back on the operating table again.” And there was a number of them trying to lift me and I remember sort of saying, counting them, going, “One, two, three.” You know, again, trying to lighten the mood. And then I remember being put back on the operating table, and one of the surgeons or whoever said that he’d have to put something in my neck. 
 
And that they were going to have to put me to sleep and I remember at that point saying, “I haven’t said goodbye to my husband.” So that was hard, because I think I did realise that it was a very serious situation. And I do remember at some point, but when I was conscious asking, looking up at somebody and asking, you know, was I going to die. So yes. It was hard.
 
Did anyone answer you?
 
No [laughs]. I think they were just concentrating on. Yes, probably at that time didn&rsqu
Some women who had a haemorrhage described doctors and midwives using internal compressions (or pressure) and massage to stop the bleeding. When they were unable to stop the bleeding they had to perform a hysterectomy to save the woman’s life. Women’s experiences of haemorrhage and hysterectomy are described further in ‘Haemorrhage – heavy uncontrolled bleeding’ and ‘Hysterectomy’.
 

Lisa had a long, difficult labour and her daughter was finally born with forceps. She was holding...

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Age at interview: 36
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 35
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Yes, I said, “I don’t feel very well.” And the obstetrician said, “Yes, we know, don’t worry.” And I said, “I really I don’t feel very well at all.” And I remember feeling really, really drunk. And then I heard muttered, “We need to get this woman to theatre.” And with that [daughter] was ripped off my chest, literally. She just went [pppppppp] and I thought, my God what’s happened. She was ripped off my breast which really hurt. And I was being pulled away on the trolley, on the gurney, bed thing. And I just remember [partner], crying and he’s an ex weight lifter, biker, hard man. To see a man you’ve never seen cry in nine years sobbing, was terrifying. And not in happiness. I looked at him, and I thought, that’s not happiness. What’s going on here. I was expecting him to cry, but he was really, really scared and he was clinging hold of my hand, saying, “Please don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me.” “I love you. I love you. I love you.” And I was going what’s the matter with him. But this is weird, he’s not like that, not like that at all. And that’s when I knew something was wrong but I didn’t know what.
 
Little did I know, he said there was a quagmire of blood round the floor. And I was torn, the worst bit of all, was I remember the bed being torn away and I was whisked down to theatre, and him gripping my hand, and I remember someone saying, “Let go.” And I just, stupidly, I remember worrying about him. Saying, “I’ll be all right [partner], I’ll be okay.” What are you crying for? Stop crying. I’ll be all right.” And he was, he wouldn’t let go of me. And [exhales] he said, “I love you. I love you, I love you, please don’t go.” And I thought. This is really odd. I don’t know what’s going on here. And I was off. And then it was straight down to theatre and there was people running down the corridor, it was crazy. I was running down on a bed down the M25 and it was really strange, and I went in theatre and oh it was just horrific it really was. I just remember loads of bodies round my head, and I was laying there and feeling. I was seeing stars, and feeling really faint, really, really weird sensation. 
 
And so someone was forcing a mask down on my face and squeezing underneath my chin, and I remember looking around, going. “I want to know what’s going on. What’s going on. What’s happening.” No one would speak to me. They just kept saying, “It’s all right. It’s all right.” I was like, “No, it obviously isn’t. What on earth’s going on here?” And I remember leaning my head up and seeing the doctor literally putting all her body weight down on my stomach and it was just agony. Oooh I can remember the pain now, ooh. And she was just literally going down like she was, it has harder than heart massage, she was jumping right down on my stomach, and I was like, “What on earth are you doing?” I shouted at her and tried to raise my knees and someone was strapping me down. I was being held down. I said, “What are you doing?” I said to her. And she said, “I know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. We haven’t had a chance to give you pain relief. I’ve got to get rid of these clots.” I remember her saying. And I thought what on earth is she doing? And then with that I went. And just sparked out thank goodness. 
 
 

Henrietta had her daughter naturally, and noticed that she was bleeding quite a lot when she went...

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Age at interview: 31
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 29
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So they called an ambulance about half five in the morning, something like that. And then got to hospital, had an epidural, which was quite nice. And everything else was absolutely fine, then, had her naturally no problems. I think she was born at about quarter past ten in the morning and everything seemed well.
 
And went off to the post natal ward. Had a shower, things like that. And obviously it’s very difficult when it’s your first, to know how much you should be bleeding. 
 
So I went to have a shower and felt very uncomfortable, like I couldn’t put my clothes back on, because I was bleeding so much, that it just seemed silly to put any clothes on, because they were just going to get covered in blood. 
So I felt a bit awkward. 
 
Went back to the post natal ward. You know, I said, after a while I said to the midwife, “You know, I’m bleeding quite a lot.” And the trouble is you know, the post natal ward is quite busy, so she said, “Okay, I’ll come and see you in a minute. I’ll come and see it.” And went off and did a few other things, and eventually came back, and was like, “Oh yes, you are bleeding quite a lot.” Sort of thing. It just seemed to be, it seemed she wasn’t particularly bothered or interested. 
 
So I just stayed in the bed in the post natal ward for a little and, and eventually she came back with a couple of other midwives and they decided to remove me from the room. So they wheeled the bed out, and the only room that they had empty was, something like, well I think it said on the door something like you know, ‘Emergency Recovery Room’ or something quite daunting, but actually it was obviously just a room that they stored loads of gear in, so they had all sorts of machines and things sitting there, and while we were in there, people would just keep coming in and taking things, taking equipment out the room, and they were just like people wandering in and out all the time, which was a bit weird.
 
Yes, so that was probably about 2 or 3 in the afternoon at that point that we went into a different room. And I think they called one of the doctors I think an SHO and they came and they said to keep the changing the bedding and to weigh it. So they were changing the sheets and the padding and everything on the bedding every fifteen minutes or so and weighing it to see how much blood loss there was.
 
And then you know, another doctor would come in. The registrar came in later and was saying, “Oh yes, you know, it’s quite a lot of blood and everything, they just sort of carried on for a while.” They kept on giving me Syntometrine because they thought that it was that my uterus hadn’t contracted, which I believe is the most common cause of haemorrhage, that’s what I’m told. That wasn’t the case with me. 
 
So they kept giving me Syntometrine and I was on a Syntometrine drip and it obviously didn’t have any effect. And it got quite frustrating because they kept wanting to feel the uterus to see if it had contracted. “Oh yes, yes, it has contracted really well, but we’ll just keep giving you more Syntometrine.” And it felt a bit like, well if you can tell that’s not the problem, then maybe it should be something else. But they kept trying to treat what they thought was the most common cause.
 
So I was just there all the time, and they were weighing the bedding and giving me more Syntometrine, this kind of thing. And they kept putting in different cannulas all the time. I ended up with five difficult cannulas in because they just kept messing it up and obviously at this point I was really qui
*Waterstone, M., S. Bewley, and C. Wolfe, Incidence and predictors of severe obstetric morbidity' case-control study.BMJ, 2001.322(7294)'p. 1089-93; discussion 1093-4

Last reviewed April 2016.
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