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Starving for Answers

Even before you experience the ecstasy of seeing the double “positive” lines on a pregnancy test, you may notice the effects of the baby growing inside you—particularly nausea. The dizzying sickness sometimes debilitates new moms, but, in more than two percent of pregnancies, persistent nausea and vomiting can translate into a serious, life-threatening condition with no known cause or cure: Hyperemesis Gravidarum (HG).

Ann Marie King, who experienced HG with her first (and only) pregnancy, says she spent most of her pregnancy “on the bathroom floor, in the hospital or in my bedroom.” During her illness, the mom admits she would vomit sometimes more than 20 times daily.

King survived the experience and delivered a healthy baby boy—quite a feat for an HG-plagued pregnancy, because these women are twice as likely to miscarry. After her pregnancy, she moved to Washington, D.C., and adopted a baby girl, vowing she’d never again risk the health of another child. Now, the onetime Dallasite is determined to help raise awareness about HG through her national advocacy group, the HER Foundation, started in 2003. With the advent of much-needed medical research, King says physicians and families will know that “this is much more than morning sickness—lives are at risk,” and soon-to-be moms will receive the medical and emotional support needed to sustain healthy pregnancies.

What Is HG?

The majority of pregnant women experience queasiness, but there is a definitive difference between common nausea and HG, says Dr. Robert T. Gunby, an OB/GYN at Baylor University Medical Center of Dallas. Gunby, who delivered King’s son and proved to be a vital resource for the mother, explains, “HG will cause persistent, uncontrollable vomiting. The condition will totally incapacitate a mom; the vomiting causes extreme malnutrition, weight loss and exhaustion.”

“There is no proven cause, just a lot of theories behind HG [and] some theories point to a psychological cause to the illness,” says Gunby. But, “it’s more than a psychological reaction to pregnancy.”

Another popular theory, says Gunby, is that HG can be attributed to an imbalance of the human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) hormone, a natural hormone commonly linked to nausea and vomiting that is produced by the placenta. “Women produce hCG at varied levels and women also react very differently to the hormone, which makes research efforts difficult,” says Gunby.

The key, says King, is that every woman’s body chemistry is different—a fact that makes treatment of HG all the more troublesome. “In recent years, doctors are able to prescribe an anti-nausea drug [normally] given to chemotherapy patients that dissolves in the mouth. This medicine is considerably effective in most patients,” says Gunby, who prescribed such treatment for King (which, she says, allowed her to eat very small portions of food toward the end of her pregnancy). For most women, however, medicine provides only short-term relief—if any at all.

Seeking Understanding

Enduring the unrelenting symptoms of HG is unimaginable to most, but, with this diagnosis also comes a stigma that most HG moms can’t shake: “There are doctors, family members and even employers who see women with HG as being weak or attention-seekers,” explains King.

Dallas mom Jennifer Riley says her HG pregnancy was the worst nine months of her marriage. “It’s extremely difficult to cope when people—even doctors—are telling you to just keep crackers on your bedside table to help get rid of the nausea,” Riley explains. “I spent my entire pregnancy feeling as if I was starving; I was so hungry and thirsty,” she adds. “I couldn’t so much as groom myself, let alone sit on the couch and spend time with friends or my spouse. I felt extremely depressed and isolated.”

For women experiencing HG, it’s critical to seek camaraderie and advocacy to help battle surefire bouts of depression, says Gunby. “Some doctors don’t appreciate that women with HG require lots of emotional support; it can be very time-intensive to work with them,” he explains. He advises, “Find an OB who will support this very trying pregnancy.”

Connecting HG moms with doctors and other experienced moms has been made easier with HelpHer.org, the HER Foundation’s Web site, which dedicates a section to doctor’s referrals written by HG moms. “This Web site, particularly the forums, would have made a tremendous emotional difference during my pregnancy,” says Riley.

With plans for advocacy campaigns on Capitol Hill and boosted medical research, King hopes to raise HG awareness and help mothers get the help they need. As Riley explains, “People need to learn more about the disease and know that crackers aren’t going to solve it.”

To get help or meet with local HG mentors, go to www.helpher.org and join the online forum (where moms meet to discuss HG).