My Own Princess: What It Was Like to Watch My Wife Suffer From “Extreme Morning Sickness”

William and KateParents.com blogger Kristen Kemp’s husband, Johan Svenson, recounts the helplessness he felt watching his wife endure hyperemesis gravidarum—the same condition Kate Middleton is famously suffering—through two pregnancies.

Reading articles and blog posts about Kate Middleton’s medical situation—and the comments in response to those stories—brings back painful memories for me. But it also irritates me.

Seven years ago and several weeks into her first pregnancy, my wife Kristen was diagnosed with hyperemesis gravidarum (HG). I didn’t know about HG then, but I quickly learned. It’s an illness taken seriously by exactly three people: the doctor, the patient, and her spouse. HG only affects 2 percent of pregnant women, so I don’t expect everyone to know about it, but comments I’ve read on the Internet—including my wife’s story on Parents.com—infuriate me. Commenters who suggest organic ginger tea as a solution are naïve; their comments should be prefaced with ‘I have never experienced hyperemesis; I have never known anyone who has; nor do I have any medical experience whatsoever.’ People who say things like “suck it up,” and “you should be happy you were able to get pregnant at all,” should try telling a schizophrenic that she’s lucky to hear voices in her head all day long. People have no comprehension of how serious this illness is.

I do. I remember being on my cell phone in a hurry to catch a flight. It was one of those moments I remember in crystal clear, high-definition detail. One of those moments that changes your life forever. Kristen, who’d just been to the doctor, called with news: “There are two of them.” “Two of what?” I asked. It was April 1, 2005, but this was no April Fool’s joke. Kristen was carrying twins.

While that was a shock, nothing would prepare us for what came next: the most trying period in her life, when she got hyperemesis gravidarum. The doctor told us the severity of the HG was likely due to carrying twins. Double the babies, double the hormones, double the nausea. Makes sense.

Nope. By Christmas 2006 we were pregnant again. The morning sickness arrived overnight, accompanied by the fear of having another set of twins. While we were relieved to find we were only having a singleton, we were equally surprised the HG seemed to be worse this time around. And it got a lot worse.

In the early stages of Kristen’s second pregnancy, I was running to the supermarket, buying endless supplies of my wife’s favorite childhood treats. Pop Tarts, Pringles, Oatmeal Creme Pies, and Twinkies: anything that might get calories into her body. As with the first pregnancy, she was given a prescription of Zofran, a drug for patients going through chemo treatments, to help with nausea. The meds helped, but relief was short-lived.

There was one thing Kristen had seemed able to keep down when she was sick with HG the first time: McDonald’s vanilla milkshakes. Still, I always had to order two and give her the second one, because if the previous milkshake customer had ordered strawberry, she could taste the tiny residue from the previous pour. With this second pregnancy, however, not even the magic milkshake would stay down. I remember trying to cook dinner one night. I started chopping an onion. My cell phone rang. It was my wife two floors above telling me she smelled raw onion. That was the last time I tried cooking anything for several weeks. Things went from bad to worse when Kristen couldn’t keep even water or ice chips down. The result was a stay in the hospital, and a prescription for a PICC (peripherally inserted central catheter) line at home, which would keep her hydrated and supply essential nutrients.

The PICC line freaked me out. A nurse told me that large air bubbles couldn’t be permitted to flow into Kristen’s veins; that could lead to death. I became my wife’s nurse. Priming the line each day, and flicking the bubbles to make sure they would break up as they went through the air filter, gave me nightmares.

This wasn’t the only possible cause of death that concerned me. At the darkest point in her bout with HG, my wife weighed under 90 pounds. She had lost more than 20 percent of her weight, and barely had the strength to sit up. She couldn’t watch TV, or read a book or magazine. She lay in bed, looking lifeless. The doctor told me if her condition continued much longer she would be readmitted to the hospital and given a feeding tube. He also said that some patients seriously consider abortion at this point, but that was never an option for us. My wife’s depression was severe, and obvious to everyone in the house. I remember exchanging a knowing look with the nanny who was working with us around the clock. It was clear to both of us that this illness could kill my wife, but that the depression could lead her to do the unthinkable to herself. The cold, dark feeling of climbing the stairs to her third floor hideout several times a day, not sure if my wife and our unborn child were still alive, is the greatest fear I have ever experienced in my life. Every time I got to that top step and saw the small up and down movement of the covers, I could exhale. Considering some women suffer with this illness their entire pregnancy, we were very lucky.

Around week 18 of the pregnancy, the hyperemesis disappeared as quickly as it arrived. Within days, the color was back in my wife’s face. She smiled again. Within weeks she looked like the normal, beautiful pregnant woman one would expect to see at 22 weeks. I had my wife back.

My hope is that the high-profile case of hyperemesis gravidarum that Kate Middleton is dealing with brings more understanding and sympathy to this illness. It sucks. So my advice to anyone who is quick to judge: As you sip your organic ginger tea (don’t get me wrong, I fancy a cup every now and then too, even the non-organic kind) consider reading up on the issue and real-life experiences before you submit your cure, theory, or judgment.

Image of Prince William and Catherine Duchess of Cambridge via Featureflash/Shutterstock.com

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  1. by Kim

    On December 14, 2012 at 6:45 pm

    I`m always of the opinion that if its bad enough to hospitalize, no one but the directly involved medical staff will know the full extent of severity. Ever.
    The instant come and go part I understand. It is insane how fast morning sickness just disappears, for the lucky few.

  2. by Melissa

    On December 14, 2012 at 6:56 pm

    Thank you so much for your article Johan. I myself suffered from HG my entire pregnancy, both of them. I remember my husband saying, “I just want my wife back.” It is so refreshing to see this article from a man’s viewpoint. I so appreciate knowing that others have gone through this and understand the severity of it.

  3. by Melissa Y.

    On December 16, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    I have a friend who went through simlar things that your wife did. It is SO scary to watch. She had the PICC and the fear of a simple bubble is real. She actually ended up with a feeding tube for 2 months. It was the scariest thing I have ever seen. It was hard for me to understand. I am on my 3rd pregnancy and never had morning sickness. Just a little nauseous. But after seen all of her hospital stays and the things she had to do to just stay alive. I know this illness is real.

  4. by Amanda K

    On December 16, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    I myself have never suffered from this disease, but this pregnancy my morning sickness was awful – so I can’t imagine it being worse. My husband has been the one to help me through it – and it sounds like you did the same. Great husbands are severely underappreciated. Thanks for helping your wife!

  5. by Danielle

    On December 16, 2012 at 3:02 pm

    I had HG for my entire pregnancy. Zofran didn’t work for me. I had a PICC line for 5 months. And I was scared to death of an air bubble. People tried to tell me it was mind over matter all of the time. If only! And as awful as it was for me, I know it was worse for my husband. He was sidelined as he watched me suffer. And we both prayed continuously for the health of our babies.

  6. by Dawn

    On December 16, 2012 at 3:25 pm

    I had HG through both of my prengnancies and also took Zofran with some help. However, it was miserable and I was not a fun person to be around. I did not enjoy either one of my pregnancies. I also had people including the doctors tell me that it would go away, but it did not go away. It is not mind over matter that is for sure.

  7. by atzima

    On December 16, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    I can’t even begin to imagine how helpless my husband felt during my HG pregnancy. My own HG was due to a twins pregnancy, no where near as severe as your wife’s second pregnancy but still pretty bad. I will say this though. My twins, now 5yrs old are so worth all the difficulty I went through to bring them into the world. :) The HG and the C-Section. My girls are such a blessing. :)

    http://atzima.livejournal.com/3704.html

  8. by Yasemin

    On December 16, 2012 at 3:56 pm

    God bless you, your wife and your kids. And thank you for such a great, sincere response.
    With love from Turkey.

  9. by Kristi Bennett

    On December 16, 2012 at 4:01 pm

    I can’t imagine how you felt having to go through all of that. I had a PICC line in 2009 so that I could give myself a very strong antibiotic because I was recovering from pneumococcal meningitis and I also had a cerebral blood clot at the time; my husband decided not to be around so that was it for our marriage. And instead of being placed on short term disability so I could rest and take my time recovering, I had to return to work: someone had to provide for our children. I was blessed with six healthy and fairly easy pregnancies and deliveries; four from my first marriage and two from my second.

  10. by Amy Dyer

    On December 16, 2012 at 4:19 pm

    Thank you, thank you for sharing this story. Everyone concentrates on the mother and child but too often the father is forgotten when they are the rock that holds everything together.

  11. by Gina

    On December 16, 2012 at 9:48 pm

    I just want to thank you for sharing your story and all of the rest of you parents too. I didn’t know anything about this HG before I read this now. Thank you for educating me and thank you for being so brave, I cannot even imagine how difficult this would be for a woman or her family.