I felt the need to write this article because many women who are paralysed have little information on how paralysis affects the body during pregnancy and childbirth. I wish there had been some information available for me when I decided to take the plunge and become a mother. In 1976 I had a car accident that resulted in a complete Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) at T2/T3.
I was a very young girl at the time of the accident and like most young people, had many aspirations to fulfill. One of these wishes was to become a mother. This dream came true in 1987 with the birth of my first child: a healthy baby boy.
Being pregnant after a spinal cord injury
It was February 1987 when my doctor told me that I had conceived and was to become a mum. I was so excited, happy and thankful that I was able to conceive naturally – not that there was any physical reason why I couldn’t. Initially I went to the Austin Hospital Spinal Unit and from there I was referred to the Professor of Obstetrics at the Mercy Maternity Hospital, Melbourne.
In the first three months of pregnancy (trimester), I had many sleepless nights due to relentless nausea and experienced a general feeling of being unwell twenty-four hours a day. I can’t recall how many times I threw up! Being nauseous is a common condition during pregnancy and had nothing to do with my paraplegia.
Another symptom was frequent urination and it drove me insane! I was fortunate that I did not get any bladder infections and hence no medication was required prior or during my pregnancy. As a result of the physical stress on my body, I began to feel emotionally drained, unfocused and moody.
Even with these symptoms, I found the first three months of pregnancy relatively easy. I was able to work up until I was 5 months pregnant. I didn’t need any special treatment or help at this stage. In order to get a grasp on the things that were happening to my body, I bought a few books on pregnancy and the effects it has on a woman’s body. I was of the opinion that I was not any different to able pregnant women.
During the second trimester my abdomen began to grow and I started piling on the weight. I had become less active and the duration of the morning sickness started to subside so my appetite slowly returned. I was able to eat meat for the first time since I fell pregnant. When I was in the first trimester of my pregnancy the thought of red meat made me ill although I was still able to eat fish, chicken, eggs and most of the foods that I enjoyed. As the months rolled on my appetite increased and so did my size. By the fifth month of my pregnancy I was looking very pregnant and had gained about 10 kilos. I had always been a small sized woman and now I was much larger: the biggest I had ever been in my life. Sitting in my wheelchair became very difficult as my thighs began to rub against the wheels.
My posture began to suffer as my abdomen began to sit on my lap, pulling my shoulders forward. I had to constantly make a conscious effort to hold myself upright and not slouch over. Red marks began to appear on my bottom due to the increase of weight and bad posture. It became increasingly difficult to do my lifts to relieve the pressure off my bottom, and my balance was all over the place. I could not take the risk of getting a pressure sore while pregnant so I began to spend extra time lying down. I had to quit work at this stage. I noticed my bowel regime had changed. Prior to the pregnancy I was regular but now it had become more difficult. At times I was constipated and felt as if I was going to explode. I ate lots of fruit in an attempt to resolve the problem however this was only effective part of the time. I can’t recall if I had any bowel accidents.
By the sixth month I was having great difficulty with all my transfers. I had to take extra time and care whilst transferring so that I would not fall due to the excess weight and decrease in balance. It especially became a nightmare getting in and out of my car due to my abdomen getting in the way. I was still able to dress myself independently, however required a little more effort and time. I was able to manage with all this right up until I was admitted into the hospital about four weeks prior to giving birth. At times I felt as if my independence was slowly dwindling away but I endeavoured to do as much as I could on my own without the help of my husband.
In the third trimester I had fluid retention in my feet and hands. The swelling prevented me getting my shoes on so I began to wear my slippers. When I went to bed it was very uncomfortable and the only way to take pressure off my abdomen was to lie on my side. I was assured by the professor of obstetrics that I was doing fine and had no complications. On my last visit to the hospital, prior to being admitted, the professor thought I would not go to full term due to the lack of muscle tone and the weight of the baby’s head. It was decided I should be admitted four weeks prior to giving birth. Boy, how wrong he was, as I did go full term and my son was born at forty weeks and one day.
Childbirth while paralysed
The day before I went into labour I began having tingles at about 4.00pm. At first I thought I had to pass urine, as that is what the tingling sensation usually indicated for me. However, on this particular day the tingles lasted longer and they were much more intense. I was on the phone to my husband at the time when I got the second bout of tingles and explained to him what I was feeling. I remember him saying that I must be going into labour and I replied “No I’m not! I’m not supposed to be feeling anything”. At this stage I thought I had better tell one of the nurses, who had been looking after me for the past four weeks, that I was experiencing these strange sensations. The nurse examined me and said I was dilating and should get prepared for birth.
Later on that afternoon my doctor examined me and I had become even more dilated. In the evening I was taken to the delivery ward. In the early hours of the next day the tingling and sweats intensified and by 7:00 am I was in a constant sweat. I had also started to develop a headache. It felt as if I was experiencing an extreme bout of hyper-reflexia. In the later phase of labour, every time I had a contraction my abdomen felt as if there was a herd of elephants stampeding and I was being trampled on. The closer the contractions became, the worse I felt. I was in agony and could barely catch my breath. With every contraction I began to push and was sweating profusely. At this time a group of nurses, who had looked after me, came in to gain insight on a paraplegic giving birth.
With the help of forceps and an episiotomy, at 9:33 am, my son was born fit and healthy. All the pain had gone and the sweats began to diminish. The birth of my son was the most unbelievable experience I have ever had. I was overwhelmed with joy and happiness that I could bring a new life into the world. When I held him in my arms for the first time I began to question my ability to look after him. How was I going to manage my new baby boy? I had been moved to a large room on my own which allowed me to get around with greater ease. However, I was still concerned because my balance continued to be bad even after a rest and some sleep.
All my transfers had to be supervised while I was in hospital. I stayed at the hospital for a further two weeks so that I felt confident enough to be able to look after my son and to ensure that the episiotomy healed without problems. This was an experience I will never forget. I was a fit and healthy woman before I was pregnant and as a result it wasn’t long before I was back in shape after the birth.
When I decided to have a second child I knew what was in store for me and this made it a lot easier. I had a girl two years later who was delivered at 40 weeks and two days. My son is now 15 and my daughter is 13.
I am so glad that I did not miss out on the motherhood experience because of paraplegia.
Share this post with an aspiring paraplegic mom!