Navigating My Pregnancy With Fibroids
The condition didn’t cause any complications with my first pregnancy. It landed me in the hospital with my second.,
Navigating My Pregnancy With Fibroids
The condition didn’t cause any complications with my first pregnancy. It landed me in the hospital with my second.
By Tiffanie Graham
At five months pregnant with my second child, I clutched my cramping stomach, trying in vain to prop myself into a comfortable position in the passenger seat of the car. My husband was at the wheel, speeding toward the nearest hospital while also timing my contractions. To distract us from our rising panic we chatted as if it was a normal drive, but I told him to stop making me laugh — it hurt too much.
Initially perplexed, the emergency room doctors prepared me for a potentially premature birth, a possibility that never fully sunk in. But after three days of ultrasounds and a slew of other tests, they ruled out early delivery and settled on a diagnosis that would explain my throbbing abdomen and early contractions: a fibroid that had grown so large it had become starved and was dying.
A degenerating fibroid, as it’s called, happens when a uterine fibroid — a benign tumor that develops from the muscle tissue of the uterus — outgrows its blood supply. The irritation and inflammation around the area of cell death can cause the uterine walls to contract, a doctor later told me. My degenerating fibroid was sparking regular contractions and a sharp pain radiating from my left side.
I was sent home with a recommendation to take an over-the-counter pain reliever, if necessary, and an assurance that the pain would eventually subside. My doctors said I should go on to have a normal pregnancy.
Unfortunately, that isn’t what happened.
Black women like me are two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with fibroids than white women are, though no one is sure why. I had fibroids during my first pregnancy, but they didn’t cause any symptoms. I would even describe the pregnancy as easy. But when three tumors revealed themselves on an early ultrasound the second time around, my OB-GYN told me that she’d monitor them, but that they shouldn’t cause any issues. Though one of my fibroids was considered large, the size of a fibroid isn’t necessarily an indicator of future complications. And for many women, fibroids cause no symptoms at all.
My fibroids must have missed the memo.
When a healthy fibroid is not getting enough blood flow it “stops growing and shrinks,” and can become very painful, said Dr. Hilda Hutcherson, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. This can happen when a patient isn’t pregnant, she added, but the increased hormones of pregnancy can trigger a fibroid to break down.
When I came home from the hospital, the intense pain from my degenerated fibroid lessened, but never fully went away. The recommended over-the-counter pain relievers had no effect. If I walked more than a few blocks, I would pay with more pain. And as the baby grew, so did the pressure on my other two fibroids. Bed rest and heating pads became part of my daily routine.
Where was this “normal pregnancy” I’d been promised?
Since I’d been told I wouldn’t be experiencing any further pain, I repeatedly asked my obstetrician what could be causing it. Her pat responses offered little comfort: Fibroids don’t usually hurt, she’d say, and what I felt was likely the discomfort of pregnancy. I began feeling like a bothersome patient desperate to have my pain taken seriously. I’d been pregnant before, this felt different. If the fibroids weren’t responsible, like my doctor suggested, I needed to find out what was.
I turned to late night scrolling, trolling the web for answers, but struggling to find descriptions that matched my own experience.
One month after my trip to the emergency room, and one day after my OB-GYN told me again to “try Tylenol,” I was back in the hospital with debilitating pain — a different fibroid was the culprit, but the sensation was just as searing. With this second hospital stay, I felt oddly validated, but my trust in my doctors was quickly waning.
I began to question whether my obstetrician, who was otherwise supportive, had enough experience with a condition that may be less common in her pool of patients. I decided I would need to steer my care myself.
A relative who happens to be a specialist in high-risk obstetrics suggested I seek out a doctor like her, who might have more experience treating patients with pregnancy complications. My own doctor agreed and recommended one.
The specialist explained what was going on inside my uterus and described the discomfort that can accompany fibroids during pregnancy. He said that I’d likely be in pain from my fibroids, degenerating or not, up until I gave birth.
I felt a weight lift from my shoulders as he spoke. Though I was being told more pain was to come, someone had finally corroborated my experience. The disconnect between my pain and what I was told to expect had been chipping away at my mental health without my even realizing it.
I contacted Dr. Hutcherson, who said I’d done the right thing by conducting my own research and pushing for better care. “Just a normal pregnancy is stressful. And Black women may not always be listened to,” she said. “Whoever is taking care of you should honor your experience and make sure you have a healthy baby.”
Now that I had confirmation that my fibroids were, in fact, causing the pain, I wasn’t as concerned about some other, undiagnosed issue. Fibroids are unlikely to cause pregnancy loss, Dr. Hutcherson said, and in my case the baby was still healthy and growing. I was prescribed medication to better handle my pain at home and to hopefully avoid speeding through the streets to the hospital with worries of preterm labor for yet a third time.
My doctors said that after birth, my fibroids would likely shrink. And for most women postpartum, the pain disappears. I remained skeptical but hoped they were right.
A few months later, my healthy baby boy arrived, though not without another complication. After birth, the uterus normally contracts to help dislodge the placenta. Fibroids can interfere with that process, leaving the uterus unable to expel the placenta. When I gave birth, my placenta stuck in place and had to be manually removed, a condition that can put new mothers at higher risk for life-threatening blood loss — which I was lucky to avoid.
Now home from the hospital, I’m grateful to be on the other side, but mentally and physically exhausted from the experience. I managed to endure a pregnancy and birth that were far from “normal.” And after enduring all those bumps in the road, I feel ready to focus on my new little adventure.
Tiffanie Graham is the photo editor for the Well section, covering health, family and mental health with visual first coverage. Previously, she was the photo editor on the Parenting section.