In the November 2020 'Strong Mind' issue of Women’s Health, on sale now, we profile a series of women and explore the effect of the pandemic on their mental health.
When the coronavirus exerted its grips on all corners of life – from work to school and beyond – it also made matters more challenging for the women experiencing a less-than-smooth path to motherhood. IVF clinics temporarily closed and many hospitals focused resources on tackling the pandemic.
Here, Jessica Davies, a 38-year-old writer from London, reveals how suffering an ectopic pregnancy, something that affects around 1 in every 90 pregnancies in the UK, during lockdown, amid talk of a Covid-19 'baby boom', impacted on her mental health.
'I had an ectopic pregnancy during lockdown'
It took five pregnancy tests before I would allow myself to believe that I was pregnant. It was early April, three years since my husband, Matt, and I had started trying to have a baby. Something that meant so much to us.
We started out optimistic we’d be able to conceive easily - but I felt like I had failed every time my period arrived. When doctors labelled the difficulty we had conceiving as medically ‘unexplained’ infertility, I was frustrated.
I reduced stress with yoga, and quit drinking as well as cut down on caffeine, to increase my chances of falling pregnant. Nevertheless, getting pregnant seemed like a roll of the dice; a friend might call after an evening when they’d been drinking alcohol while I’d been teetotal, to tell me they were expecting. I didn’t know how to tell people that we were trying and not having any luck, so I kept quiet. With society projecting motherhood as being so deeply ingrained in a woman's self-worth, I couldn’t shake the feelings of shame.
Then, last year, I fell pregnant naturally but suffered a miscarriage in the second trimester. It was triggered a period of trauma – and after that there was barely a day that I didn't cry. It was difficult to enjoy normal things, and I also found it hard to reconnect with friends because most of them were new mums.
I was only just beginning to recover as the UK went into lockdown. We were due to have our initial consultation for IVF in March and were on the verge of our first round when an unexpected positive pregnancy test dared let us hope. The long-scheduled appointment was cancelled – like all other non-urgent medical treatment.
While it felt like a safety net had been taken away, the fact I’d conceived naturally again at that moment felt serendipitous, especially since I'd been on the waiting list for IVF both times that I conceived.
I knew from the fourth week of pregnancy that something wasn’t right. I was bleeding, and there was pain coming from both sides of my uterus, particularly the right side (it turned out that I had ovulated from both ovaries that month). I called 111. The automated message said to only stay on the line if you were calling about coronavirus. I panicked. I rang three hospitals but only one picked up. It felt as though, in the midst of a pandemic, I’d been forgotten.
Leaving my husband, who was forced to wait in the car park, I entered the hospital – wearing an anti-pollution cycling mask – past several pregnant women barred from entering without an appointment. Guards checked I’d used hand sanitiser.
The atmosphere was tense as I sat in the empty waiting room. The urine test was negative, but I was asked to return to hospital if the blood test showed elevated pregnancy hormones, which it did, and those hormones continued to rise.
A scan confirmed I had an ectopic pregnancy, where the embryo had implanted outside the womb in a Fallopian tube - and was therefore unable to grow into a baby - meaning I’d lost the baby. It reignited the trauma of my miscarriage from eight months earlier, and my anxieties about never becoming a mother resurfaced.
I returned to the hospital multiple times over a few weeks for them to monitor my hormone levels and see if the pregnancy would ‘abort’ naturally. The journeys there were agony. I was terrified about what they would discover, and dreaded crossing paths with other pregnant women in the lifts. Upon seeing a bump, I’d get instinctively nauseous - a flashback to the morning sickness I’d experienced the year before. On the train I was overcome by a sense of intense panic. My heartbeat raced uncontrollably and my hands were trembling and sweaty.
On one visit, the doctors found internal bleeding – which explained why I was feeling increasingly weak. A doctor told me I’d need surgery to remove the pregnancy before it became too large or ruptured. I felt scared and anxious. I cried to my mum over the phone and the nurse allowed my husband into the corridor briefly to say goodbye, where he tried to kiss me, fully-masked.
That evening, the consultant decided against surgery and I was sent home. A blood test suggested that the ectopic pregnancy may be resolving naturally, and I was instructed to return to hospital for another scan after the weekend. But by that time the pregnancy had grown and developed a yolk sac, so I was sent for an alternative treatment of chemotherapy.
As I waited for a referral to the chemotherapy ward, staff in full personal protective gear (PPE) wheeled a Covid-19 patient through the corridor and wiped the door handles behind them. The drug dispensary in the hospital was busy issuing drugs to Covid-19 patients so I was asked to come back the next day instead. The ward was full of cancer patients - and I felt guilty that resources were being redirected to me, someone who had fallen pregnant of her own volition.
It was only after the six weeks that it took my pregnancy hormone levels to fall to zero that I was able to process the emotional roller-coaster I’d been on. There’s an overwhelming focus on women’s mental health during pregnancy – but very little after miscarriage, leaving women with the impression that the life of their unborn baby mattered more than their own to society. It was not until after my second miscarriage (the ectopic pregnancy) that a nurse at the hospital put me in touch with a bereavement midwife.
There’s much talk of a ‘corona baby boom’, but I’m in no rush to get pregnant again. However, my husband and I have a race against time due to the strict age limit on NHS funding for IVF, which is only available to women up to the age of 39. Next September I’ll probably be too old for NHS funding, and The virus continues to steal that precious time.
What happens when you have an ectopic pregnancy?
An ectopic pregnancy is when a fertilised egg implants itself outside of the womb, usually in one of the fallopian tubes, according to the NHS. If an egg is stuck in this area, it is unable to develop into a baby and there are health risks if the pregnancy were to continue. As such, the pregnancy will have to be removed via an operation or medicine.
It is possible that you could experience an ectopic pregnancy before you know you're pregnant, or have had a positive test.
What are the signs of an ectopic pregnancy?
It is possible that an ectopic pregnancy will not cause symptoms and will only be detected at a routine scan. If you were to have symptoms, these would generally occur between the 4th and 12th week of pregnancy. They could be:
tummy pain low down on one side
vaginal bleeding or a brown, watery discharge
pain in the tip of your shoulder
discomfort when weeing or pooing
Read more powerful stories of women getting to grips with their mental health during the pandemic in the November 2021 'Strong Mind' issue of Women’s Health on sale now. Pick up an issue OR why not get Women's Health delivered directly to your door. SUBSCRIBE NOW
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