When I gave birth to a healthy baby boy in July 2020 it never occurred to me that I could develop a life-threatening infection. In my mind infections after childbirth were a thing of the past, not something that could happen to a healthy woman like me who had a routine delivery at a New York City hospital.
The evening my husband and I got home from the hospital with our newborn I devoured takeout from our local Italian restaurant. It was the best meal of my life.
By the next morning my appetite had vanished. For a week, burning some extra 500 calories a day breastfeeding, I subsisted mostly on broth and popsicles. Eventually I decided that I should take my temperature and I realized I was running a fever.
My midwife and obstetrician reassured me that low-grade fevers aren’t uncommon among breastfeeding women, so for another week I stayed at home. I was so weak I couldn’t change a diaper or shower or even hold my baby while sitting up. There were so many strange things going on with my body after giving birth to my first child that I had no idea if what I was feeling was normal. I spent days in bed googling my symptoms and reading everything I could about common postpartum infections — from mastitis to urinary tract infections.
I eventually went to the emergency room. My white blood cell count was more than double normal levels, my heart was racing and in the two weeks since giving birth I had lost more than 20 pounds. But an obstetrician told me my symptoms didn’t seem unusual and that postpartum women can have high white blood cell counts. The emergency doctors gave me some antibiotics to treat a possible urinary tract infection and sent me home.
The next day the hospital called to tell me that I had bacteria in my blood culture, a sign of sepsis. I also had an abscess in my abdomen the size of a small watermelon. I spent the next eight days in the hospital, where I had a blood transfusion and surgery. I spent more than six weeks on antibiotics.
Due to Covid-related visitor restrictions I wasn’t allowed to see my two-week-old son, Jonah, the entire time I was in the hospital. I worried he would forget me. I tried to Facetime with him and send home articles of clothing so he would remember my voice and my smell.
I was discharged with two surgical drains in my abdomen and an IV line that made it hard to hold him. I struggled with breastfeeding. I eventually made a full physical recovery but the grief of having spent the first weeks of my baby’s life sick, in the hospital and unable to take care of him is with me every day.
I am a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, but despite my background as a professional reporter, I still struggled to navigate the health-care system in those overwhelming and isolating first weeks of motherhood. I know our health-care system can do better at educating new moms about the symptoms of infection and listening to the voices of patients who say that something just doesn’t feel quite right.