This article is part of Health's series, Misdiagnosed, featuring stories from real women who have had their medical symptoms dismissed or wrongly diagnosed.
“You need to get on a treadmill on an incline and start speed walking,” my doctor lectured me as I stood in her office, seven months pregnant and feeling stressed and overwhelmed.
“You’ve gained way too much weight,” she added, clucking her tongue as I shuffled my body uncomfortably on the scale and felt my unborn son kick.
It didn’t matter that I was doing prenatal yoga once a week. That I lived in New York City, and regularly got 10,000 steps a day with ease because I didn’t own a car. That I wasn’t eating ice cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My doctor was in utter disbelief that somebody who was 5-foot-2 and relatively petite all her life could inexplicably gain more than the recommended 25 to 35 pounds.
Instead, she insisted on giving me test after test to prove that I was doing something to my body to cause weight gain, despite the fact that I myself weighed nine and a half pounds at birth, and my husband was nearly nine pounds when he was a newborn.
My doctor was convinced I had gestational diabetes, and the test that confirms this condition involves chugging a sugary, stomach-turning glucose solution. Blood is drawn an hour later, to see how the body is processing glucose. I did the test and passed with flying colors, so I figured my doctor would lay off. After all, non-pregnant humans have bodies of all shapes and sizes. Why shouldn’t that be the case for a pregnant woman?
But no. My weight continued to tick up, meticulously measured at my appointments every other week. My doctor was convinced that it was my fault. So she made me take time off work to sit in her office and take the test again. The results again came back clear.
Yet in a message left on my phone at 4:55 p.m. on a Friday afternoon. she explained that she wanted me to take the gestational diabetes test for the third time. She suggested a next-level test that calls for fasting the night before, drinking the nightmare sugar drink, and then having my blood tested every hour for the next three hours. And if I disagreed? Well, it could increase my risk of delivering a stillborn child, she said, before adding, “OK, bye!” and hanging up.
By the time I called back at 4:58 p.m., she was gone for the weekend. I was left as a terrified first-time mom-to-be, afraid that I was somehow hurting or killing my unborn baby because I couldn’t control the size of my pregnant body.
I was about eight months along by the time I took the three-hour test. An angry, starving pregnant woman is a cliché; a fasting, starving pregnant woman is a horror show. I was teary and exhausted as my blood was drawn over and over during the course of a long day without food for more than 12 hours. A nurse finally took pity on me, letting me put my feet up on a reclining chair in the back.
When my husband arrived at the end of the test with a baggie of nuts for me to eat, I was about to pass out. “Is this….okay to eat?” I quietly asked my doctor, trying not to burst into tears. She hardly made eye contact with me, focusing on the peanuts. “Sure,” she said, rushing out of the room without saying anything else.
A few days later, I returned to her office to hear the results. “I knew it!” she said, flipping open her manila folder. “You are right in the danger zone for gestational diabetes!” She sounded gleeful, like I’d won the lottery by being borderline for a disorder that can lead to low blood sugar and an oversize baby (making delivery more difficult and a C-section more likely). She launched into a tirade about what I should and shouldn’t eat. Try a sandwich with one piece of bread instead of two, she suggested, or the pineapple Fage yogurt instead of honey, which has a few fewer grams of sugar.
My doctor wanted me to make an appointment with the hospital’s perinatal specialist. So the next week, I sat in the specialist's office, She explained to me that I didn’t really have gestational diabetes—that the test was designed to measure glucose and hormone levels for a woman who is around 20 weeks pregnant. When I took the test, I was more than 30 weeks pregnant with wildly different hormone levels. I was fine, she said, carry on!
I felt so relieved—until I saw my ob-gyn again for a follow-up appointment to discuss the hospital visit. She asked me about the appointment, and then shook her head, indicating that she didn't agree with the specialist's opinion that I didn't have gestational diabetes. She suggested the treadmill advice again. “Speed walking on an incline!”
That appointment was on a Tuesday. On Thursday, I had another appointment with another ob-gyn in the practice, the first time I’d seen anyone other than my usual doctor. (I was seeing various doctors in the practice now, which is standard procedure as you get close to your due date, so you're familiar with them in case you go into labor and your regular doctor is not on call.) I had somehow gained 7 pounds in the two days between those appointments, and he was shocked.
As I began to launch into how I was eating healthy and exercising, he stopped me. “Have you been having problems with swelling?” he asked, looking at my feet, which had ballooned from a size 6.5 at five months along to a size 9 now. He pressed his thumb on my foot, which left a lingering white imprint, another telltale sign something was wrong. “I think you have preeclampsia.”
“Huh?” I asked. He explained that it’s a rare pregnancy complication that can cause spikes in blood pressure, which could lead to preterm labor, seizures, and the baby to develop improperly. Speed walking on a treadmill could have actually killed me and my unborn son.
At first, I was so relieved that I burst into tears. I hadn’t realized how much my doctor’s endless fat shaming had worn me down, and how hard I had been on myself for potentially hurting my unborn son because of my weight gain. Then I was afraid.
After a urine test confirmed that I had preeclampsia, my doctor's advice drastically changed. I was put on “modified bed rest,” meaning I had to work from home with my feet propped up to encourage better blood flow. She didn’t want my blood pressure to spike.
I got all the way to 37 weeks and six days pregnant (women normally deliver at approximately 40 weeks) until my blood pressure did spike, according to an at-home monitor I’d purchased. I called my doctor, who sent me to the hospital and informed me over the phone that they were going to induce me to prevent any risks to me or my baby.
Later on the phone, she told me I needed to be hooked up to an IV and pumped full of something called magnesium sulfate. When I questioned what that was and how it would affect my ability to move while laboring (I’d hoped to ease contraction pain by moving around my hospital room in the early stages of labor), my doctor told me that she and the high-risk pregnancy chief of the hospital had already decided I needed this medicine, and refused to let me ask questions. “Unless, of course, you want a stillborn,” she said again, as I acquiesced to nagging voice in my head telling me it wasn’t right. I was forced to lay on my back or my side the entirety of my 24-hour labor, with that IV delivering a medication that made me feel drunk.
After four hours of pushing, the hospital’s doctors (my own doctor was MIA) decided it was time for a C-section, and I was so grateful that my labor would soon be over. Everett was born 7 pounds, 6 ounces, and perfectly healthy.
After 24 hours of labor and a C-section, with my son fed and settled into the nursery, I was desperate for rest. But nurses had to wake me up every two hours to take my blood to make sure I wasn’t overdosing on magnesium. They pricked my forearms, my hands, my wrists, until they couldn’t find any more veins. Sometime the next day, the test results showed “magnesium toxicity” in my body, and the IV delivering magnesium sulfate was finally removed. I left the hospital four days later.
Neither my son nor I experienced any other health complications in the days and weeks after delivery. At my six-week follow-up, my doctor never brought up preeclampsia, blood “toxicity,” or my arduous labor. Instead, she quickly examined my sutures, wrote me a prescription for birth control, and sent me on my way fuming. As I breastfed Everett in the waiting room, a nurse brought me a paper sheet to cover up because I was “making other patients uncomfortable.” I never stepped foot in that office again.
In the hazy early days of life with a newborn, I began asking other moms who their doctor was. Even though my pregnancy and delivery nearly killed me, I knew I wanted another kid. I began laying the groundwork immediately. I found a practice with midwives and ob-gyns, figuring the diversity of opinion about how to deliver a child would give me more of a voice.
When I became pregnant again, a year and a half later, my new doctor suggested ordering my surgical report. “Then we’ll really know what happened, and have all your blood and enzyme levels,” she said. I had no idea I could even do that. One fax later, I had two copies.
I was shocked to see that I was not just diagnosed with preeclampsia. I had developed a much more serious and deadly complication while in labor called HELLP Syndrome, a variant of preeclampsia that can lead to organ damage and even death. It affects less than 1% of all pregnancies.
I was furious that my doctor had never mentioned this at my follow-up appointment. Once you get HELLP syndrome, you’re more likely to get it again. That was important information I would never have been able to tell my new doctor if she had not suggested I order my surgical report.
Luckily, I did not develop preeclampsia or HELLP syndrome during my second pregnancy, and Otto was born healthy at 9 pounds, 6 ounces. I gained the exact same amount of weight the second time around: 52 pounds. My new doctors never mentioned my weight gain once.
The difference between my first and second pregnancies is vast. I spent my entire first pregnancy full of anxiety, which is actually a risk factor for developing preeclampsia. I blew way too much energy reading food labels and weighing myself instead of relishing what should have been a special time.
I kind of enjoyed my second pregnancy—well, as much as somebody can enjoy the discomfort of growing a human while chasing a toddler around. I had little fear. I trusted my doctors. I felt like I had a voice. That I was a participant in my own health care. I was so much more self-assured.
I learned a lot from my two different pregnancies. Often, pregnant women are too quick to quiet our instincts. After all, I had been seeing my first ob-gyn for several years for my annual pap test, and she seemed fine. But pregnancy involves frequent appointments, and I didn’t listen to that inside voice that said, She’s not a good fit for you. (Perhaps she would have been a better fit for a woman who wanted to take a lot of tests to be absolutely sure everything was on track.)
I think we also often treat doctors like gods of information, but they are human. The conversation needs to go both ways. Your doctor needs to understand your life and actually listen to you, to help apply their medical expertise toward the best solution. My first doctor was so stuck on the size of my body that she missed glaring signs something more serious might be wrong. And I was too afraid of her body shaming to speak up enough on my own behalf.