‘I Wanted To Talk To Someone Who Had Been Through The Same Thing’

The path to parenthood can be unexpectedly lonely. That’s why Joely Sanderson wants to talk about her experience of ectopic pregnancy, and for you to know that you’re not alone…

Joely Sanderson

by Joely Sanderson |
Published on

I didn’t see it coming. In fact, I didn’t even know what it was until it hit me. But there I was - pregnant for the first time, curled up on a hospital bed waiting for emergency surgery to remove my right fallopian tube, due to an ectopic pregnancy that had no chance of progressing.

‘An ectopic pregnancy is when a fertilised egg implants itself outside of the womb, usually in one of the fallopian tubes,’ states the NHS website, on a page I can pretty much recite by memory. ‘An ectopic pregnancy can't proceed normally. The fertilized egg can't survive, and the growing tissue may cause life-threatening bleeding, if left untreated,’ adds The Mayo Clinic. ‘To prevent life-threatening complications, the ectopic tissue needs to be removed. Depending on your symptoms and when the ectopic pregnancy is discovered, this may be done using medication, laparoscopic surgery or abdominal surgery.’

My story started with a chaotic 4am dash to A&E, where an internal scan showed what the sonographer believed to be a miscarriage. Blood tests reviewing the level of pregnancy hormone HCG over 48 hours would confirm whether this was the case. A healthy pregnancy would see HCG levels double over 48 hours, while a miscarriage would see them halve, and an ectopic pregnancy would see them rise slightly, but not enough to spell good news.

I spent the next four days (the standard two doubled as they closed for the weekend) in numb limbo – starting to process what was happening and grieve for the baby I’d likely miscarried, but with an iota of hope that maybe they’d got it wrong. Maybe the levels would rise? Maybe I’d been pregnant with twins and one would survive? Every possibility crossed my mind.

Monday finally came and the hospital called to explain that my level of HCG pregnancy hormone had risen, but not enough. ‘It’s ectopic and we need to get you in an ambulance straight away,’ explained a different sonographer just four hours later at a local early pregnancy clinic. My sister had managed to get a last-minute appointment there because the hospital couldn’t see me until the next day (a reminder to always trust your gut or, in my case, my sister’s).

Within seven minutes I was strapped into the ambulance bed, my husband by my side. A sleepless night on the gynaecology ward, followed by more tests in the morning, and the diagnosis was confirmed. This far along into a live ectopic pregnancy, medicinal treatment (via the drug methotrexate) wasn’t an option, the doctor explained, and I needed laparoscopic surgery under general anaesthetic that day.

Surgery went as planned and I was back on the ward within a few hours – my husband and sister waiting for me in the visitors’ lounge where they’d been camped out, armed with bags of snacks and looking shellshocked and exhausted. My family WhatsApp kept me afloat.

'We comforted one another - I needed that, and I think she needed it too.'

Despite being surrounded by so much love and support, once I got back to the ward and visiting hours were over, an overwhelming feeling of loneliness flooded back – something that had buried in and hadn’t budged since that fateful first scan. I wanted to talk to someone who had been through the same thing – not so much for advice, not so much for anything useful at all, simply to wallow in how utterly shit it all was, someone who could say they’d been through it, and that it was all going to be OK in the end.

I was on a ward with around six other women. Some came and went without me ever knowing their names, but the woman on the other side of my curtain had the same timeline as me. The night I was admitted I must have drifted off (although I don’t remember sleeping a wink) and woke up in the middle of the night to the doctor giving her the news that I would receive just a few hours later. She was to have surgery, and quickly. The doctor left and the ward returned to its strange mix of sharp silence, punctuated with muffled voices and dull beeps. I’d overheard her name so I whispered through the curtain that I was there, and she wasn’t alone; that I wouldn’t be sleeping and she could talk to me any time. She offered the same to me.

The next evening, when I woke from surgery in the recovery room, we were beside one another again – in a drugged haze and murky from pain. We exchanged a, ‘Well, that was rough - but we did it and it’s over now,’ glance - no words necessary.

Back to the ward and we comforted one another throughout the night and next morning - sharing phone chargers, snacks, repeating that everything would be OK. I needed that, and I think she needed it too.

1 in 4 women miscarry, 1 in 100 have ectopic pregnancies and countless more experience the myriad things that can unravel during pregnancy. Yet we hardly hear about them; or at least, I hadn’t – not to the point that the statistics say. And while there’s no doubt it can be incredibly painful to talk about, perhaps there’s a strange kind of solace and strength to be found in the shared trauma. One line from a late-night scroll on ClearBlue.com stands out: ‘Sometimes you can gain comfort in knowing you are surrounded by a strong and resilient network of women who know this feeling. They know. You may feel alone, but you are not alone.’ And that final line felt so poignant; we are not alone in this.

Once I was discharged from hospital and at home recovering, I WhatsApp’d some close friends to let them know what had happened and that I was OK, although in reality I was sore, empty and painfully numb. No one I knew directly had experienced an ectopic pregnancy, but I was surprised by the many friends of friends, sisters of friends and colleagues of friends had - and all with healthy babies now.

A friend who had a long and ruthless journey to motherhood, with many losses along the way, messaged me: ‘I understand baby-making is far from straight forward BUT, the harder it is the more special it becomes. Honestly so true - and I’m qualified to say.’ Fast forward one year (I managed to get pregnant easily with my one fallopian tube - so keep going!) and in May 2023 I found out exactly what she meant when my son, Rafferty, arrived safely in my arms after a tumultuous pregnancy. I held all 5.9lbs of him close to my chest and my heart felt full in the wildest way. I knew from that moment on that life would never be the same again; it would be invaluably better.

Not all of our journeys to parenthood are plain sailing. We can plan our route months in advance, pack all the right things and set off at the prime time, but we never know what might come up on the road ahead. The accident on the motorway; the traffic jam that makes us late; the back roads we might have to take. Whatever happens on the way, know that there will be someone who has taken the same route as you and hopefully, by sharing our experiences we can help one another in ways no one else could. Because we’re never, ever alone.

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