Rachel Suttie set out to hike the remote West Coast Trail unaware that she was pregnant. Then she went into labour and touched off a remarkable wilderness rescue.
Rachel Suttie used to watch the TV reality series
I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant and think: “ What
is wrong with these women?”
That was before she found herself doubled over from
unexplained abdominal pains so severe she had to be
rescued from Vancouver Island’s West Coast Trail, transported through the crashing Pacific surf, and rushed to
Victoria General Hospital.
Suttie arrived just in time to give birth to Fern — a healthy, baby girl she never knew was inside her.
“ It does happen,” the 28-yearold Vancouver mother said in an exclusive interview Friday. “ Now I’m definitely more understanding how people could attribute pregnancy symptoms to other things ....”
Suttie said she graduated as an honour-roll student from Heritage Park secondary school in Mission in 2001, then moved to Vancouver in 2004 to become a longshoreman, like her father Steve and mother Kathy.
Her strange and remarkable story begins when she became pregnant in mid-December 2010, then had a miscarriage six weeks later, on Jan. 26.
Suttie explained that she visited her family physician, Dr. Hugh Robinson on West 41st Avenue, and he performed an internal exam and concluded she’d had a “ clean miscarriage.”
He did give her a referral for an ultrasound in case she experienced any “ cramping or discomfort” but she felt fine and never went for one.
As a result, everyone missed out on some critical information: Suttie had been pregnant with twins and one was still alive and well, thank-you.
“ I was pregnant with twins and didn’t know it,” she confirmed.
Weight gain minimal
Over the ensuing months, Suttie and her father began to train for the West Coast Trail, partly as a bonding exercise and partly to put the disappointment of the miscarriage behind her.
“ I was doing a lot of hiking, trying to eat well, drinking lots of water,” she says from her parents’ home on First Avenue near Clark Drive.
“ My weight gain was pretty minimal. I did notice some of it had moved to my stomach but it wasn’t drastic. I’m also on a couple of medications that have some side effects — heart burn and having to pee all the time.
“ The pregnancy symptoms I just attributed to my medication. It was just a really weird circumstance.”
Still, the single mom does feel embarrassed to not have known, especially since it was not her first pregnancy.
As she breastfeeds Fern on the living-room recliner, her other daughter, Rowan, almost six years old, arrives home from Grade 1. Rowan says she is happy to have a sister and her mom home safe. “ It’s a good thing she had it in the hospital. But they had to cut her open,” Rowan says.
Suttie estimates she only gained about 15 pounds during the pregnancy and that she normally has weight fluctuations.
“ I was actually getting frustrated because I was doing all this hiking with my dad and he was starting to lean out and I was getting a little rounder around my belly.
“ I felt fine. I was going camping, chopping wood. We have a big canoe and I’d put it on and off the van, all the stuff I usually do.”
And what of the other signs that might have suggested pregnancy? Did she notice the baby kicking? “ There was a little bit of kicking. Again, I thought it was in my head.”
The lack of periods? “ I did have light spotting a few times. After a miscarriage, it’s not that uncommon not to get back to your regular cycle right away. I have pretty late periods, anyways, so I wasn’t thinking anything of it.”
Food cravings? “ I did have them — yogurt, fruit, ice-cream, a lot of dairy stuff.”
Morning sickness? “ I did, but that was when I knew I was pregnant, before I miscarried.”
Suttie adds that she broke up with her boyfriend, Fern’s father, right after the miscarriage so there was no reason to think she was pregnant from having further sex. They are still not together.
Suttie and her dad began the challenging 75-kilometre West Coast Trail hike at Port Renfrew on southwestern Vancouver Island on the afternoon of Aug. 29 heading north.
“ Right from the get-go I felt kind of weak,” she continues.
“ I didn’t feel like myself. We weren’t making the kilometres we’d planned on. I know myself, and I was not performing the way I usually do.
“ There are lots of fallen trees you have to scramble over and he was having to help pull me over them. A couple of times I’d take my pack off and hand it to him.”
She soldiered on for two days before she slipped on Aug. 31, twisting her right ankle, which turned purple.
“ Because I was weak, I stepped off of a boardwalk and rolled my ankle really bad. I fell face-first into a big pile of ferns [ yes, that’s where her daughter got her name] and onto my stomach. That’s when I had what I now know were my first contractions that put me into labour.”
Still, she continued to hike north over the toughest portion of the trail, stopping as the cramps dictated. “ I am going up rickety ladders, stopping and holding on to have a contraction. I thought it was the worst period of my life.”
On Sept. 1, Suttie and her dad camped near the Pacific Ocean where the trail meets Walbran Creek. Her pain intensified.
“ Halfway through the night, it was excruciating. I’d been in labour for two days. We didn’t know what was wrong. I said, ‘ I’m throwing in the towel, I can’t do this.’”
The next morning, Sept. 2, at 8: 15 a. m., Steve Suttie borrowed the cellphone of another hiker — a nurse from the Northwest Territories — and called Parks Canada to request an emergency rescue.
( Steve also called his wife, Karen, to report that Rachel was having tremendous stomach pains and that she should catch a ferry to Victoria General Hospital immediately. Recalls Karen: “ I said to him, ‘ Steve, it sounds like she’s having a baby. Is she pregnant?’ He said, ‘ No, how can she be pregnant, unless it’s the immaculate conception?’ I got a ferry and made it to the hospital and within 20 minutes I was in the operating room with her, holding her hand while they operated on her.”)
Rescued by boat
By 10: 30 a. m., two Parks Canada visitor-safety officers, Shannon Dixon and Pernell Tarnowski, arrived from Port Renfrew on board an inflatable boat powered by two 140-horsepower outboard engines. They anchored, then pumped up another four-metre inflatable, which they rowed across the surf line to the beach.
Dixon said the two officers, who are trained in first aid, spent about an hour conducting a physical examination and trying to figure out what might be wrong. Appendicitis went through their minds, as did pregnancy, even though Suttie showed no obvious physical signs. “ It’s so weird,” Dixon reflects. “ I did an abdominal exam, and there wasn’t an obvious belly.”
They put Suttie and her father in floater suits, then rowed back through 1.5-metre swells, transferred to the larger vessel and headed for Port Renfrew. A waiting ambulance picked them up at 1: 30 p. m. for the ride to Victoria General Hospital, where Suttie was officially admitted at 4: 18 p. m.
Along the way, she said a paramedic timing her contractions concluded: “ This can only be labour. You’re having a baby.’ I was in shock ... and exhausted dealing with the pain.”
She added: “ I can honestly say that labour is more painful when you don’t know you’re in labour. You have nothing to focus on.”
At 8: 12 p. m., Suttie gave birth via caesarean section to a fullterm baby girl weighing seven pounds, four ounces.
“ They did a lot of extra testing on her because she had no prenatal care, and she’s completely healthy.”
Steve Suttie said he thought at the time his daughter might have been suffering from a troubled spleen or appendix or gall bladder — anything but a pregnancy. “ We didn’t even think about that. Who would? To think, ‘ maybe there were twins and another one survived,’ ... that doesn’t even pop into your head.”
And even though his daughter put on weight, at no time did she give the appearance of being pregnant.
“ You know how some ladies carry their babies? You could sit a can of pop or a beer on their belly because it’s flat, it goes right out and then curves and comes right back in and you can tell they’re pregnant. She didn’t look like that,” Steve Suttie said.
And when he finally learned of the truth?
“ You might as well have taken a bat and swung it at me. I was outside the hospital and the paramedic says: ‘ You have to go upstairs, your daughter is going in for surgery. She’s having a baby.’
“ I was just floored, stunned. But then everything made sense.”
He adds, with a pregnant pause: “ I thought I was going to bring back some glass fishing floats or some sea shells, but we came back with a baby instead.”
Karen Suttie describes Fern as a miracle baby. “ She really is. We were all devastated when Rachel had the miscarriage. None of us would have imagined in a million years there’d be another baby there. I’m thrilled.”
After six days in hospital recovering from internal bleeding from a torn uterus, Rachel Suttie went straight to her family doctor. “ He felt terrible about it. I see him regularly and he didn’t notice that I looked pregnant.”
Suttie said her doctor said he will insist on ultrasounds in future for such patients. She believes he is a great doctor despite what happened and is more upset at herself for not picking up the signs.
Dr. Robinson declined to speak with The Sun.
As for the future, Suttie said one thing’s for sure: she plans to return to finish the West Coast Trail with her dad — and with Fern and Rowan when they’re old enough.
And when they come to that patch of ferns where she gave birth to one of the greatest stories ever told about the West Coast Trail?
“ What will I say to her?” she concludes. “ I’ll just say this is where it all happened.”
Rachel Suttie, 28, holds her three-week-old daughter Fern, who was born after Rachel was rescued from the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island while hiking with her father.
Rachel Suttie, 28, says she’s more understanding of women who do not recognize the symptoms of pregnancy after she went into labour while hiking three weeks ago.