“MY BABY AND I NEARLY LOST OUR LIVES”
Beth Diana Samuel shares about her traumatic journey – from being diagnosed with hypercalcaemia during pregnancy to finding out she had thyroid cancer.
One woman’s long and arduous journey to becoming a mum.
“Iwas at my first advertising job when I collapsed at work due to kidney stones. Little did I know that it would be the beginning of eight painful years, reoccurring annually, and that it would lead to more critical health problems. The doctors found it peculiar as I was so young – I turn 29 this year – and I was constantly told I wasn’t drinking enough water. For years, I was downing four to five litres of water a day and going to the toilet plenty!
A Downhill Turn
When I got married three years ago, the planning of the wedding was a complete blur and I didn’t feel any excitement – at one point, I didn’t even care that I was going to get married. These were all signs of depression, which I had been brushing off until my sister, who is a child therapist, picked up that I wasn’t really myself. She scheduled me for an appointment with a renowned psychiatrist, who diagnosed me with major depressive disorder. He even tested me to see if I had a thyroid problem as depression could sometimes be a side effect of hormonal imbalances, but my results came back clear.
For the next year, I’d be on various combinations of medication – one particular concoction would see me bursting into tears for hours and I’d lock myself in the toilet. I was terrified of losing my job – my doctor even told me to keep it from my higherups as mental illnesses are still very much taboo in Asia. But when I told my managing director who’s based in Singapore about my condition, he reassured me that everything was going to be okay and even flew down the very next week to help me manage. As much as the medication controlled my lows, it controlled my highs as well, leaving me in a constant state of numbness. I wasn’t sad, but I wasn’t happy either – so much so that I barely felt a thing at the time when I had a miscarriage. We had just won a huge pitch for a client and I remember my stomach hurting badly. I started to bleed and discharged clumps of tissue. Petrified, I collected everything and rushed to the doctor, who ran some tests and confirmed that I had miscarried. That was how I found out I was pregnant, yet not pregnant. I drove to work and carried on as per normal right after – shutting down and refusing to discuss what had happened with my husband. Only much later did I take the time to digest the overwhelming feelings that came with seeing life literally leave my body.
Kick-Starting A New Life
Being a naturally bubbly person, it was frustrating to not feel anything – driving me to research if it was possible to manage depression without medication. I understand that doctors would advise against it, but I was convinced I could do it and told my psychiatrist that I was going to stop seeing him. That was when I started yoga, meditating and a whole new healthy lifestyle. I became more mindful about where I was spending my time at, and began to recognise the signs when my depressive phases came and went. One of the biggest changes I did was to move about – going for a run would kick-start a rush of endorphins. For awhile, things were quite settled and I happily found out I was pregnant early last year.
A Bittersweet Surprise
Unfortunately, very quickly, we realised it wasn’t a normal pregnancy. I was treated at a private hospital but my doctor was concerned about my unusually high blood pressure – so much so that I would be admitted each time I went for my visits. Due to my complicated medical history (kidney stones and depression), she recommended a professor from a government hospital who handles high-risk pregnancies.
It was a very trying period, as I had to come to grasp with the fact that all the plans I had laid out for my pregnancy and birth were quickly snatched from me. As I was such a high risk, I was told to undergo a Caesarean delivery. It was around the 20th week of my pregnancy when my blood pressure was so high, I had to be admitted and they ran a full blood work on me. The results came back showing abnormally high levels of calcium, prompting the professor to get the endocrine team to check up on me.
The next doctor that came to see me was an endocrinologist who informed me that I couldn’t be discharged. I had hypercalcaemia (high levels of calcium in the blood), caused by the malfunctioning of parathyroid glands (also responsible for the kidney stones and depression). Hypercalcaemia can sometimes turn out to be a silent killer – it starts off with kidney stones, but in more severe cases, could lead to abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia) and kidney failure. Those affected could die from a brain aneurysm or heart problems and once dead, it would be impossible to run blood works to confirm the cause of death. Because I was pregnant and unable to be put on medication, they had to pump litres of water through my veins to flush out the calcium. My veins would collapse
every day and the peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC) line would have to be changed. By the time I was discharged, 30 over lines had been set. Once, I was in so much pain, I couldn’t even lie down – I didn’t think I was going to make it.
An Emotional Rollercoaster
It was very difficult for me to come to terms with my condition and the doctors had to stage what they called a “medical intervention”. I was in a room filled with 25 doctors as they explained to my husband and I just how grave the situation was. Being pregnant, my hormones were all over the place, and my calcium levels had shot up exponentially – which is also the reason why they had caught my hypercalcaemia. At the same time, my baby was saving my life as she was absorbing some of the excess calcium. What would have hypothetically happened if I hadn’t been diagnosed in time was that once I gave birth to her, my calcium levels would spike dramatically and I could have gone into a coma. My risk of dying at childbirth was very real. And two weeks later, my baby girl would have died as well, as her glands wouldn’t have been able to produce calcium, having received an oversupply of it in the womb. The verdict was that I would have to deliver my baby at 34 weeks, which terrified and saddened me – as a mother, my instinct was to protect my child, but I couldn’t even give her the bare minimum of time in my womb to grow.
It was a very surreal birth – she was so frail and tiny, barely making a sound at just 1.67kg. Thankfully, while I was pregnant with her, they’d given me two very painful steroid injections to develop her lungs so she didn’t need a breathing apparatus or incubation. It was also devastating for me to know that I wouldn’t be able to breastfeed her as my body was filled with medication – but I held on, convinced that the worst was almost over.
An Unexpected Twist
Right after the birth, I underwent a biopsy of my thyroid and parathyroid glands (they regulate calcium levels) to fix my hypercalcaemia. They ended up taking two tissue samples, as the first
“AS MUCH AS THE MEDICATION CONTROLLED MY LOWS, IT CONTROLLED MY HIGHS AS WELL – LEAVING ME IN A CONSTANT STATE OF NUMBNESS.”
had looked suspicious. The endocrine doctor then broke the news to me that it may be cancerous – which was another blow because I’d been under the impression that all it’d take was an injection and surgery to remove the malfunctioning parathyroid gland (the human body has four and each is the size of a grain of rice). I was then referred to an endocrine surgeon in another hospital, who told me that when the team went to work fixing the parathyroid problem, they’d take a tissue sample and have it checked for cancer. Thankfully, they had the technology to confirm it within that duration – so they could make an informed decision whether to do a partial thyroidectomy, or a full thyroidectomy if it was indeed cancer. Unfortunately, it was the latter, but the great news was that my doctor said it looked as if it hadn’t spread anywhere else or hit any of my lymph nodes. However, with this surgery, there were no clear margins, so I had to undergo radioactive iodine therapy to kill off the rest of the cells. While it wasn’t painful, the agony was being away from my newborn daughter, Keisha, for about a month. This was about seven months ago and I’m very happy to say that just last week, I went for a check-up and was given the all-clear!
Light At The End Of The Tunnel
It’s amazing how the entire universe conspired to keep my baby and I alive. If I hadn’t been pregnant with Keisha, I would have never found out I had hypercalcaemia and if that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have gone in to remove my parathyroid glands only to catch my thyroid cancer at such an early stage! Not to mention, my relationship with my husband has only grown from strength to strength – he never once left our side and had such unwavering faith that I would get through it. He would look at me and say ‘I cannot do this without you’. Every step of the way, all I could think about was that and how I really wanted a baby girl – I didn’t even give myself an option to not be there for her. And I thought to myself, even if I did go, it was important that my daughter would remember me for my fighting spirit. I look at her now and think, ‘I get to take care of you’. It was traumatic, but it was all a very small price to pay for a lifetime of giggles and laughter with her.