Kate's public condition is a real service to womankind
Published 17/05/2015 | 02:30
When baby Princess Charlotte was born earlier this month to Kate and William, the world's media reported it with the usual sunny response to such events. As Victor-Hugo noted in his famous poem, Lorsque l'enfant parait, everyone loves the appearance of a baby. It's a good news story.
And yet, the Duchess of Cambridge, the former Kate Middleton, has also done a real service to womankind by the thoroughly unpleasant experience she endured before giving birth to both her children: that is, publicly suffering from the acute form of morning sickness with the medical name of hyperemesis gravidarum.
Most women experience a little nausea or some odd reactions to food and drink when they become pregnant. Throwing up in the morning is usual. The smell of coffee or the taste of wine may become suddenly repugnant.
But it wasn't until Kate's condition became public -during her first pregnancy with baby George - that the ghastly impact of acute morning sickness became widely publicised. She had to withdraw from public engagements; she had to be hospitalised; she was hooked up to intravenous fluids and dosed with (often ineffective) medication to cope with the vomiting and the nausea.
With HG, as it's now called, vomiting can occur up to 50 times a day, which is severely weakening to the physical and mental system. Low blood pressure, acid in the blood and urine, and quite debilitating depression can accompany HG. It usually strikes in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, though some women experience HG for much longer. Kate announced her second pregnancy in early September 2014, and she was ill from then until about the middle of November, when her brother James disclosed that she was beginning to recover. She couldn't travel at all: sometimes women affected with the condition cannot even stand up.
HG is statistically rare - only affecting about one per cent of pregnant women. And yet, rare as it may be, some women find the condition literally unbearable: about 1,000 women a year in England and Wales terminate a pregnancy because of HG. I encountered a woman who had three abortions because she was so badly affected. She felt, with the onset of each pregnancy, that she was going to die.
As depression often accompanies HG, this could be a contributing factor to pregnancy termination. But the remedy, surely, is to help women when they have this condition, to do more research as to why it occurs and to develop more and better treatment. The first step, as with any medical condition, is diagnosis and knowledge, and perhaps there is no better way to make something understood than to highlight a celebrity's experience.
How many women in the past may have suffered from HG and perhaps were considered some kind of wimp for "not putting up with a bit of morning sickness"? I heard that remark made when the scandal of thalidomide broke. This drug was prescribed in pregnancy to cope with anxiety, nausea and morning sickness. As everyone knows, thalidomide caused severe malformations in babies (it was never available the US, as the federal drug authorities were not happy with the lab tests).
Pregnancy is a natural condition, but that doesn't make it problem-free for everyone. The conception of an infant can have a complex impact on a woman's system.
Increasing our knowledge of conditions such as HG should increase our respect for mothers who endure difficult ailments to bring a baby to term. Granted, Kate Cambridge will have had a support system seldom available to the less privileged - there was a team of 40 doctors, nurses and other assistants to help her through the birth of Charlotte (and to help her look so elegant when she emerged from the hospital doors a few hours after the birth).
The medical journals note that, as yet, we don't know why HG occurs, but there are some old wives' tales which may be something of consolation to those vulnerable to it. It is said that a difficult pregnancy for the mother makes for a more intelligent child - as if cooking up superior brainpower in a baby takes a more intense level of maternal input. And having felt deathly ill for the first three months of pregnancy, it must be an ever greater relief when the symptoms of HG recede, and a greater relief still when the infant is born.
It would hardly be surprising, however, if the Cambridges stopped at two children since HG, once established, is likely to repeat in each pregnancy. Kate has suffered valiantly for the sake of motherhood and perhaps she may now feel she has done her bit. And she has done her bit for other HG sufferers.
Illustration: rachel Corcoran