IT HAPPENED TO ME: My Epidural Caused Spinal Fluid to Leak Into My Bloodstream

I required a surgical procedure to fill the hole created when the anesthesiologist punctured my spinal membrane.
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Stacey Freeman
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I required a surgical procedure to fill the hole created when the anesthesiologist punctured my spinal membrane.

I should have been at home holding my three-day-old daughter. Instead, I lay in a hospital bed in the emergency room, praying for relief from the anguish I was feeling.

"Whatever you do, make sure not to move," the doctor instructed as he injected a cold needle filled with blood into my spinal cavity. He didn't have to worry — I wasn't going anywhere.

It's a wonder I was able to walk into the emergency room at all alongside my then-husband before being ushered onto a gurney where I instinctively got into the fetal position. I had suffered from migraines before, but this one was different, as well as being the second I was experiencing within a week.

The birth had been an easy one, even easier than the first only 14 months earlier, though much more of a surprise with labor beginning unexpectedly in the middle of the night as opposed to during daylight hours and in the comfort and controlled setting of my doctor's office. (Come baby number three, I would opt for door number one — labor induction — without hesitation, believing that doing so would limit the chances for what happened with number two from happening again.)

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I had heard about women choosing natural childbirth, but after feeling several contractions, I knew for certain I would have died in a field had I resided back in Walnut Grove. This, however, was modern-day suburban New Jersey, and I screamed like Shirley MacLaine did in Terms of Endearment to a group of medical residents to give me the shot — the coveted epidural shot. 

They didn't listen. Not right away, at least, first testing me for every conceivable complication listed in Gray's Anatomy before finally standing down.

Teaching hospitals. Sigh.

The baby came at 8:30 a.m. and without incident. We were both happy and healthy (or so I thought), that mild headache of mine surely a consequence of hunger and nothing that couldn't be cured by a turkey sandwich (my old standby whenever I didn't feel well), even so early in the morning.

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However, within hours, I found standing increasingly difficult, especially as I pushed the plastic bassinet from the hospital nursery to my room. By Wednesday morning, holding the baby became unbearable and, by late afternoon, I refused to take her at all.

I'll never forget the look of disgust on the nurse's face when I told her to take my baby away. I was a monster of the worst order.

That same nurse brought the baby back a few hours later but, by then, I could barely sit up and shooed both of them away without looking in their direction.

"I'm not feeling well," I finally confessed. "My head is pounding."

Two Tylenol later, I was no better off — even worse, really — yet no one seemed to notice or care, despite the repeated but mild inquiries from my mother and husband about my uncharacteristic behavior.

When the nurse came around later that night, I reiterated I was sick. She stared at me blankly.

"You're not listening to me!" I whimpered, tears welling up in my eyes.

Menacingly standing at the foot of my bed, she said the words no hospital patient should ever hear: "I've paid enough attention to you already."

Alone in my darkened room, long after visiting hours had ended and my family had gone home, I turned on my side and tried to sleep. The discomfort I was feeling made that nearly impossible. After drifting off in the early morning hours, I was awakened by the anesthesiologist who had performed my epidural. He stood next to my bed, horrified. 

"No one told me," he stammered. "No one told me."

A full 24 hours had passed since I had given birth.

The anesthesiologist explained he had likely punctured my spinal membrane; I was leaking spinal fluid into my bloodstream and had been for an entire day. 

Spinal fluid surrounds the brain. If that level decreases, the fluid pressure around our brain changes, and we can experience what is known as a spinal headache. To stop the leakage, I would require a blood patch, a surgical procedure during which my blood would be used to fill the hole (or holes) accidentally created during the administration of my epidural.

The procedure was, at first, a success, but after returning home and not having ample time to rest (perhaps making the break-fast meal following Yom Kippur on my first day back was not such a brilliant idea), I found myself in the hospital again exactly three days after my daughter's birth.

Performing a surgical procedure in the spinal cavity involves risk and can only be repeated so many times in the same area. This would be the second and final blood patch I would receive, regardless of whether it worked, partially worked, or didn't work at all.

Achieving partial success by way of limited relief, I lay in bed for the next three weeks, unable to hold either of my children let alone drive anywhere. On top of it, I was advised to consume as much caffeine as possible to facilitate the healing process. The combination of imposed bed rest with the ingestion of a stimulant was challenging. But I suffered through it and experienced no lasting physical effects.

Because of the condition I was in, I have very few photos of my second child during the earliest part of her life, but we make up for that now.

Because of the condition I was in, I have very few photos of my second child during the earliest part of her life, but we make up for that now.

Whenever we enter a medical environment, even for something as seemingly routine and joyous as having a baby, events can go awry. As I quickly discovered, not everyone was looking out for me, even those dutifully charged with that responsibility.

There were many missteps during my hospital stay, some of which were my own. I was afraid to be forceful even as my health declined, and I had not specifically designated someone beforehand to be in charge of my medical care, despite the fact that the two people closest in the world to me and who loved me most — my mother and my husband — were present. No one person was made responsible.

Today, I ask for help. I point a finger. It may just save a life.