23 October 2016Last updated

Real Life

‘Gestational diabetes killed my unborn son’

When Abby Lloyd, 27, began to drink cartons of sugary juice every day and put on massive weight during her pregnancy, she was alarmed. But her midwife simply brushed off her fears

As told to Kim Willis
18 Mar 2016 | 12:00 am
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  • With Harrison I gained so much weight, I used a mobility chair to get around a store. But I knew better when I became pregnant with Ruby.

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  • When I fell pregnant with Ruby, I decided to stabilise my pregnancy through independent research, and steer clear of the professionals.

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Glugging back a litre of sugary fruit juice, I just couldn’t satisfy my thirst. I laid a hand over my baby bump. I knew pregnant women had cravings, but I thought it was for the vitamins and minerals the body needed to fuel the pregnancy. I just craved sugary drinks. My thirst was insatiable, and I was drinking up litres of fruit juice every day.

The cravings began around four months in and didn’t stop. I ate so many sugary ice pops that my mouth was permanently dyed an array of bright colours. One time, I ate two boxes in one day – around 40 ice pops.

I’d been so excited when I found out I was pregnant in July 2009. But I was also nervous. I’d already had two miscarriages and couldn’t bear the thought of going through another one. I wanted to ensure everything was fine with this pregnancy.

‘We’re going to be OK this time,’ my then-partner, Mark, would say. ‘I hope so,’ I’d reply forlornly. I so longed to be a mum.

But my cravings for fruit juice were spiralling out of control – I could get through three-litre cartons at a time. Once, my friend came with me to the store. I bought a litre each of tropical fruit juice, orange juice and apple juice, and drank it all outside the shop. She looked at me with a mix of surprise and bewilderment. ‘Thirsty?’ she asked. ‘Yep,’ I said.

I’d always been into healthy eating, but now I was gorging on carb-heavy food. For lunch, I’d have a big portion of lasagne, and for dinner, bowls of spaghetti covered in mayo and cheese. As soon as I’d eaten, I’d fall into a heavy sleep. It didn’t matter if we had friends over, I just couldn’t stay awake. 
I felt overwhelmingly tired all the time.

Just a year earlier, I’d been working as a holiday rep in Minorca, Spain, running on the beach and swimming in the sea. Now I was hungry, sleepy and overweight. I weighed 61kg before; now, I was 101.

I was being monitored by a midwife at a local hospital. Needing reassurance, I asked her if my cravings were unusual.

‘I’m desperate for tins of pineapple and cartons of fruit juice,’ I said. ‘Is that weird?’ But she just laughed and said, ‘You’re pregnant! Of course, you’re having cravings. You have nothing to worry about.’

‘I’m really tired all the time,’ I added. I didn’t feel myself and wanted a medical professional to tell me if they thought there was something wrong. Again, she brushed me off. ‘Well, you are pregnant!’

The thirst showed no signs of dissipating, however, so I asked the midwife again at my next scan. ‘You’re pregnant!’ she repeated.

With her assurance that my cravings were normal, I even began to find it all funny. My friends and I would laugh as I guzzled back litres of juice and fall asleep.

Every time I brought up concerns with the midwife, she said the same thing. She made me feel stupid, so I grew scared of asking. She was the pro, so I just had to trust her – cravings, gaining weight and feeling exhausted were all part of pregnancy. When I saw a doctor for my penultimate scan, I felt so assured that the cravings were nothing to worry about, I didn’t mention anything.

I was seen five times by my midwife throughout the pregnancy. When I was asked if there was a history of diabetes in my family, I reported that my grandfather was diabetic. But I thought it was just a routine question, one of many. I never imagined that my cravings and weight gain were a clue.

By 38 weeks, I was a size 24, up from 10. I needed a mobility chair to get around my local supermarket, but my intermittent alarm bells were silenced by the midwife laughing me off. Even though I was miserable the entire time, completely not myself, Mark and I just agreed that this was me, pregnant.

He always comforted me. ‘You’ll be OK again as soon as the baby’s born.’ I hoped he was right. We tried to keep busy, buying a sailor-themed kit for the nursery, painting the room blue. Mark put up banners and I prepared the Moses basket. We knew we were having a boy and named him Harrison.

About 10 days ahead of my due date – April 23, 2010 – I had the show, one of the first signs of labour. I was so excited. My friends came round and we went to a supermarket, where I bought a curry, some tins of pineapple and a milkshake, all things I’d read would help induce labour.

Shooting pains pierced my stomach and we all thought it was happening. But then, nothing. In the end, my friends went home and I went to bed. Up at midnight, I raided the fridge for another gallon of juice. Then I fell asleep. For the first time in my pregnancy, I had a restful night’s sleep. It wasn’t the heavy, fitful sleep I was used to.

I didn’t wake up until 10am and after nine months of restless nights, something felt very different. I wasn’t tired or grouchy. I wasn’t thirsty. I felt good, but feeling good didn’t feel right. My belly felt rigid and hard, so my friend, Katie, took me to the hospital.

During the scan, the sonographer suddenly turned the screen away from me and ran out of the room. A doctor came to see me a few moments later, his face ashen.

Looking at the screen, then at me, he said: ‘I’m so sorry, there’s no heartbeat.’ I could feel panic stirring inside me and tears welling up. ‘What do you mean? How can that be?’ I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t understand how this could happen – I was just days away from my due date. But my son had died, and they didn’t know why.

I couldn’t fathom what they were saying. I wanted my baby. Instead, I was being told I needed to take a pill to induce labour. Katie had given birth herself a few months earlier and her baby was asleep in a car seat in the room with us. She was so horrified she ran out of the room crying. She called my mum who rallied the family to the hospital.

My head swam with confusion as I swallowed the white pill. I was supposed to go into labour within hours, but days went by. I developed an infection, and my temperature fluctuated constantly.

‘Mum, please get me a hot water bottle,’ I begged. But no sooner had I wrapped myself up, shivering turned to sweating and I’d kick back the covers. I felt dizzy and ill.

The pill took five days to work. Five days with my son inside me, knowing he hadn’t survived. A part of me kept hoping they’d got it wrong.

When my water broke, they realised he’d excreted inside me, which was causing my temperature to fluctuate. Crying in pain, I was given an epidural and told to push. But they realised he was too big and I was rushed away for a C-section.

On April 18, Harrison was stillborn, weighing nearly 4.5kg. The midwife who delivered him said: ‘This baby’s died.’ My little glimmer of hope that Harrison would make it, was over. They took him out of the room as Mum and I cried.

I didn’t want to see him at first. I was confused and frightened. But I realised I only had one chance. Mum wheeled me into the ward where Mark and the family were taking turns to cradle Harrison. He looked so vulnerable, so peaceful. A bereavement midwife came and took photos and casts of his tiny hands and feet.

‘I’m so sorry,’ I said, as I held my baby boy in my arms. We were all in tears. Mark kissed the top of my head, squeezing me in support. But no one knew what to do.

I was in hospital recovering when midwives suggested the possibility that I’d suffered from gestational diabetes. I’d never even heard of it. But I got discharged as soon as possible. I just wanted to get out of the hospital. I didn’t want to talk to the doctor, I didn’t trust anyone. I wanted to go back to Mum’s house. I never returned to our flat, which had the sailor-themed nursery. It was too painful.

Once home, I started researching gestational diabetes. I found that it’s a temporary form of diabetes that affects 
four per cent of all pregnancies. The fact that a close family member had diabetes was the one marker the midwife should have picked up on, even though I had shown other obvious symptoms like excessive exhaustion, weight gain and insatiable thirst. My two unexplained miscarriages could also have been a clue that I was inclined to develop gestational diabetes.

I’d never been asked to take the simple blood test that would have confirmed the diagnosis. I thought back to all those times the midwife had waved me off like I was paranoid. I’d put all my trust in her and she’d missed every sign. Harrison deserved better.

I spoke to the head of midwifery at the hospital, who invited Mark and me for a meeting. ‘We’re so sorry for your loss,’ she said. ‘We’re making the gestational diabetes test mandatory at the 20-week scan.’

But it wasn’t enough. My midwife had let me down and I wasn’t going to let it go. 
A post-mortem was carried out but proved inconclusive as Harrison had been inside me for five days after he died. Determined, I sued the hospital for negligence.

While the case carried on, I felt so low, I didn’t want to live. Nothing could bring my baby back, but without him I felt extreme guilt and sadness.

Then, in September 2011, I fell pregnant again. Mark and I were given another chance at happiness and I wasn’t going to leave anything to the professionals. It was my job to research the healthiest way to eat and I took my job very seriously. This time too I was always thirsty and exhausted. But I didn’t give in to the cravings. At 20 weeks I took the blood test I should’ve had when pregnant with Harrison, and was diagnosed with gestational diabetes. I figured it was inevitable given how I’d been craving sweet drinks. It showed me how preventable Harrison’s death was.

‘You’ll need to have insulin injections throughout your pregnancy,’ the midwife instructed. It wasn’t the same one. I had no choice but to attend the same hospital, but I requested the bereavement midwife who’d helped us after Harrison’s birth and she remained with me during this pregnancy.

My new midwife supported me as I opted to manage the diabetes with a strict diet of chicken, broccoli and spinach. I avoided everything I’d devoured when I was pregnant with Harrison, like carbs, fruit and sugary drinks. I’d have done the same for him, if only I’d known.

Over time, the bump grew, but I didn’t gain excess weight. In fact, I’d never been healthier. The midwife tested my blood sugar levels regularly, and said: ‘I’m impressed! You’re controlling this yourself.’

I didn’t dare buy anything for the new baby. After what I’d been through, I wouldn’t believe she was OK until she was in my arms. I didn’t decorate her nursery or buy her toys.

Ruby was born in April 2012, weighing around 3.5kg.

As soon as she arrived, Mum ran down to the hospital shop and bought Ruby her first gift – a big pink balloon.

She brought light back into my life. Even after the pressure of what we’d been through led Mark and I to split up, Ruby was there, giggling, learning, in awe of the world, giving me a reason to smile again.

In July 2014, the hospital trust admitted a breach of duty in relation to the standard of antenatal care I received.

It also accepted that if the midwife had run appropriate tests and checks throughout my pregnancy, Harrison would have lived. Instead, the fact my blood sugar levels were left so persistently high led to poor oxygen and nutrient supply to the baby and resulted in his death.

The hospital admitted its failure to take into account my BMI of 30 or family history of diabetes as well, and I was given a settlement.

For me, it was never about the money. 
It was about ensuring that lessons were learned from Harrison’s unnecessary death. The money is set aside for Ruby’s future. After all, she gave me back mine.

Gestational diabetes tests are not compulsory. It’s up to us to know what to look out for. I don’t want other women to come as close to motherhood and lose it all, as I did with Harrison, when such a simple test could save our babies.

Abby Lloyd lives in Milton Keynes, UK.

As told to Kim Willis

As told to Kim Willis