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What Spinal Headaches Are Like After an Epidural

The Doctors Screwed Up My Epidural, and It Ruined My First Days of Motherhood

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At 8:31 a.m. on a sunny and crisp morning in New York City, our tiny, perfect daughter was born. Our lives were forever changed from the instant all five pounds of her were placed on my sobbing chest. The day that followed was a sleep-deprived whirlwind of excitement, wonder, and love. Fast forward 24 hours later to a nurse delivering my daughter from the nursery. I picked my head up off the pillow to kiss her and experienced such a rush of pain that I nearly passed out. I fought through it to go to the breastfeeding class being held in the next room. In the middle of it, mortified, I had to pass my daughter to a nurse so I wouldn't drop her. The pain was worse than the contractions had been.

The diagnosis was spinal headaches from the epidural injections. The risk of this happening is reported to be less than one percent. While I was in labor, a few hours after the epidural had been administered, I was suddenly in extreme pain. Somehow, the epidural had come out. After fighting through contractions for an hour, two anesthesiologists finally entered the room. I was screaming and crying as they positioned me to reinsert the epidural. Fifteen minutes passed, then 30, then 45, then an hour. Contractions came every two minutes while two anesthesiologists poked and prodded at my back. I was in too much pain to process or question what was happening, and finally, two excruciating hours later, the epidural was in place and I began to feel relief.

I looked at the clock and realized I had been out for 14 hours. Fourteen hours of missed time with my newborn baby.

In an effort to fix what was causing this pain, the head anesthesiologist gave me a blood patch, which was unsuccessful, and the pain continued. I was given several different painkillers, which, to say the least, severely altered my mental state. Things didn't get easier once we left the hospital to go home. I was devastated that I couldn't breastfeed for the first couple of days because of the medicine. The high-dosage painkillers put me right to sleep. The only way I could function without them was to stay completely horizontal in bed. Medicated or unmedicated, I couldn't properly care for my daughter; I could barely pick her up.

My emotions, heightened by postpartum hormones, were all over the place. One minute I was ecstatic about being a mother and hopeful I'd feel back to normal soon, the next I was uncontrollably sobbing and feared postpartum depression was creeping in. One awful moment in particular is seared into my brain. I woke up to my mom stroking my head, our daughter nuzzled into her chest. I looked at the clock and realized I had been out for 14 hours. Fourteen hours of missed time with my newborn baby. I was so ashamed and sad that I didn't even want to see my daughter and asked my mom to give her to my husband. I curled up into a ball and cried myself back to sleep.

When I eventually recovered and was able to have a level-headed conversation with my doctor, I realized what had happened. The anesthesiologists who administered both epidurals were a physician and resident team. The physician should have stepped in and given the epidural when the resident didn't get it on the first try. Instead, he was allowed to repeatedly try to get the epidural in, failing over and over again.

My spine looked like a dartboard for weeks. At the time, I was just so grateful my daughter had arrived happy and healthy. Time brings clarity, and I'm irate this was allowed to happen. I was incredibly lucky to have the strong support of my husband and mom during that first week, something many other women don't have. If not for my family, I don't know how my daughter and I would have survived. The doctors warned me of the one percent chance of spinal headaches, but they never once mentioned that anyone other than a fully qualified, experienced doctor would be administering my epidural.

When it's time to deliver our next baby, only the most senior anesthesiologist will be allowed anywhere near my spine. Going through labor and delivery without pain management would be preferred to spinal headaches every single time. I delivered on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, home to some of the best doctors in the country. Trust me, it can happen anywhere.

Image Source: Lilly Holland
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