3 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Ectopic Pregnancies, Like Mine

By Shannon Layne | June 29, 2022
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A little over a month ago I had emergency surgery to treat an ectopic pregnancy. 

It was scary and painful and unexpected and I am still recovering physically and emotionally. I am lucky to live somewhere where, when the doctors realized it was not a simple case of appendicitis and I was already open on the operating table, they did not hesitate to perform the surgery that saved my life. My abdomen was already full of blood, and my fallopian tube on that side—which had to be surgically removed—was ruptured due to the expanding embryo. I was about five and a half weeks pregnant at the time (I know specifically, down to the day, since I’m an IVF patient). If it had been possible to preserve the pregnancy somehow, I would have done it happily, but science hasn’t found that path yet. 

Some questions I ask myself: Was it an abortion, since an implanted, fertilized embryo was removed from my body? Was it a miscarriage, since it could never have grown to term, no matter what anyone did? Does it matter? To me, it doesn’t, since the outcome would always be the same, and I have absolutely no issue referring to it as an abortion. An ectopic pregnancy is never viable, and I was already bleeding internally when I went into surgery. To the rest of the world in a post-Roe v. Wade society, that seems to be a very important question. Whatever you want to call the operation that was performed on me, it saved my life. I just wanted to take a minute to remind people of that, especially the Supreme Court and certain Oklahoma senators who ask why exceptions to trigger law abortion bans have to include treatment for ectopic pregnancies. (Because they lead to death. That’s why. Without care, you die.)

I was genuinely surprised by the way my ectopic pregnancy unfolded, and by the things I found out after—from how common they really are, to signs that you should go to the hospital.

It’s Not As Rare As You Think

According to the American Pregnancy Association, the rate of ectopic pregnancies is 1 in 50, or roughly 1 to 2%. To me, that doesn’t sound that rare at all, even though it is still classified as a rare diagnosis. I felt this on a physical level when I came into the emergency room and it still took over 12 hours to get me into surgery, and even then it was for what was assumed to be appendicitis, not an ectopic pregnancy. There is a genuine misconception that it’s such an uncommon diagnosis that it probably isn’t happening to you. 

Here’s another kicker: it’s slightly more common in IVF patients, so I was already at a higher risk. There are other risk factors I didn’t have, but even having one seems like enough of a reason to consider it more seriously early on. I think a part of me was also a bit in denial, and I kept hoping the doctor would tell me I could go home. It’s a good thing I didn’t.

It’s The Leading Cause Of Maternal Death In the First Trimester

If an embryo implants anywhere but the uterus, it isn’t a viable pregnancy and requires medical treatment. In cases like mine where the ectopic pregnancy is in the fallopian tube and the tube has ruptured, surgery is necessary. I don’t need my fallopian tubes as much now that I’ve moved from IUI (intrauterine insemination) to IVF (in vitro fertilization), because the embryo will be implanted directly by a doctor as opposed to a fertilized egg traveling down my tubes. That’s my silver lining: one less tube, one less potential problem! 

Ectopic pregnancies can be diagnosed at different stages, and not all need emergency surgery like mine, but they are the leading cause of maternal death in the first trimester. That’s a scary statistic. They do happen, and when they do, they’re dangerous—even if they are caught early on and can be treated without surgery.

Getting A Diagnosis Can Be Confusing

I wasn’t bleeding, as far as I could tell. I wouldn’t find out about the internal bleeding until later.  My stomach felt distended and uncomfortable, but bloating is common in early pregnancy. I’ve always had digestive issues, so the G.I. symptoms and pressure weren’t all that uncommon, either. I think the real moment when I should have started feeling more alarmed was when I had intense pain and extreme pressure in my lower abdomen on one side. 

I remember a moment where I was on my hands and knees on the bathroom floor. When I stood up, my legs shook uncontrollably and I had to try not to pass out. I went to the emergency room shortly after that; it was probably in those minutes that my tube ruptured fully. For the next 12 hours or so, some of the sharpest pain subsided, but there was a consistent throbbing, sick feeling in my stomach. It still took hours and hours to diagnose. So my advice would be to seek help immediately if you have pain like mine, and to ask the doctor early on if an ectopic pregnancy could be possible. I assumed that because I’d told the treating doctor in the emergency room that I was pregnant, they’d take the possibility into account, but sometimes (always, as someone with a uterus seeking care) you do have to push harder. Don’t dismiss it, or wait to see if it gets better, and ask to talk to the ob-gyn on call if you can’t see your own. The sooner treatment can be given, the better.

When I woke up from what I thought was an emergency appendectomy to a doctor telling me I’d actually been treated for an ectopic pregnancy, I was devastated. But I also knew that I was alive, that my fertility treatment didn’t depend on my fallopian tubes, and that I could probably try IVF again. In all the time spent trying to get pregnant, an ectopic pregnancy wasn’t an outcome I expected—and I thought I was prepared for all the worst possibilities: failed embryo transfers, miscarriages, complications, the works. But this one I didn’t see coming.

It’s important to realize ectopic pregnancy happens more than you’d think, and when it does, it can be life-threatening. I’m lucky to be healing well from that day. Every day I feel stronger. It’s a weird sensation, to feel lucky after having gone through what I did, but I received the care I needed in time. That’s a miracle in itself in this country right now.

Images: Sergey Filimonov /Stocksy.com

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