I didn’t know what an ectopic pregnancy was until I had one

When Scarlett Russell discovered she was pregnant, she and her partner Chris were delighted – they had conceived quickly. But they soon discovered the pregnancy was ectopic and a harrowing process began…

I remember a few things vividly: the strong smell of antiseptic and faint smell of urine in the hospital and lying on a bed in A&E, deliriously convinced that the Paracetamol I’d been administered was actually ecstasy, and repeatedly telling my weary boyfriend, Chris, that I was “coming up.” He patiently explained that there was no logical reason why a hospital would stock illegal drugs and that it was “exhaustion and shock” that was likely confusing me. We both started laughing – what else can you do? – then the crotch of my jeans started rapidly staining with blood. Shortly after that, I was admitted to the ward in preparation for surgery.

I didn’t know what an ectopic pregnancy was until I had one in April. For the fellow uninitiated, it’s where the fertilised egg starts developing inside your fallopian tube instead of your uterus. If it grows and ruptures the tube, there’s lots of internal bleeding and the risk of death. It’s sometimes caused by previous pelvic infections, like chlamydia, but often is just bad luck. Once spotted, you need treatment sharpish.

I was five weeks pregnant when we found out in March. Apparently, twinges, mild cramps and spots of bleeding were normal, so we didn’t worry much when I started experiencing all three a week later. When the pains started increasing, though, we figured a check-up wouldn’t hurt and went to the Women’s Diagnostic Unit at the Whittington Hospital, which specialises in problems in early pregnancy. A scan ruled out an ectopic, though at six weeks it was still too early to properly tell.

After several days of blood tests, we were already fearing the worst. We knew that miscarriages this early on were common, and the pain I was experiencing was not normal. I’ll never forget the moment we got the call from a lovely doctor, Harry. On speakerphone as Chris and I held hands and fought back tears, he confirmed that I had miscarried. “One in four pregnancies now end in miscarriages,” he said, hopefully, trying to reassure us, “and there is nothing you’ve done wrong.” The next day, against all the advise from friends and family, I went back to work. It was only for one day, I figured, and we were taking a mini-break after that. I fought back the physical pain and sleep-deprivation and got on with it. Somehow, two weeks later, I even felt back to normal.

Harry had instructed me to take another pregnancy test at this point. He expected the result to be negative; it was to check that my body was recovering as it should. I felt so healthy I put it off for days and probably would have ignored his advise altogether were it not for my friend and Chris insisting I do it “just to be on the safe side.” I thought it was a waste of time, and even when it showed a ‘positive’ result I didn’t flap.

Chris deduced that the pregnancy hormones were probably just taking a while to leave my body. But when another test, two days later, still showed positive, I calmly phoned the Whittington’s WDU. A nurse was concerned; considering how early on I was in my pregnancy, any dormant hormones should certainly have disappeared by now. She asked me to come back in. I was scanned by a nurse, a doctor and a specialist. They calmly explained that I had not miscarried, that I was still pregnant, but that the baby was inside my right fallopian tube and this is what they call an ectopic pregnancy. My options were surgery to remove the fertilised egg, possibly the entire tube, or an injection of methotrexate, which would stop the growth of the egg before it had a chance to rupture. This would avoid surgery, but the side effects are heavy; it’s a drug used to treat chemotherapy. Plus, even with the baby gone I’d still be left with a damaged tube and nothing to prevent a future ectopic inside it. Which course of treatment was up to me.

What surprised the doctors, however, was that I felt no pain. Most ectopics have women in agony. More blood tests were taken and I was sent back to work, but told to call the WDU if I felt any pain. Call it shock, call it a coping mechanism, but I just wasn’t alarmed. In fact, my biggest concern was whether I’d be able to interview Kylie Minogue on Friday, an interview for my job that had been set up for weeks. The nurse looked startled, and explained that any surgery was elective but that if I was in pain I should come into A&E immediately. Chris was worried again, and unnerved by my indifference.

There were several more days of blood tests – they do this to monitor the pregnancy hormone levels in my blood. A lot of waiting around. But the results showed no drops or surges in the hormones, so the doctors couldn’t decide whether the ectopic was growing or not. Because I felt no pain, and wanted to avoid surgery at all costs, it somehow seemed easy for me to ignore what was happening and just get on with it. I was too excited by the prospect of meeting my childhood hero, it provided a terrific distraction. One hour before the interview a nurse phoned me to advise that I go in for surgery, “to be on the safe side”. I was hearing a lot of that recently. My reply was; “can it wait until tonight, though? I’m at work.” She told me to go straight to A&E if I felt any pain, and I hung up, convinced that it was all a fuss over nothing.

Within a minute of the interview, I started to feel a sharp stabbing pain in my lower abdomen. I ignored it (adrenaline is nature’s painkiller), but directly after went into the Whittington’s A&E as advised. I was panicked because the pain startled me, but within an hour it had eased off and I felt silly for being there. When my teeth suddenly started chattering (a symptom of shock) my logic was that the nurse has spiked me with MDMA. She firmly told me “an ectopic is considered a medical emergency,” and prepped me for surgery. But though I was kept in hospital for two nights, they didn’t operate and I was sent home because I felt okay.

But back at home, I started to feel horrendous; weak and aching and shivering despite not feeling cold. Chris was at breaking point. Weeks of worry and sleepless nights were taking their toll on him, and my blasé attitude only worried him more. He told me that at least when I was in hospital he knew I was taken care of. Back at home he felt helpless.

The next morning, I packed my hospital bag: Phone charger, earphones, deodorant, magazines. We checked back into the WDU, where the staff all agreed that surgery was the best course of action. My mum joined us and I typed out a handover for my work colleagues on my phone. The team of female doctors were, calm, kind and reassuring. They explained I’d have keyhole surgery which would take 45 minutes, they’d only remove the entire tube if they had to and, as long as I still had one tube, I could still get pregnant again.

It was when I was wheeled off to surgery that the enormity over the past few weeks caught up with me. I suddenly felt terrified. I cried, screamed and was physically restrained as I tried to get out of the bed. I was in such a state, Chris was allowed to come into the anaesthetist’s room with me, filled with people in masks ignoring my pleas to go home. According to him, as I was taken back to the ward, post-surgery, I accused the well-mannered staff of “experimenting on me.” Turns out anaesthetic doesn’t agree with me. Sorry, NHS staff.

I went home the following day, weak, groggy and unable to walk without crying. It hurt a lot. I have three scars: a deep one on my groin, a small one on my left hip and a tiny one in my belly button. My right tube fallopian tube is gone but the left one is healthy. It took me a couple of days to walk or pee without wincing in pain, two weeks until I returned to work though I was exhausted for weeks after.

We were inundated with flowers. I have nothing but gratitude to everyone who sent them, though all but one bunch were addressed just to me. It’s natural to sympathise with the one who was in hospital, who had the surgery, but I would advise anyone who knows a couple affected by a miscarriage or an ectopic to spread their kindness to both partners. Five months later, I still feel that Chris, in many ways, actually suffered more than I did. I may have the physical scars, but can’t imagine how distressing it must be to watch someone you love suffer, with no idea how to help them.

My period returned in May and I wanted to start trying to conceive again straight away. Chris was more cautious and hesitant; was it too soon? But I’m 35 now and not sure how long we should wait. The chance of me getting pregnant is the same – the body is very clever and eggs from my ovaries will do their best to cluster towards the left tube to increase the chance of conception – but my risk of another ectopic is around 5-10% higher. If it does happen again, and my left tube is removed, the only way I will get pregnant is via IVF, though we hope not to have to get to that stage.

I think about what happened all the time. It’s hard not to when you have an angry red scar where the Brazilian-wax ‘landing strip’ goes. I laugh at the absurdity of it all. I’m angry with my body for letting me down but also grateful that it handled it so well.

But I am still astounded by the secrecy around the subject. None of my close friends who are mothers have experienced a miscarriage, but they’d all known someone who had. And several of them knew someone who’d had an ectopic. I felt so foolish for not knowing more about the risks of conceiving and the demands it makes on your body. When so much can go wrong, it’s given me a huge new wave of appreciation for all mothers. I hope the conversation around these things is normalised soon. We also sought advice from ectopic.org.uk, a wonderful website which helped us a great deal.

Perhaps the best takeaway is how it bonded my relationship. Chris and I share something that is unique, painful, beautiful and only for us. We’ve been tested and it made us stronger as a couple. And what better preparation for parenthood is that?

Scarlett is entertainment editor at the Sunday Times Style