Harmony's High Block Epidural Story: "I Can't Breathe" | This West Coast Mommy
Birth Stories

Harmony’s High Block Epidural Story: “I Can’t Breathe”

Editor’s note: We believe that all birth stories and all birth experiences matter. This post is part of an ongoing series of birth stories submitted by readers and fellow bloggers, featuring a diverse range of women and their birth experiences. This is Harmony’s terrifying experience with a high block, a rare and life threatening complication of an epidural where the anesthesia paralyzes the phrenic nerve which controls the diaphragm and breathing.

If you would like to share your own birth story, please visit this post to learn how. ~Olivia

I went in to the hospital on May 31st to be induced at 38 weeks and 2 days. We weren’t expecting much action that night since my last induction didn’t do much more than help me dilate 1 cm with my firstborn in 2014. However, this time it started working within 30 minutes of placement.

At about 10:00 pm, my contractions were about 5 minutes apart and I had to breathe through them. I was given something to help me sleep and something for the pain, and I slept until about 2:00 am. By that time my contractions were 2 minutes apart and increasing in strength. I opted for an epidural.

The anesthesiologist arrived and had me sit on the side of the bed. I am a larger woman, and she commented on it being more difficult to place an epidural with larger patients. The first epidural kept hitting a nerve causing pain on my left side. She attempted to go straight to the right, but that just caused pain on my right side. She tried to thread the line a few more times, resulting in a few more jabbing pains in the left side of my lower back. She said this was not working so she was going to pull it and go a little higher.

Even though I’m a larger person and the anesthesiologist knew that makes placing the epidural it more difficult, she did not do any mapping or marking on my back. (The anesthesiologist from my last delivery made a lot of pen markings on my back.) This epidural seemed to go well at first, and she said she was going to do a test bolus. I felt my legs going numb instantly. It felt normal like last time until she asked me to lift my legs and remain in a sitting position on the bed. I told her I couldn’t move my legs at all. So my nurse started to lift my left leg to place it in the bed and I began to fall backwards. The doctor said, “I want you to stay upright.” I said, “I have no control of it.” Then I passed out.

I woke up to the doctor asking me if I could feel my toes or move them. I couldn’t. She asked me to squeeze her finger and then squeeze my nurse’s finger. I could weakly. I was scared I was dying, and I told my husband that I love him. Then the doctor asked my husband to leave the room. From the hospital investigation notes, it appears this is when she became hysterical, throwing stuff from the crash cart, including the intubation tube she was looking for. I passed out for the second time. I may have had oxygen at this time, but I don’t remember.

I woke up for the second time and there was a lot going on in my room. I remember nurses running around and the doctor yelling, “Where is the intubation tube? Why isn’t there an intubation tube in the crash cart?” Mel, my nurse, was on my right side saying, “Harmony, stay awake, stay with me.” I said twice, “I can’t breathe.” Then I was unable to speak anymore and I mouthed twice, “I can’t breathe.”

As I went to take a breath, I physically couldn’t. The doctor was still yelling, and I passed out again. Sometime after this happened, I was rushed to the OR in order to intubate me and prep me for an emergency c-section. I stopped breathing again on the way to the OR. The next thing I remembered was waking up in the OR recovery room with a sore throat and seeing my husband there with my new daughter.

I had to spend extra time in the recovery room because my oxygen levels would not stay above 94% when I was on room air. The fun didn’t stop there for me. Spinal headaches, persistent back pain from the first attempt at the epidural, and other issues.

Although I am physically recovering from this high spinal block, I will forever be emotionally and psychologically scarred. We’re still not certain it didn’t cause any damage to my lungs or diaphragm. I have different levels of constant chest pain, but I never know if it’s asthma, a panic attack, or damage from this experience. The day I was discharged from the hospital my body was in shock and I was having almost back-to-back panic attacks. The next day I called into my OB’s office to ask a question about my c-section scar and completely lost it over the phone. I went in and saw a Nurse Practitioner who diagnosed me with PTSD and prescribed anti-anxiety and anti-depression medication and told me to find a therapist.

My greatest fear in life is drowning, to be unable to breathe. I wanted four children, but I don’t know if psychologically I can ever have another epidural.

Everyone told me that this doctor was the hospital’s most seasoned anesthesiologist. That they’re so surprised that this happened, that it was difficult for her because of my size, that this rarely happens… I was made to feel like it was my fault because of my size, as if there aren’t ever plus size moms who deliver at this hospital. So much wrong happened on that day. Yes, I am alive. Yes, my baby is alive. Praise the Lord. However, the doctor did not handle this situation right at all.

I would tell other plus size mamas getting an epidural to ask their anesthesiologist to do some mapping. If they seem unsure about finding the right spot, tell them you want to either wait for another doctor or have them bring Respiratory in to ensure the entry point is not dangerously close to causing a high nerve block.

Advocacy is vital. Put in your birth plan that your spouse or support person is to remain in the room (even in emergency situations). I was passed out. I have snippets, but mostly I have to go by my hospital record as to what happened in that room that night. Afterwards, my husband told me that the doctor made faces and didn’t seem to believe me that the first epidural was hurting me. Was she frustrated when she did the second line and maybe being careless? If only we had said something, maybe it would have been different.

What happened to me is rare. Only 0.07% of women in labor experience this medical mistake. Hopefully, no one reading this article will go through it. It was scary and life changing.

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  • I am so sorry this happened to you. A hard way to learn that you have to speak up. So hard when it comes to challenging a doctor.

  • Harmony, I was scared just reading this so I can only imagine what it must have been like to actually go through it! And not to have your spouse there at your side when things got critical? WOW! Not only were you denied that support, but there was no one there to witness the whole timeline. Your post is full of wisdom and super helpful advice, and I hope it will help another mother in the future who might be faced with the same dilemma. Congratulations on the birth of your beautiful baby, and thanks be to God for His care!

    • You know it was hard my husband wasn’t there. It was hard on me, but it was extremely hard on him and at first when I woke and was settled in my room with him nd our daughter…his ordeal had me more angry than what I went through.

      He walked out of my room completely convinced we were both going to die. The high block and my first pass out occurred at 3:13 am, I stopped breathing on the way to the OR at 3:26am, at 3:36 someone finally came to talk to him. A newish floor supervisor who told him that they had gotten me intubated and were prepping for an emergency c-section. My daughter was born at 4:04am. Jeremy had to go find a nurse to get an update on us. I was in the OR for an extended amount of time (close to an hr and a half after my daughter was born) because the x-ray to ensure nothing was left inside saw the epidural line and they had to keep waiting for xray to come.

      He was sitting alone in that waiting room at 3:15am scared to death his wife and daughter were going to die. I still think I’m the most mad about that. The hospital investigastion did show some areas that the hospital needed to improve on and we were assured they would be done.

  • Hi harmony, the same thing happened to me last June when I had my first baby. I am also a “larger woman” and although this didn’t cause me any previous problems with my health I was told that this was the reason for what happened. I’m nine months pp now and still have anxiety about that night. Not sure whether I will have another baby yet

  • This also happened to me. Not to the extent of yours, but I had a high block complication during my c section. My epidural was not put in until I was on the operating table (after 2 days of labor). I think because I was laid flat immediately after placement, this caused a high block. I remember thinking I was going to lose lung function and die, because I didn’t have control of my diaphragm. I was numb from the neck down, and I’ll never forget the look of panic on the anesthesiologists face when I said my arms were numb. I am glad you are ok, and it is nice to know I’m not alone!

  • Curious Question: Do you feel like your memory and being able to comprehend some things has changed since?
    I had sort of a similar situation, and have been stressing because nobody will believe me and something keeps telling me that it was there excess epidural and lack of their care for me for their screw up. How were you able to get your hospital notes?

  • I had no idea this was possible until it happened to me. I have scoliosis, which is what caused mine to go high. My spinal anatomy is different. It is absolutely terrifying. I remember telling them my arms were numb, then my face was actually going numb. I tried to tell them I couldn’t breathe or move. I don’t remember much after that. I was rushed up for an emergency c section. I must have passed out because I do remember waking up at one point with them yelling at me to breathe, and then waking up after surgery. My son was born without a pulse and had to be bagged and have chest compressions. Thank God he is ok now. This was just in July. I am on an antidepressant too due to this and due to my mom dying while I was pregnant. I am so sorry you also went through that. It is so traumatic. I just had my tubes removed because of going through that.

  • This happened to me 2 years ago when I got an epidural instantly I couldn’t feel my breasts and right arm and then I couldn’t breathe they were giving me epinephrine to get me to come back and since then I’ve had issues breathing/panic attacks. I had oral surgery for wisdom teeth extraction a few months ago and since then I have developed sleep apnea and spasms in my diaphragm. Have you had any reoccurring issues since this happened to you?