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, leaving her physically unable to breathe.

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. 

My birth experience was scary and life-changing, but two years later, here we are now.  Happy and healthy! Thanks for reading.

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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.

    • Yes, but we all have that right. Since my experience I have thought about possibly encouraging a bill to be passed. Requiring a camera on delivery room gurneys… like police officers have…unless given permission to not have.

      Because who knows the true story. The hispital and anesthesiologist made it extremely difficult and confusing to get answers on what happened. I have to just trust that my record is whole. I’ve heard multiple versions of what happened. My main nurse went on “vacation” for two weeks following the event. It jyst felt fishy. The lawyer we consulted said nothing would come of a lawsuit…and if we wouldn’t win we couldn’t afford to push it. I wish we had…to bring it all to light…

  • 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

    • Layla, have you sought help for your trauma? That is vital for recovery and moving forward. We are not 2+ yrs past the trauma and considering a 3rd. I’ve been in counseling and seeing a psychiatrist the whole time, but there are still some fears to work through.

      However, I won’t let the trauma determine my family size. That gives it too much power.

      Praying you are well.

  • 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 cant remember if I answered your question. At my hospital you walk in. There is a phone to your right. You pick it up and it direct dials a records customer person. You tell tgem what you want; fill out a form. Since I want the full record it cost $20 and had to be mailed to me.

      I’m not sure if memory struggles are directly due to the nerve block or its a result of my mind being overloaded with the trauma. I honestly am not sure.

  • 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.

    • I’m so sorry for the loss of your mother and your super scary experience. So grateful your little boy is well and that you pulled through.

  • 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?

    • All of my physical issues were related to my anxiesty/ptsd stemming from the trauma. Once I had the right meds and frankly left my high stress job. Most of my physical issues have eased.

      I’m hoping to have EMDR therapy very soon to work through/process the body memory pain I still have in high stress situations.

  • This happened to me also, and I have so much to say about it. On top of my lungs going numb the very second I laid down after the needle went in my back and me trying to communicate that to the anesthesiologist, he yelled in my face, “If you can talk, you can breathe!”
    Then he proceeded to ask my OB-GYN if I had a history of mental problems because I was mouthing (at that point) that I couldn’t breathe.
    I subsequently suffocated to the point of passing out (and had to be intubated), and myself and my husband completely missed the birth of our daughter (I was unconscious and he was not allowed in the room).
    What should have been the best day of my life was by far the worst. And, no legal recourse by the way.

    • This makes me so angry that they didn’t believe you! My breasts felt numb instead of my legs, and then when they laid me back, that’s when I got an enormous head rush. I whispered or mouthed, “I can’t breathe”. The nurses got really quiet, and my husband said my face looked like I was falling. The anesthesiologist then gave me ephedrine, which I remember worked to bring my blood pressure back up (it got dangerously low), but it made my heart pound like crazy. When I had my spinal block later on in my c-section, it was even more intense when they laid me down. I was so scared I would go under, but I could only mouth “I can’t breathe”. There were 2 anesthesiologists in the room, and one asked me to squeeze her hand, which I could just barely do. I kept trying to breathe, which was hell. What finally helped me regulate a little bit was when the nurse practitioner put my son’s cheek on mine. I was finally able to coo and say “oh buddy” to him. My anesthesiologists never made me feel like it was my fault or that I was lying. They said I had a 3mm epidural space, and that it was unusual. Reading these stories gives me that sane tightness in my chest, but it is strangely nice to find my people who understand it!

    • Did you report the anestesiologist for unprofessional conduct? I can’t believe a human being would speak to someone in such a delicate position in such a disgusting way.

      When we are in those most vulnerable situations it is the most vital that we have someone there to advocate for us.

  • This is very interesting. I had epidural 3 Years ago. After about 20 seconds after injection I started to feel my like stone is pushing down my chest more and more. And suddenly after exhaling air I understood I cant inhail it back! Just had no function to do it!!!! No abality or skills!!!! I tried to exhail air a bit more to understand can I do it and could with no problem but not at all back!!!! I thought I will die! My hands were tided on sides because off injection in vein. I had no air in so I could not talk. No nurses were looking on to understand me. And when they realised I am crieing they checked blood preassure monitor and said to doctor- its fine! And I could not even explain them than NO its not fine!!!!!! than few more seconds and I will die!!!I just cried quitly to save time and oxugen. After nurses realised something is wrong it was about 2-4 injections docs gave me in vein untill I got back suddenly my breath in!!! I am terrified!!!! Since then I have back pain and migrains.

  • I had this happen to me! I didn’t fully pass out though, but they’ve gave me reversal meds when I said I couldn’t breathe. Worst feeling in the world to feel like you can’t take a simple breath. I had my epidural redone, but it was one sided. Long story short, I ended up in c-section by choice, and had the epidural taken out. The following spinal block again made me feel like I was going to pass out, but I didn’t, I just felt like I couldn’t breathe. So scary for my husband, me, my sister (one of the nurses in the OR), and everyone in the room. I didn’t know this was called a high block. It feels a little better knowing I’m not alone, but I’m so sorry this happened to you. I’ve never been so scared, and basically was only able to hear my son’s birth, as I could barely open my eyes. The spinal headache was the worst!!! And, I don’t buy the excuse about your weight being the reason. I gained weight during my pregnancy but wasn’t considered overweight, and was told later in my blood patch that I had a 3 mm epidural space, which he said was unusual. So, it could have been an anatomical issue, or just doctor error. Hope you are doing ok.

    • Shannon,

      We are doing pretty good. I’ve worked through the trauma enough to drop 2 of my anxiety meds. My psychiatrist talked of dropping the last one, but we are talking about trying for a 3rd end of year…so staying on for now.

      My husband still hasn’t spoken to anyone about the trauma.

      My daughter is perfect. Ornery, but perfect.

  • That is sooooo scary. I mean at least my Dr. recognized what was happening and started the process of correcting it. Though she did say the reason she was losing it ane screaming and throwing stuff was because the nurses weren’t believing her as to what was happening. I think what happened to all of us is so rare and so few nurses ever really experience it…that it isn’t recognized.

    I had to have almost 6 months of physical therapy for my back nerve damage.

    I did see a neurologist for my lingering headaches: either from tge nerve block or from the spinal headaches.

    Honesly, though majority of my physical problems have mostly resolved as I get my mental health under control.

    How is your baby?

      • I cannot tell you how glad I am that I came across this article and the comments. I have felt so alone since my traumatic experience in mid-July. My experience was so similar. I’m having lingering lower back issues with a loss of sensation and the referred neurological couldn’t conclude as to why. I’ve also been to counseling a couple of times. If anyone filed a grievance with the hospital as a result, I would really like to connect with you. Two professionals opined that this was the result of too much medication but it seems that those opinions might now be changing to support a position that there was no error and this was all a known risk. I cant understand why the person who administered the epidural was immediately reassigned and there were followup meetings about changing practices yet this was the result of a “known risk” and not substandard individualized care . . .

    • I’m so sorry that you are having such trauma from this experience. I would like to say I am fine, since I don’t have panic attacks, but I think about my birth/epidural every single day. I relive it over and over. The anesthesiologist that did the 1st epidural was rude, and I could tell she was concerned when she brought in an anatomy poster to give me a lesson on what happened after the first episode. I’m really glad I didn’t fully pass out, as it sounds like intubation is the next step. I was on that edge, just conscious (hearing not seeing), but unable to feel a breath. I think she punctured my dura, from what staff said, b/c the spinal headache was horrendous for 5 days…you have to lie flat to make it go away.

      • Those headaches are the worst. I had a hard time too cause the trauma prevented me from laying completely flat. I had to sleep in a recliner cause I would go in to a panic attack if I layed completely flat. I was too scared to try the blood patch. I didn’t want anyone near my back.

        • I had a blood patch b/c the headache was so awful. The nurses said it usually fixes the headache instantly. It didn’t work for me though. I was so upset. Just in my hospital bed, and later my couch at home. I felt so lazy, but people don’t understand how bad it hurts!! The only time I felt ok was when I took a few Motrin combined with a Percocet. Only then did it ease up.

  • This happened to me but in the OR during the spinal block. Normally women who get the spinal can still move their arms. I couldnt. And then it was like my lungs locked up. Ended up being put under and when they brought my husband in after our daughter was born he said i was hooked up to all sorts of stuff with a tube down my throat. They left all of this out in my chart though. All it says is i asked to be put under. Ha. Ok.