An open letter to the Producers & Writers of Virgin River

Hyperemesis Gravidarum is a life changing pregnancy condition that affects 1-2% of pregnant women every year. There is no cure for Hyperemesis which presents itself in the form of severe unrelenting nausea and vomiting in pregnancy. Hyperemesis is on its own spectrum and is not part of the usual pregnancy sickness spectrum. Pregnancy sickness and Hyperemesis cannot be mentioned in the same breathe; there is no comparison.

As an HG Campaigner one of the top 5 questions I get asked is “Does it help your cause when the Duchess of Cambridge/Amy Schumer/Kim Kardashian or another celebrity suffers with Hyperemesis?” and my answers is always the same. “Yes, but the interest only lasts for so long and it doesn’t enact change.”*

Are you really saying awareness doesn’t help? No I am not. I just have a difficult relationship with it from my own experience of trying to raise it for Hyperemesis sufferers over the last two years. Bringing awareness to the condition to those who simply did not and could not have known about this disease is one thing, but attempting to change the mindset of the birth workers and medical professionals who treat us is another.

A Netflix TV Show isn’t going to help with the latter, but with the former it could have an impact that will last longer than a headline and that is why it is so crucial to get it right, on a platform that will reach more people than I ever could.

If you are going to take Hyperemesis on you have a duty to represent the condition accurately to the viewers so that they have all the information they need to assess that this is not a usual part of pregnancy and understand why for 10% of women with Hyperemesis in the UK, at least, it ends with a termination.

It limits families, it ends relationships, it breeds mental health issues (it really is no surprise that women with HG are 8x more likely to suffer with antenatal depression than women who do not suffer with this disease) It reduces a woman to something less than human, physically it drains you to the point that your body starts to break down. If left untreated in rare cases it can be fatal.

So when I heard that Series 2 of Virgin River on Netflix was going to be featuring this disease through one of its main characters Charmaine, I was nervous but hopeful. The character was going to be suffering specifically with Hyperemesis, not just usual pregnancy sickness, and so I hoped that the predictable media cliches about early pregnancy and sickness would be avoided.

TV is rife with these cliches, perpetuating stigma and appears to be seemingly unaware sometimes of the incredible power that it holds, not only to raise awareness but validate peoples experiences.

So, to the Producers and the Writers of Virgin River, I want to say thank you for taking Hyperemesis on, not many TV shows have done this before in a sitcom or drama series.

Unfortunately, that is where my thanks stops.

If you are a sufferer or survivor of HG you might want to give this Series a miss (if you are already on Series 1 and don’t want a spoiler, please stop reading). Charmaine the ex-girlfriend of Jack the local hunk is pregnant with twins and is quite quickly diagnosed with Hyperemesis. She is diagnosed by a nurse, Mel, after her very concerned Doctor, 70 year old Mullins, notices that her symptoms include weight loss, dehydration and not being able to keep down fluids or food. The road to validation, acceptance and treatment is so quick and so smooth it is laughable. “If only!” we in the HG community cry.

Women with Hyperemesis can typically be dismissed by any number of health care professionals who she comes in to contact with, repeatedly told that she “just has morning sickness” and what’s worse is that even if she does manage to convince one of them that her suffering deems her worthy of some medical intervention, she might be given medication with one hand and have it taken away by the other with inaccurate comments like, “I will prescribe you this medication, but you shouldn’t take it because it might cause fetal abnormalities.”

Charmaine is so preoccupied by her ex boyfriends romantic intentions for the very nurse who has been put in charge of her 24/7 days a week care, it’s like the “high risk” pregnancy she is suffering from is a walk in the park. As one of my followers said to me:

“Firstly, my husband could have run off with a purple giraffe and I wouldn’t have noticed. Where was the crawling to the bathroom? Where was the matted hair due to the inability to wash it?”

The truth is that if the writers wanted Charmaine to lure Jack back, all they had to do was represent Hyperemesis accurately and he would have been so distraught watching the woman that he once loved shrink before his very eyes, he would have been so concerned that he was not only going to lose his babies but the very woman who was going to make him a father, everything else in his life would have been insignificant.

Her symptoms and the way she is able to engage with the other characters, walk to the Doctor’s surgery, sit nicely on the bed, get out of it to open the door, NONE OF THIS IS POSSIBLE WITH HYPEREMESIS. There is no mention of the excessive saliva, spit bowls or extreme sense of smell. Early on in her diagnosis she refuses treatment and an IV to rehydrate her due to a needle phobia. When you have HG you willingly offer up your veins phobia or not because your primal instinct to survive takes over.

If this is Hyperemesis count me in! As a Mum of one and done, due to HG, if this is what I get second time around then my husband is in for a long and happy weekend.

Now to be fair to the show, when we get to Episode 5, as an HG survivor myself, I can conclude that perhaps her lack of any signs of the illness is because she is now heavily medicated, but for people watching who don’t know about this condition, the only conclusion they can draw is that bed rest and one round of IV fluids has returned her to a glowing, blossoming pregnancy unicorn. If this is the case then some mention of the horrendous side effects of said medications (migraines, heartburn and severe constipation to name a few), would have at least been a considered portrayal of medicated HG and would have provided an explanation.

The fact that she has recovered so well and she isn’t even past her first trimester is also wholly inaccurate and the very fact that they mention her “nausea is now under control” due to the right “formula”, leaves us in the HG community shouting “what did SHE get?!?!?!?”.

So I ask the writers and producers of Series 2… Did you even speak to women who had suffered with Hyperemesis? Did you speak to the people who will treat them? Did you have an HG survivor on set? If you did then okay. I would be suprised if that were the case, maybe her true accounts of this disease were too much for a romantic drama, but there would have been ways around that.

Given the power that the entertainment media companies wield I don’t think it is too much to ask that they do their due diligence. HG sufferers and survivors would jump at the opportunity to shine a light on this life changing, debilitating and hellish condition – All you need to do is ask.

Whilst I am making my way through the rest of the Series perhaps a relapse is coming, perhaps this is the lead up to the real HG.

Until then I must send a warning to the show – please be careful in future with other story lines you may create that involve a medical condition. If you get it wrong again you can cause more harm than you realise, as another follower so eloquently demonstrated to me:

“I was of course hoping that my mother-in-law would be able to watch the Series and understand what I am going through. To date she has compared my pregnancy with hers, and doesn’t hold back in telling me that SHE was strong enough to get through morning sickness. Three episodes of Virgin River down and she called to say ‘Charmaine has HG and she is doing alright.’ My heart sank a little and I sank back in to my unmade bed in my blacked out room and cried”.

If you do want to know more about Hyperemesis and want to see an accurate portrayal of this disease then watch Sick – The Battle Against HG Documentary which is now on Prime Video in the UK & US and on Vimeo for most other countries.

And if you have the power to include Hyperemesis on your platform, in your TV Show or film, please reach out to the Hyperemesis Community we are here waiting to tell our stories.

*Amy Schumer’s Docu Series Expecting Amy was an excellent portrayal of this condition and the HG community will always be thankful to her and HBO for making it.

Charlotte Howden is an HG Campaigner and the Co-Producer of the world’s first documentary about Hyperemesis Gravidarum called Sick – The Battle Against HG.

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