Laurie Martino was 26 years old and in the middle of giving birth to her first child when she learned she has two uteruses. Looking back, the other health issues she'd dealt with for most of her life should have been a tipoff. At 3 years old, she was diagnosed with kidney reflux disorder after an onslaught of urinary tract infections, and underwent surgery at 9 to correct the problem. She didn't get her period until she was 16, and even then it was irregular, with cramping that felt like contractions.
"Doctors should have caught my condition when I was little, every time I had a sonogram," she says. "We have absolutely no idea how they didn't."
During delivery, after Martino's doctor twice failed to manually flip her breech son, badly bruising her stomach in the process, he opened her up for an emergency C-section. When he did, he was surprised to see two wombs.
"I was freaked out because he pretty much said that it was miraculous I was even able to have children," recalls Martino, now 28, a health and fitness coach living in Texas.
"There was this fear of okay, I had a miscarriage before, is it just a miracle that I had a child? Will I be able to have more? I remember having all these emotions because I couldn't even process it."
Her anomalous congenital condition is called uterus didelphys; it affects about one in 2,000 women, many of whom don't even know they have it. During the embryonic stage of human development, a female has more than one "uterine horn." If fusion of the two tubes, which are called Müllerian ducts, fails to occur, the uterus does not come together, likely due to an error in the signal instructing cells to migrate. The result: a double uterus with two cervixes and, sometimes, a double vagina.
Krista Schwab, 33, of Washington also has the condition. When she started dating her now-husband at 20 years old, she was upfront about the fact that having children would be complicated for her. Ten years of negative pregnancy tests and two miscarriages later, doctors told her she'd never conceive without surgery or in vitro fertilization (IVF). But now, she's in the last trimester of pregnancy, carrying a baby boy to term in one of her two wombs.
She learned of her condition around 12 years old when complications sent her to the emergency room. "I don't have an opening on one of my uteruses, so it was filling up with blood every month for about a year and then, eventually, it was contracting as if I was pregnant," Schwab explains. She was rushed into surgery where doctors made an incision in her uterus to drain the blood—that's when they detected the malformation. Schwab has two uteruses and two cervixes, with one functioning ovary on the right side; her vagina is separated into two canals by a septum.
Victoria Pottle, 33, a stay-at-home mother in New Brunswick, Canada, was also told she'd never have her three kids, now 2, 4, and 7 years old. A routine gynecological exam in her 20s revealed that she has two uteruses and two cervixes with one ovary and fallopian tube on both sides; a thin vaginal septum was torn and actually "dissolved" during the birth of her first child. "The first thing that came out of my mouth was, 'I feel like I'm on Grey's Anatomy,'" she recalls. "I remember that so clearly. I felt like I was on some TV show where they have some medical condition. I'd never heard of it at all. I wasn't married and I wasn't in the mindset of having kids or anything, so it wasn't really something I ever thought about."
Both women say they were, at times, medical mysteries to doctors. Schwab says bicornuate uterus was the only condition her doctors were familiar with, so they first assumed that's what she has. Bicornuate uterus, commonly referred to as a "heart-shaped" uterus, is composed of two "horns" separated by a septum. In humans, it's a type of uterine malformation, but in some other mammalian species, like rodents and pigs, it's actually normal.
"Bicornuate uterus is a similar condition but another problem goes on in development, and that's called a rudimentary uterine horn," says Robert Zurawin, M.D., obstetrician and gynecologist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. "What happens in the rudimentary uterine horn is that one of the two uteruses doesn't even develop much at all. Instead of them being two equal, normal uteruses like in uterus didelphys, one of the sides doesn't develop. So not only doesn't it fuse with the other side, but it also often gets blocked or it doesn't function at all, and sometimes it causes pain or abnormal bleeding and needs to be removed."
With bicornuate uterus, women can have pain and period problems; most women who have standard uterus didelphys, however, wouldn't know about their condition. "There would be no reason for them to [know]," says Dr. Zurawin. "It's asymptomatic, but gynecologists should be able to detect it anyway." If a woman is indeed experiencing excessive bleeding or pain, he explains, she should have an ultrasound and that would pick up her condition.
Martino's case, for example, is an aberration from the norm. "My doctor said it's closest to uterus didelphys, but it is very different than most—that could be why I experienced pain," she says.
Uterus didelphys doesn't typically cause complications with getting pregnant either. While a vaginal septum can stifle the regular discharge of blood and mucosal tissue from the uterine lining, obstruct intercourse, or delay pregnancy if a woman has sex on one side but is ovulating on the other, one side of the septum will stretch and become preferred, Dr. Zurawin explains. Women with the condition have to try their luck on both sides to conceive. They could potentially conceive in both wombs, which would go into labor at the same time—but they cannot get pregnant on one side while already pregnant on the other, simply because the body stops ovulating.
Carrying a baby to term when you have a double uterus, however, isn't quite as simple. Dr. Zurawin says women with uterus didelphys do not always have fully developed uterine linings, which is where implantation of a fertilized egg and the attachment of the placenta that supplies oxygen and nutrients to the growing fetus occurs. In some cases, the uterus could also have an irregular shape that prevents it from stretching to accommodate a growing fetus, a factor that could cause a breech birth.
"The issues come later on when it comes to keeping the baby until term, as the baby can also run out of space in an incompetent cervix," says Pottle. During one of her pregnancies, he was sent for an ultrasound and an MRI for a second opinion from a specialized clinic at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax, one providence over from her hometown. All of her doctors had unanimously agreed that there was nothing she should do about her condition, except monitor pregnancy with regular ultrasounds if she chose to have children later in life.
Pottle delivered with her second child, who was also breech, prematurely at 34 weeks via a Caesarian. She didn't have any issues otherwise; she even got pregnant the first time she ever attempted. Two of her three children were birthed vaginally, and she's gotten pregnant in both of her uteruses on separate occasions, proving that they're both functional.
Similarly, Scwab's expected son is healthy, and she plans to have as natural a birth as possible. "He actually blew my doctor out of the water because, at our last appointment, he flipped," she says, explaining that he was also breech. Until then, she thought she was going to have a C-section.
Whatever the circumstances, both women urge others double uteruses not to feel embarrassed, even though curious friends ask intimate questions and the media tends to sensationalize their condition.
"It's just your body, the way it works and the way it is; it's nothing to be ashamed of," Pottle says. "It's a lot less rare than people think. You're not alone."
As medical professionals learn more about uterus didelphys, diagnosed women are using social media to share their success stories and pool together knowledge. Martino, the Texas mother of two, started a private Facebook group to find support. "Once I started telling people about it, a friend knew [another woman with the condition]," Martino says. "I got her number and texted her one day and said, 'Hey, I heard that you have two uteruses,' and then we became good friends."
When Schwab got pregnant, she relied on the Facebook group for guidance and reassurance. Previously, she'd stopped going to annual gynecological check-ups because doctors didn't know how to handle her case and would end up putting her in pain.
"There are things that my doctor wanted to do like pap smears and cultures that you don't do if you have my condition," she says, explaining that cultures could scrape the already thin cervix. "My doctor wasn't aware and she was going to do it; if it weren't for that Facebook group, I could have possibly lost the baby." Penetrative sex, for some, is equally dangerous.
Both Martino and Schwab also say if they hadn't heard of other women's completely healthy pregnancies with uterus didelphys, they'd be panicked. "I think that's why I lost the second one—because of stress," Schwab reasons. "The doctor, because of my uterus, wasn't very confident."
Though one of Martino's uteruses is not functioning (only one of her two fallopian tubes works), she says getting pregnant "wasn't even a little complicated." Both of her pregnancies were pleasant surprises and, for her younger son's birth, she was able to find a high-risk doctor trained in vaginal birth after Caesarian or VBACs, so she didn't have to have another surgery.
"I would tell people to not live in fear in thinking that they can't have kids if there's this abnormality," she says. "So many doctors will plant that in your head. I want to encourage other women: If [your reproductive system] is different, don't live in fear. There's a reason we're created how we are."
This article originally appeared on Womensday.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.