By Bailey Nicholas
Remember the horrific seizure Cybil on Downton Abbey experienced during childbirth that took her life? Unfortunately, this was not an over-dramatized scene made for TV audiences, nor was it a historical situation that has been eradicated by modern medicine. It is a scene that occurs far too often around the world to this day. It nearly happened to me.
Cybil’s seizure was the result of eclampsia, a condition preceded by preeclampsia which, when left unidentified and untreated, claims more lives of mothers and infants than any other pregnancy complication. Had I not been aware of the symptoms of preeclampsia and voiced my concern repeatedly to my doctors, my twins and I may not be here today. Ignoring my early signs of preeclampsia could have been deadly for all three of us.
May is Preeclampsia awareness month, and too few pregnant women are aware of how common and frankly, deadly, preeclampsia can be. The condition affects between 5 and 8 percent of pregnancies, claiming the lives of more than 75,000 mothers and 500,000 infants annually. Preeclampsia is not isolated to developing countries or to moms with preexisting conditions. Nearly 30% of moms on hospital bed rest right here in Tampa are hospitalized with preeclampsia and other hypertensive disorders. I personally have three close friends diagnosed with preeclampsia who were the epitome of health before and during their pregnancy. Preeclampsia can happen to anyone.
As explained by the Preeclampsia Foundation, preeclampsia is characterized by high blood pressure and protein in the urine. Symptoms include headaches, vision changes, excessive swelling and upper abdominal pain. Moms with early signs of preeclampsia are closely monitored, often in the hospital, because preeclampsia can rapidly progress to life-threatening conditions called eclampsia and HELLP syndrome. These conditions cause widespread organ failure and seizures. The only cure for preeclampsia is delivery, therefore, many babies are delivered prematurely in order to save both mom and baby. Be aware, too, that preeclampsia can occur postpartum.
I was diagnosed with severe preeclampsia while pregnant with my twins. During the last two weeks of my pregnancy, I nervously watched my blood pressure increase twofold, despite being on medication for preterm labor that coincidentally was also blood pressure medication. I gained 13 pounds of water weight in as many days. At my regularly scheduled perinatal appointment, a growth ultrasound showed that my daughter had not grown in two weeks, a result of high blood pressure. The doctor took my blood pressure, which measured 160/98 (my normal blood pressure is 100/60). He looked at me and said, “Whoa! What do you think would happen if we took you off the massive amounts of blood pressure medication you are currently taking?” My eyes welled up as I looked at him with relief that a doctor agreed with what I knew had been happening for two weeks. I had preeclampsia and the babies needed to come immediately.
I had an emergency c-section at 34 weeks 6 days gestation and my babies were rushed to NICU while I was kept on a 24-hour continuous drip of magnesium sulfate to prevent seizures. During this 24 hours, I was not allowed to get out of my hospital bed and therefore unable to visit my babies in NICU. My heroic husband stayed by the twins’ bedside those first harrowing hours as my son struggled to breathe with his underdeveloped lungs and my daughter’s 4-pound body worked hard to lower bilirubin levels under a phototherapy light. And we are the lucky ones. My preeclampsia did not cause seizures and my twins’ made it longer in utero than many babies of moms with preeclampsia. Today, everyone is healthy.
If you take away just two things from my story, let it be this: Educate and Advocate. Educate yourself about the symptoms of preeclampsia and advocate for yourself if you suspect you have early signs of the condition. Many of the symptoms of preeclampsia are common pregnancy symptoms, but I urge anyone experiencing these to check their blood pressure. Most pharmacies have a free public blood pressure cuff. You will not regret making an extra trip to CVS but you will regret ignoring early signs of preeclampsia.