As a 2 time Preeclampsia survivor I have a special place in my heart for preeclampsia awareness. Preeclampsia was first described by Hippocrates around 400BC. Today we still know very little about this disorder that (combined with other hypertensive disorders) results in 76,000 maternal and 500,000 infant deaths each year.
What is preeclampsia?
Preeclampsia is a hypertensive disorder of pregnancy and the postpartum period that affects 5-8% of all pregnancies.
The disorder rapidly progresses putting the lives of both mother and baby in danger. Preeclampsia is characterized by high blood pressure and protein in the urine although protein may not always be present. Symptoms include sudden weight gain (usually 5lbs or more in a week), swelling, headaches, and vision changes. Some women report very few symptoms at all before reaching a critical stage of the disorder. If left untreated preeclampsia can progress to eclampsia causing seizures and possible death.
How is preeclampsia treated?
As long as the pregnancy continues preeclampsia will continue to worsen. Doctors must manage preeclampsia according to how the disorder is progressing. This includes monitoring blood pressure and labs to monitor the condition of the mother’s kidneys and liver. Tests are performed to access the health of the unborn baby. Blood pressure medications are used to treat high blood pressures until the condition reaches an unstable level. Delivery is the only true treatment option which often results in a premature birth to save both mother and baby.
How does preeclampsia change your life?
Preeclampsia is a disorder with lasting consequences. Women who have had preeclampsia are 3-4 times more likely to develop high blood pressure later in life, and are at double the risk for stroke and heart disease. Women who deliver preterm, had babies with a low birth weight, or who suffered from severe preeclampsia more than once are at an even higher risk of heart disease. In fact it is now thought that 2 out of 3 women who had preeclampsia will die of a stroke or heart disease.
My 1st pregnancy had been a completely healthy and normal pregnancy until my 24 week ultrasound revealed our baby girl, Elliana, was measuring a bit small. My ob wasn’t too concerned because there is a history of small babies in my family, but by 32 weeks Elliana was measuring even farther behind. We had a 3D ultrasound at 33 weeks to see what was going on.
I had an appointment at 34 weeks 2 days to go over the results of the ultrasound. We learned Elliana was suffering from IUGR (intrauterine growth restriction). Her weight had dropped from the 55th percentile to the 26th percentile, and she was measuring a full week behind. Little did I know it would be the beginning of my preeclampsia journey. At my appointment my ob commented that my blood pressure was a little elevated, and she asked me to stay off my feet for a few days.
The next day my blood pressure skyrocketed to 174/114 and stayed up all day. My very limited knowledge of preeclampsia came from a one paragraph description in one of my baby books, so I didn’t know how dangerously high my blood pressure was. When I called my ob I was immediately sent to the hospital and admitted that night. By the time I reached the hospital my blood pressure was so unstable it couldn’t be controlled with iv antihypertensive drugs. In my case I didn’t have protein in my urine at all, but the high risk doctor didn’t wait to diagnose me with severe preeclampsia. He immediately placed me on magnesium sulfate to prevent seizures and induced me. The magnesium sulfate made me so sick I couldn’t hold my head up, and my memory was so clouded I barely remember my labor at all. After 22 hours of labor my baby was in distress, and my blood pressure was 221/130. I was rushed for an emergency c section and gave birth to my 35 weeker, Elliana, my little 4lb 5oz baby. Elliana spent 5 days in the hospital due to jaundice and issues regulating her temperature, but she was otherwise healthy. She left the hospital before me!
I wasn’t as lucky. I hemorrhaged during the delivery, received 3 pints of blood, and I spent the next week in the hospital battling for my life. Delivery wasn’t my cure. I was finally discharged 7 days after delivery and left the hospital on a very high dose of Labetalol, actually the highest dose that is safe. At 6 weeks postpartum my blood pressure suddenly returned to normal.
It wasn’t prepared to deal with preeclampsia. I was uninformed, and I didn’t know how dangerous the disorder was until I was fighting for my life. I vowed to learn everything I could about preeclampsia before deciding to have another child 3 years later. I was prepared the 2nd time to fight for myself and be my own advocate. I was diagnosed chronic hypertensive at 15 weeks and spent my pregnancy on antihypertensive medications. I saw a team of high risk doctors who monitored both my baby and me through multiple ultrasounds, stress tests, and biophysical profiles. My doctors watched my protein levels closely, and placed me on low dose aspirin, but there is no true known preeclampsia preventative at this time. My anxiety levels were extremely high, and I wondered if I would make it through my pregnancy.
I was relieved to make it to 39 weeks. I was scheduled to be induced on the evening of 39 weeks 0 days for an attempted VBAC, but I woke up that morning feeling “off”. My blood pressure was slightly elevated, and I was experiencing blurred vision along with a headache. The high risk doctor on duty dismissed my symptoms and said my anxiety was getting to me. I demanded to see another high risk doctor on my team, and I’m glad I did. She admitted me immediately due to my symptoms and began the induction. A few hours into labor I developed superimposed preeclampsia and was placed on magnesium sulfate. After 23 hours of labor I delivered my 2nd baby girl, Aubrey, via VBAC.
My blood pressure returned to normal at 7 months postpartum, but the lasting effects still remain. I undergo exams every 6 months to watch for stroke risks and to keep an eye on my heart health. Like many other survivors, I suffer from anxiety that has increased tenfold since having preeclampsia. If I had to do it all over again, I would gladly battle preeclampsia to have my beautiful babies, but I long for a day when we find a cure for preeclampsia!
How can you help?
If the facts I have shared with you or my personal story touch you in any way I ask you to take a moment to consider donating to the Preeclampsia Foundation. I survived, but many women and babies lose the battle each year, and the only way we can possibly prevent the loss of lives is through research. I know not everyone has the means to make a financial donation, but there are other ways you can help.
- Join a Preeclampsia Promise Walk in your area or virtually.
- Advocate for preeclampsia research.
- If you suffered from preeclampsia consider joining the preeclampsia registry.
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