Pregnancy complications with pre-eclampsia

September 21, 2009 10:33:58 AM PDT
As the saying goes, life is funny. Coming out of yet another disappointing date and staring down 35, I decided to get rid of the fantasy of marriage and family. Instead I'd be a great aunt and godmother, a wonderful friend, a loving daughter and revel in never having to fight over the remote. Not two months later, on a frosty clear morning, it wasn't the cold that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up as I interviewed a pastry chef with kind eyes and a shy smile. By the fall, I was a bride. But for quite a while after, I was still staring at my wedding ring, shocked at the sharp right turn my life had taken.

That same sense of wonder and a reporter's curiosity surfaced when I discovered I was pregnant. 'Look at that!' my mind would say as my stomach started to grow, my love of coffee disappeared, and my hair grew faster than summer crops. And this was my attitude in July, when my body seemed to change overnight. My modest belly seemed to explode out and my face and feet pooled with swelling. Within weeks I went from a size 8 ½ shoe to an 11 and my ankles and knees disappeared under tumescent flesh. Not attractive, I thought, but amazing. But as I walked across the newsroom, some of my colleagues with more knowledge about the dangers of pregnancy---Rick Williams, married to an OB-GYN; Dawn Heefner, the health producer---urged caution.

It took a few more weeks and the fraying of my voice, which was audible to others more than me, for me to go see the doctor. The ragged voice was somewhat routine - that's what happens when your uterus pushes everything up and out. But by the end of the visit, my swelling and "pitting"---what they call it when your skin dimples to the touch---were joined by another symptom: my protein levels were up. As he looked at my protein results, my doc went from jovial to serious. I called out of work from his office and spent the next day in the hospital being monitored. And then we had the results: I had pre-eclampsia.

Pre-eclampsia is a medical mystery. It is triggered by pregnancy, but it is the mother not the baby who bears the adverse affects. There are no predictors for which pregnant women will get it or why. And there is no cure, other than delivery. All doctors know for sure are the signs: edema, or swelling; high blood pressure; high levels of protein showing in the urine, a sign that the kidneys are in distress; pain in the upper quadrant of the stomach, another sign of kidney and liver distress; a headache over the brow bone, a sign of rising blood pressure; and seeing stars or double vision. That last symptom gives the disease its name: "eclampsia" is from the Greek words for "a shining forth," a reference to the stars women start to see as they descend into the disease's final, deadly destination, seizures and stroke. As one Greek text, two thousand years old, put it," In pregnancy, the onset of drowsy headaches with heaviness is bad; such cases are perhaps liable to some sort of fits at the same time."

I was almost 34 weeks along when diagnosed. I was put on bed rest and made it to 37 weeks, which is considered full term. But we didn't make it across the finish line without a bit of scare: a day before I was due to be induced, my husband's sixth sense went off and he asked to check my blood pressure. It was 155/100, dangerously high. "Get her to the hospital," advised a friend in my medical practice. I was put on drugs that made me tired and disconnected, making the 24 hours of labor and the first day of recovery even more of a handful. Still I consider myself lucky: a friend was diagnosed with a more severe case early in her seventh month. She was rushed into the OR to give birth to a daughter who only weighed two pounds. With her child in the NICU, my friend went through her own nightmare as all of her own systems shut down. Amazingly, two years later and after months of hospital care, she and her little girl are both doing great.

My husband and I want another child, but we don't know what to anticipate. Perhaps pre-eclampsia will strike again, perhaps it will not. Doctors say there's no way to know what to predict. But at least now I know the signs. I'm holding onto my blood pressure cuff and I won't be so quick to dismiss headaches, stomach aches or double vision. And next time I won't consider all that swelling cute or curious, but as what it truly is: cause for concern.


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