In February 2014, I was 23 weeks’ pregnant with my first baby. I had been feeling a bit unwell for a few days: indigestion, breathing was difficult, and I had suddenly weight. All normal pregnancy gripes I thought, but I checked Dr Google just in case, as you do.
Dr Google suggested preeclampsia. “Don’t be so silly,” thought I. “It’s like Googling a headache and diagnosing yourself with a brain tumour. I’m only 23 weeks’ pregnant after all, and preeclampsia happens only in later pregnancy.”
It turns out Dr Google was 100% correct on this occasion.
I was wrong. So very, very wrong.
A week or so later a routine midwife appointment showed problems with my blood pressure and urine, and I was dispatched to the local hospital where I was diagnosed with not only severe preeclampsia, but also with severe HELLP syndrome.
I was seriously ill. Our much-wanted baby was in serious trouble, too.
The only cure for both of these illnesses is for the baby to be born. Otherwise, both mum and baby will die.
My beautiful little boy, Hugo, was born three days later by emergency Caesarean section. He weighed just 420 grams. Hugo was so small and premature that despite everything possible being attempted to save his life, he died in my arms 35 days later.
I am heartbroken.
There is nothing that can be done to change what happened to me, or to bring Hugo back. What I can do is to help make sure everyone knows about these devastating pregnancy complications and what to do about it.
What are Preeclampsia and HELLP Syndrome?
Preeclampsia and HELLP syndrome are illnesses that can happen only in pregnancy. That is because they are related to the placenta, the organ a woman’s body grows to keep her unborn baby alive.
No one knows exactly how or why the conditions start, but we do know that it is related to a problem with blood flow to and from the placenta. In the simplest terms, the problems with the flow deprive the baby, leading to growth restriction. The placenta responds by sending back things to the mother, which then causes her problems.
They can happen any time after 20 weeks (and in very rare cases, before).
What are the symptoms?
- Heartburn/indigestion with pain after eating
- Swelling, and sudden weight gain
- Shoulder pain or pain when breathing deeply
- Malaise, or a feeling that something ‘isn’t right’
- Pain under the right side of the ribs
- Headache and changes in vision (‘flashing lights’).
Not all women who have these illnesses will have all the symptoms – I never had the headache or ‘flashing lights’. There are a couple of symptoms, such as protein in your urine and high blood pressure that are difficult to spot yourself, which is why it is vital all pregnant women attend their antenatal appointments because these things are routinely checked.
Of course, some of these symptoms happen in pregnancy anyway. If you are worried, it is best to get checked out anyway – visit your midwife or doctor. They can check your blood pressure and urine and you will probably be sent back home again. Thankfully, these illnesses are rare, affecting around 5% of pregnancies, which means that you are 95% likely to not have preeclampsia.
Are these illnesses really that bad?
The ‘pre’ part of ‘preeclampsia’ is important: eclampsia means seizures that can happen when your blood pressure gets too high. It is important to remember that preeclampsia is bad, and women need to receive medical attention so it does not reach the eclampsia stage.
HELLP syndrome stands for Haemolysis, Elevated Liver Enzymes, Low Platelets – serious stuff. I nearly experienced multiple organ failure. Other women with HELLP syndrome have had actual organ failure, and some have sadly died.
Preeclampsia and HELLP syndrome can be catastrophic for babies, too, such as for my Hugo. That is because the only cure is for the baby to be born, regardless of gestation. It is very rare for these illnesses to strike so early (23/24 weeks); most cases happen later in pregnancy, when luckily many babies have a better chance of survival.
I’m not planning on getting pregnant – why does it matter to me?
You might not want a baby, or your child-bearing days may be over. You may also be a man.
Whoever you are, you are likely to know a pregnant woman, or someone who is planning to become pregnant. These illnesses are rare, but they are real and they happen to pregnant women today, not just in the history books.
The more people who are aware of the symptoms the better: to save the lives of women and babies.
There really is no better reason to explain why it matters to you. No better reason to care, to remember the signs and symptoms, and to spread the word.
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