Why is it that 10 per cent of pregnancies are affected by pre-eclampsia (PE) in Australia yet it is something that is not a discussion topic among us?
This disease takes lives every day and many babies are born prematurely due to it. Every year in Australia about 200 babies die due to pre-eclampsia, as a direct consequence of the premature age in which they were born. The only way to cure pre-eclampsia is to deliver the baby.
Around the world, more then 50,000 mothers die every year from eclampsia. That number would dramatically increase if you took into account the other complications of pre-eclampsia.
Pre-eclampsia is a condition that only happens in pregnancy and is the most common medical disorder of a human pregnancy.
It also can be called pre-eclamptic toxemia or PET and has also been known as ‘kidney fits’. Pre-eclampsia is high blood pressure (hypertension), leakage of protein into the urine (proteinuria), thinning of the blood (coagulopathy) and liver dysfunction. Occasionally, pre-eclampsia can lead to convulsions (fits), a serious complication known as eclampsia.
There are women, such as myself, who have experienced pre-eclampsia first-hand and are forced to step forward to speak out because we are so afraid for others who don’t know about this complication.
Pre-eclampsia was the reason my daughter was born at 27 weeks gestation, weighing 861 grams or 1lb 14ozs. I had very little idea about pre-eclampsia and just put the symptoms I was feeling down to being pregnant. But little did I know I was actually a time bomb that was in need of some serious medical attention.
Throughout my pregnancy I had small issues but nothing that I felt was big enough to warrant going to see a doctor. I did feel unwell some of the time but always put it down to being pregnant and would shrug it off. I experienced symptoms such as excessive swelling, which was very prominent in my face and feet towards the end of my pregnancy; the medical term for this is oedema. I also suffered from severe headaches, visual disturbances, which in my case were like stars or black spots but can also be flashes of light, and pain in the upper abdomen which I put down to suffering pregnancy indigestion. You can also have vomiting with pre-eclampsia too.
These symptoms should never have been ignored but I was unaware just how serious all this meant. It was the combination of rising blood pressure and protein leaking from my urine that spelt disaster for my daughter and I, and the doctors and nurses needed to act fast.
I was lucky that I was booked in for a routine appointment for a checkup and glucose test, many pregnant women are not so lucky. The longer it takes to seek medical advice, the more serious the complication can become and sometimes it can become too late.
For me there was enough time and I was given two steroid injections to help mature my daughter’s lungs for birth. It then became a waiting game of how sick I got, to how dangerous it was for her to stay in my womb, all the while trying to give her a better chance to grow.
Three days after I was diagnosed with pre-eclampsia I also developed HELLP Syndrome which stands for H (Haemolysis – red blood cell damage); EL (Elevated Liver Enzymes – indicating liver damage); and LP (Low Platelets in the blood leading to a bleeding tendency). This comes along with further complications and it was then that my daughter needed to be delivered.
I had to have a C-section due to my high blood pressure and low platelets levels. My husband had to wait outside the delivery room while she was being born as hers was such a high-risk delivery. When my daughter was born she had to be resuscitated and taken to NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) and I spent almost two days in ICU.
I was extremely lucky as other women have varying issues that linger as sometimes pre-eclampsia and HELLP Syndrome can be more dangerous after the actual birth.
My daughter was cared for by a team of beautiful doctors and nurses at Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney. They taught us how to heal and together, we watched her grow stronger every day. If I had of known what the symptoms of pre-eclampsia and HELLP Syndrome were, I would have sought medical attention sooner. Educating pregnant women about pre-eclampsia is now my personal mission and I am passionate about making more people aware of pre-eclampsia and HELLP.
There is no clear reason known for pre-eclampsia yet but there could be a chance that if your mother had pre-eclampsia during one or more of her pregnancies, then so could you. This makes me very keen to find a cure because I want to protect my daughter and everyone else’s daughters from this happening to them.
There is some evidence that the placenta is involved in the way we develop pre-eclampsia. The flow of the placenta malfunctions due to lack of sufficient blood from the mother, causing the blood vessels to become damaged and that in turn increases the blood pressure. This limit in blood and nutrients through to the baby also reduces the growth of the baby and how it develops within the womb. This can lead to intrauterine growth restriction and also lack of oxygen.
Further research is needed to determine the exact cause and it is extremely important that all pregnant women are made aware of the symptoms and are encouraged to seek medical advice immediately. Even though my family has turned my daughter’s premature birth into a positive, we were lucky to be looked after by an excellent medical team and we have become stronger as a family as a result, but I do not wish the experience on anyone else!
Things you should remember about pre-eclampsia
- Every woman in her first pregnancy to any partner is at risk of pre-eclampsia.
- Even though statistics say it usually happens in your first pregnancy, this is not always the case as it happened in my 2nd, so always be aware of the symptoms.
- Always see a medical professional if you have severe headaches, vision disturbances, pain in the upper abdomen and sever swelling. Learn the signs and always seek medical advice.
- Always get your blood pressure checked.
- Always have a urine test done.
- Never miss an appointment.
– written by Fiona Dixon
Image credit: NejroN/123RF Stock Photo