My oldest child was born at the end of a long, tiresome pregnancy. That pregnancy itself nearly broke me; I sometimes forget just how closely I came to not surviving the entire thing. Today, Abby is eleven. Despite what you might think, especially if you know me and are aware than preeclampsia in its milder form played a part in the birth of my micro preemie, it is Abby’s story that terrifies. It’s the one that to this day gives me nightmares.
I had a fairly normal pregnancy during the first few months. All of my tests came back indicating that we were having a healthy baby girl. I was giddy anticipating the dresses, hair bows and tiny shoes I would place on the little girl that, by my 28th week, I decided would be named Abigail. Unfortunately, it was also around that time that I began to feel what I can only describe as “off.” I started to become unusually tired, my feet and hands began to swell and I would get dizzying, debilitating headaches. My midwife- I had this intense desire for a completely natural birth, thus my decision to see a midwife and not an obstetrician- grew concerned when my blood pressures started to creep up. She put me in the hospital the weekend of my 29th week and it seemed as if, if I stayed in bed, my pressures stayed at manageable levels. I went home on Monday, diagnosed with transient pregnancy induced hypertension. She recommended I start bed rest immediately.
I gave bed rest a valiant effort. I still showered each day for as long as I felt able and made my own meals. I was alone much of the time and there were simply some tasks that I had to accomplish myself. It was incredibly difficult to have life going on everywhere around me and mine standing still. I managed until 36 weeks, when I noticed that I still felt badly even when laying. My midwife took one look at me that week and knew I was going downhill. My blood pressure was 160/90. She sent me home to collect a 24 hour urine catch- one of the tell-tale signs of preeclampsia progressing and becoming dangerous is increasing protein levels in the urine. It just so happened to be a Friday so I would not return with my sample until Monday morning. I remember sitting in the waiting room and watching the Michael Jackson trial. Turns out I didn’t need that urine. My blood pressure was 180/100 and I was sent to the hospital to be induced. It was April 11, 2005.
I was induced immediately and within four hours I was being ripped apart by pitocin induced contractions that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. After 12 hours with little progress, they allowed me rest for 8 hours. All the while, my blood pressure soared and I was hooked up to a magnesium drip. The mag itself felt like fire flowing into my veins. I sweat profusely. It slowed my central nervous system and caused me to be weak, confused and lethargic. My 8 hour break was from pitocin and contractions, but not the magnesium. It was necessary in an effort to lower my blood pressure. Early the next morning they came to tell me we had to start the pitocin again. That natural birth a distant memory, I begged for pain relief. They refused me an epidural until I dilated to 5 cm so every hour I got a shot of stadol that, while it didn’t relieve my pain, it sent me directly to sleep. Just before midnight the second day I finally dilated enough to get the epidural. They broke my water and attached a monitor to Abby’s head. The end was coming.
My epidural didn’t work. Twice they came back to re-position it and twice more it failed. Twelve more hours of contractions indescribable. At noon on April 13th I’d been stuck at 8 centimeters for 8 hours and a surgeon came to see me. He told me I’d never deliver a baby naturally and I needed to have a c-section. I’ll never forget what I said to him. “I don’t CARE as long as you take me and do it NOW!” An hour later, at 1:06 PM, Abby was born. I was happy because my pain was over. As bad as it is to admit it, my daughter’s very birth was overshadowed by the fact that my nearly 3 days of pain was finally over.
I spent the next 24 hours still on magnesium. When they turned it off, they seemed satisfied with my average pressures around 150/80-90. I told them this was still quite high for me. Then, I caught sight of myself in the mirror and didn’t recognize myself. My face was puffy and swollen. I’d just given birth, been through hell and back, so I thought maybe it was normal. I complained about my dizziness and got pain medicine, which exacerbated what I was already feeling. I shut up. No one was listening to me anyway.
On Saturday morning, we were discharged. The nurse who came to take my blood pressure placed the cuff on me and went about checking my temperature. When the machine beeped she frowned, so I turned to look at the screen. My blood pressure was 175/100. She said “Here Momma, let your arm dangle off the bed and let’s see if we can get a better pressure than that.” It came back at 169/89. She wrote it on the chart and I was allowed to be discharged.
I was unprepared for a hospital stay so when I got out I had no extra clothing. I had to wear home what I’d worn to my last appointment. Except, it didn’t fit. I wore it 6 days before, 37 weeks pregnant and I couldn’t even pull the pants up my hips. There were so many warning signs.
If the hospital was hard, home was impossible. I had to do everything for the baby myself. The day I got home I spent three hours at the stove sterilizing bottles. By day two, I could no longer wear shoes. Day three came the unrelenting migraine. Each day I felt exponentially worse than the day before. On the fifth day I had to take Abby to her first pediatrician visit. He told me I needed to go home and get into bed, that I looked like death. Little did we know…
On our way home we ended up stopping at my sisters. She had a baby 5 weeks before so we wanted to visit for a bit before going home. We’d been out for quite a while and I was tired. As I sat there I began to lose my sense of time and apparently became disoriented. The world spun around me and I couldn’t get my arms and legs to move when I wanted them to. My head pounded with each quickened beat of my heart. I felt like I was in a tunnel, at the very farthest end. I remember someone saying they were calling 911. The EMTs who came couldn’t get an accurate blood pressure on me. It was that high. I was having a stroke.
Had I not been with my family, I’d have died at home with my baby. I’d have died a completely preventable death due to medical neglect. I should have never been released from the hospital in the first place. My doctor would contact the doctor who discharged me and tell him that I had developed post partum preeclampsia and, eventually, ecclampsia, and that his neglect played a part in it. I was just glad to be alive.
For the five days I was home my baby wasn’t a joy to me but a burden. I couldn’t care for myself and here I was trying to care for this needy, colicky newborn alone. I didn’t bond with her until after my 10 day hospital stay. I didn’t have the energy, the life, in me.
When I was released this time I needed clothes 6 sizes smaller. I lost 60 pounds in 10 days.
I’m lucky to be alive today. I’m fortunate. Preeclampsia is scary. It is vengeful and diabolical. Preeclampsia takes the lives of women and their babies every. single. day. And not just in third world countries. Right here in the United States.
There is no cure and doctors still don’t know exactly why it happens. For the majority of women, delivery of the baby cures preeclampsia. For some women, like me, this is not always the case. We know that it seems to run in families and that there are certain risk factors. The idea that my daughter could one day fight this silent killer terrifies me.
My wish is for every woman to know the risk factors and signs and symptoms of preeclampsia. If you don’t feel well, speak up. I was told with my second preeclampsia baby that 21 weeks was “too early” to begin seeing signs. Four weeks later my son was born. Remember when Kim Kardashian was pregnant with her first baby and she was ridiculed for gaining too much and being fat? She had preeclampsia. It can affect anyone. It doesn’t discriminate.
May is preeclampsia awareness month, we should all share our preeclampsia stories and bring awareness to something that too often goes overlooked and unspoken.
Your story could save a life.