The beauty of medicine is that it can fix most things. No, it’s not perfect, but modern medicine saves countless lives. In addition to saving lives, it dramatically improves the quality of the lives we live. Without modern medicine, my 18 month-old daughter and I would not be here today. After sailing through 32 weeks of a healthy pregnancy, I developed sudden and severe onset preeclampsia. I’m a high achiever, so my body decided it needed to start setting records. My blood pressure soared to stroke high levels. The protein in my urine topped the charts at 12 grams (5 grams is considered severe preeclampsia), and I gained over thirty pounds of fluid, becoming the Michelin man overnight. A simple tap on my arm or leg would send my limbs flying into the air. My nervous system and reflexes were in overdrive. The pounding headache, spotty vision, and abdominal discomfort were icing on the cake.
Overnight, I became one sick mamma to a 3 lb. 2 oz preemie. As soon as my daughter was cut from my belly, she required urgent resuscitation. A tiny tube was placed in her airway, and she was whisked away to the neonatal intensive care unit. It took me two days to even make it up to the NICU to see her. Even then, I was hooked up to IVs, countless medications and could only manage to hold her for a few minutes. Although the textbook answer to treating preeclampsia is to deliver the baby, for some women this doesn’t solve the problem immediately. My blood pressure continued to top the charts, my reflexes remained in hyperactive mode, my mind was very confused, and I was pretty sure I had, or was going to have a stroke. My concerned OB/GYN consulted a cardiologist to manage my unimproved condition. She was amazing. She listened, investigated, and made the necessary changes (mega doses of several blood pressure medications), which eventually helped normalize my blood pressure. But, even she didn’t have all of the answers. It wasn’t until three weeks after I delivered that I was able to cancel home nursing and stop my blood pressure medications.
Through this experience I started asking questions about why this was happening. What was the physiology behind this crazy multisystem condition affecting my nervous system, cardiovascular system, kidneys, liver, and reproductive system? What caused preeclampsia? What could I do to prevent it in the future? What was my chance of having it happen again? Why couldn’t we prevent it or at least treat it more effectively? I didn’t like any of the answers that I was hearing or reading. They were all just theories, nothing concrete. This condition, which landed me in the hospital for eight days, forced me to have an emergency c-section at thirty-two weeks, placed my tiny baby in the NICU for nine weeks, and which put me at risk for having high blood pressure and a stroke later in life was still not understood.
One out of every twelve pregnant women will develop preeclampsia according to data from the Preeclampsia Foundation. One in twelve! I don’t like those odds. How is it possible for a condition that is so common and potentially life threatening to mom and baby to continue to mystify us? We have mapped the human genome. We have eradicated small pox. We can identify breast cancer at its earliest stages, ensuring early treatment and amazing survival rates. Why haven’t we identified the true cause of preeclampsia and developed earlier and more efficient and effective screening tests for this condition? If prevention and earlier identification are not yet possible, then why haven’t we developed more effective treatments that will allow for a continued healthy pregnancy?
I have a fifty percent chance of developing preeclampsia again and at an earlier gestation in future pregnancies. I’m not a fan of my chances. I did everything right during my pregnancy. For goodness sake, I was the crazy lady who gave up all caffeine even though it probably wasn’t necessary. I didn’t drink a single soda, and I verified that every item entering my mouth was pasteurized. I was a paranoid pregnant mama! And, although following all of the recommendations probably prevented me from having other complications, it didn’t protect me from preeclampsia.
In a world where I count on modern medicine to fix most things, I have decided that modern medicine has failed to meet my expectations. Yes, it definitely saved my life and my daughter’s, but not all women are as fortunate as I was. Globally, preeclampsia is listed as one of the leading causes of mother and infant morbidity and mortality (illness and death). Worldwide, the United Nations reports that more than 500,000 women die each year due to pregnancy related causes. In the United States alone, preeclampsia causes 18% of maternal deaths. In short, preeclampsia is a killer.
As with any horrific and life threatening disease, the way to beat it is to study it. Research and clinical studies require interest, money, mental power (the scientists), and patients willing to participate. In most cases, it takes years before the results of clinical trials can be used in every day medicine. With only a short window left for my childbearing years, I’m hoping that new preventions and treatments will be available quickly. In the meantime, I’m doing my best to raise awareness and money, educate other women, and save the lives of women and their future babies (myself included). Join me by putting on your tennis shoes for the Promise Walk for Preeclampsia in your area. Or, take a look at the Preeclampsia Foundation or the March of Dimes for other ways to get involved. Push modern medicine to meet our expectations as women, mothers, and future mothers.
From The Mom in Me, MD