Where Modern Medicine has Failed the Pregnant Mom

Pregnant Woman Belly. Pregnancy Concept

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

6 thoughts on “Where Modern Medicine has Failed the Pregnant Mom

  1. I can relate to what you wrote. I also did everything right including giving up caffeine and making sure everything I ate was pasteurized. However, at 33 weeks I had an emergency csection under general anesthesia because I had a placental abruption. My son wasn’t breathing when he was born and spent 39 days in the NICU. He is a miracle. My doctor still can’t believe that it happened because I had no risk factors. I’m so thankful for how our story turned out, but know this isn’t the case for everyone. Thanks for sharing your story.

  2. I got involved with our local pre-eclampsia awareness organisation because I was so surprised that so many people, including myself, had no idea what the symptoms were, how quickly it could develop or that it was so common.

    The science part is difficult – there are a lot of ethical issues with any research, especially interventions, involving pregnant women. (Or neonates, come to that.) Sheep and mice and zebrafish are great, but in the end they are only models. Having said that there is a lot of interesting research going on at the molecular level, as well as at the population level. I hope that by the time your daughter is interested in having children then there will be better identification of women at risk, better management of those pregnancies and fewer women and babies ending up with damage. Ideally none of course.

    Out of curiosity were you on any of the current treatments? I was on clexane from day 1 of transfer as well as low dose aspirin, vitamin D and the other usual vitamins you take for pregnancy. I didn’t realise that pre-eclampsia is more common in IVF conceptions until I talked with a high risk obstetrician recently – then again, we were doing the experimental IVF stuff by the time I actually conceived so I did wonder how much was just throwing every possible thing against the wall and hoping something stuck.

    It’s weird once you’ve had a high risk pregnancy – I found that I was looking at the cultural narratives of pregnancy very differently. We (as in, in Westernised societies) don’t really have a concept of pregnancy being a risky activity any more. We don’t really realise that there are still maternal deaths, and we really don’t have a concept of infant mortality – or know how to deal with it when it does occur to people around us. I still don’t ever know if I’m saying the right thing and I know quite a few people now who have lost babies.

    As to the giving up caffeine, alcohol, etc… I used to walk past pregnant women smoking in the car park outside the NICU. A lot of the mothers I knew were really, really angry that they’d done everything “right” and their kids were in intensive care, while these women went on to have term babies and take them home. I took refuge in black humour mostly – I remember joking at one point that if I’d known that my son was going to be on caffeine and morphine I’d totally have drunk coffee and shot up. Might as well get him started early. It’s a crapshoot – every pregnancy has its own path; every baby has their own path.

    Best wishes with whatever you decide about trying again or not. It’s a hard decision, and one tied up in a lot of emotions. Stupid placentas.

    • Hi Alison,
      It is crazy how many similar stories are out there. We didn’t do any of the treatments or preventatives during pregnancy for preeclampsia. Not sure what we will do next time around if we are able to get pregnant again. I know, it is crazy when you look at other pregnancies and then your own! Infant mortality is still a real thing here in the US. People don’t realize just how real! Thanks for commenting and sharing your story and your humor:)

      • If you haven’t already I would definitely talk to an obstetrician specialising in high risk pregnancies, and specialising in pre-eclampsia if possible, and also with the IVF specialist again. I found that just discussing what treatments were available and the odds with someone who sees it a lot and for whom it is “normal” (heh) was very helpful. It’s still difficult – all “informed choices” are coloured with emotion, at least in a medical setting.

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