Eight years ago, my husband and I learned that we were expected our first child. It was a time of excitement mixed in with a little fear of the unknown. Everything was going along great, and we followed everything by the book. We had our monthly appointments. We did all the prenatal testing. We made it through wonderful baby showers and read all the literature.
But none of that prepared us for what happened.
I got sick with a little-known pregnancy complication called HELLP. H stands for hemolysis (the breaking down of red blood cells), EL for elevated liver enzymes, and LP low platelet count. It's a nasty disorder that affects 48,000 women and can be life-threatening for both mom and baby. Many have never even heard of it. Including us.
In my third trimester, I started to experience swelling and my blood pressure started to climb (164/110). My doctors started keeping a closer eye on me. One Friday while at work, I just didn't feel right. The swelling in my feet was horrendous and was no longer just contained to my feet. My hands were swollen. I was seeing stars and had one of the worst headaches to date.
So I did what any pregnant woman would do: I called my doctor. I left a message for the prenatal nurse and anxiously waited for a call back. And what happened next happens far too often to pregnant women: my concerns were dismissed.
I was told to elevate my feet, cut out the salt, and rest. The only problem: I was already doing those things. Nothing was helping. When I didn't like what the prenatal nurse told me, I turned to my family doctor.
And thank goodness for him. He monitored me over the weekend, checked my blood pressure and urine for protein and demanded that I be seen first thing Tuesday morning. (Did I mention all of this happened over a holiday weekend?)
When I was finally seen by my OB practice, I was put on bed rest. Being only 34 weeks in, they wanted to give our baby boy more time to develop.
My body had other plans.
All the preparing and planning we had done in those 34 weeks would never prepare us for what was to come. Nothing preps you for preparing for an emergency birth where not only your baby is danger, but your life is on the line as well.
One minute, we were sitting in the doctor's office for a blood-pressure check and the next minute, we were rushing to the hospital for monitoring. Monitoring then turned into being admitted to the hospital for a 24-hour urine catch which ultimately led to my husband being told, "Don't go anywhere, Dad. We're having a baby."
Everything changed in a matter of 24 hours.
At the time, all we were told was that my platelet count was dropping, my liver was enlarged, and my body was basically shutting down to protect itself. Our only option? Get the baby out.
I was hooked up to magnesium sulfate (which I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy) and my blood was drawn every hour. After a failed induction and scary blood-test results, it was time for our baby boy to be brought into the world.
After delivery, I was out of it. I don't remember much about the 24 hours after his birth other than feeling drunk, detached, and depressed. HELLP Syndrome — which I hadn't even been diagnosed with yet at this point — had robbed my husband and me of those wonderful first moments with our son. Instead of celebrating with family and snuggling our precious boy, I was hooked up to medicine and confined to a bed that was next door to the NICU were my son also lay hooked up to machines.
When I finally started feeling more like myself, the doctor sat down with us and told us exactly what happened. She explained that I had Class I HELLP Syndrome, a variant of preeclampsia that can be difficult to diagnose, especially when high blood pressure and protein in the urine aren't present. Its symptoms are sometimes mistaken for gastritis, flu, acute hepatitis, gall bladder disease, or other conditions.
HELLP doesn't stop after the baby is born either. While my blood pressure dropped to normal levels after delivery, my body still had to heal from the trauma it went through. Because of the magnesium sulfate, I was out of it. People would come visit and I would literally pass out. When I woke up, they would be gone as hours had passed.
I also ended up needing extra fluid and was on the verge of needing a blood transfusion. I dealt with feelings of failure, ashamed that my body couldn't do what it was intended to do: have a baby. But over time, I have been able to move on and educate people about this life-threatening condition.
As for my son, he's a happy and healthy eight-year-old who by some miracle has had no side effects of this awful condition. He spent just 10 days in the NICU working on learning how to eat.
Had we not had that doctor's appointment that day and had I not advocated for myself, I don't even want to think about what the outcome would have been. We were extremely lucky in our case. Others, sadly, are not. The global mortality rate of HELLP syndrome has been reported to be as high as 25%. That's why it's critical for expecting mothers to be aware of the condition and its symptoms so they can receive early diagnosis and treatment.
Eight years later, we now have two healthy boys. It took us awhile to be OK with the idea of having another baby. We met with a high-risk OB to go over my risk factors; ee wanted to know if this would happen again. Unfortunately, there is no certainty. We were told HELLP or preeclampsia could happen again, or we would go on to to have an uneventful pregnancy. Thankfully, the latter happened.
To learn more about HELLP Syndrome, please visit the Preeclampsia Foundation.