You won’t find any pictures of me pregnant on facebook or instagram. Zero. There was one that a friend posted, but I deleted it because it makes me cry just looking at it, even two years later sans baby hormones. Why? Well, I was huge quite frankly. HUGE. Not pregnant huge, but preeclampsia huge.
Don’t know what that is? No worries, most people don’t. I did, but only because I am a raging hypochondriac and obsessively google everything. For the rest of you, preeclampsia is a blood pressure condition that affects about around 5 – 8% of expecting women in the US each year. Basically what happens is that, for no known reason, a pregnant woman’s blood pressure will start to rise, and the only cure is delivery. If left untreated, it can lead to death of the mother, baby, or both.
For most of my pregnancy my weight gain was perfectly on track. Sure, I indulged in ice cream a little more than ideal, but I generally kept things in check and exercised a few times a week. At six months, I could still wear flowy enough clothing to keep from looking obviously pregnant. Then around 7 months, I noticed that I seemed to be gaining a lot of weight, without any change in diet or routine. My feet started swelling and it was getting tough to walk more than necessary. My supervisor (God bless her) didn’t bat an eye when I started wearing flip flops to work every single day because they were the only shoes that fit my feet. Slowly, the rest of my body started swelling like it was a balloon being inflated.
I mentioned this to my doctor, and she agreed I did look like I was retaining a lot of water, but so far my blood pressure looked good. I was in my third trimester in the middle of a DC summer so water retention was to be expected to a certain degree. Until I hit my eighth month. All of a sudden walking was unbearable. My skin had no give, and I was blowing up at a rapidly increasing rate. I could hear the caution in my doctor’s voice when she talked about it, but my blood pressure still looked great so there was nothing to suggest it was anything more than a really poor reaction to humidity.
At 38 weeks I went in for a regular checkup. This time when the nurse took my BP, she didn’t say anything. My doctor came in and talked about how much weight I gained, heavily emphasizing it was “due to water retention” (I appreciate her sensitivity to my hormonal state), and how much my blood pressure had spiked. They ran some tests, and I was officially diagnosed with preeclampsia.
I was sent home with instructions on what I had to do over the weekend, and an appointment for Monday morning to see if induction was necessary. I called my husband sobbing to tell him the news. He came home with flowers and a blood pressure monitor. I was told to take my BP three times a day, and if it got above a certain number to go straight to the ER. There were other symptoms I had to look out for as well such as a headache that doesn’t go away with advil, or vomiting. Needless to say the anxiety this produced was not exactly helpful to someone with escalating blood pressure, so I had to have a “relaxing weekend” – which is totally possible under those circumstances *insert eye roll here*.
When Monday rolled around, we went to my appointment.The nurse took my blood pressure, again leaving the room without a word. My doctor walked in a few minutes later and the first words out of her mouth were, “Are you ready to meet your baby?” She explained that my BP had reached dangerous levels, and since I was 38 weeks, there was no reason to delay delivery.
My husband and I walked over to the hospital (attached to my doctor’s office), and I was immediately induced. I was so swollen at this point that the anesthesiologist’s exact words to the nurse when giving me the epidural were, “Wow, I am having trouble locating the entry point due to severe edema”. Doctor translation: “You’re so swollen I can’t find your spine”. Finally, labor was underway, and a mere 31 hours later we welcomed Gianna into the world. Once I delivered, my blood pressure promptly returned to normal levels.
As scary as this was, I was lucky. Yes, preeclampsia sucks no matter what, but I was lucky it didn’t set in until the baby was fully cooked, and there was no danger in delivering her. Many women are not so lucky. Blood pressure rising due to preeclampsia can come on as early as 20 weeks and as late as 6 weeks postpartum. I was the “luckiest” of cases. At 38 weeks, the baby was ready to come out, and I was under a doctor’s care weekly, making it easy to catch. Many women have symptoms set in so early that delivery puts the baby at risk if induced, or the mom AND baby at risk if a wait and see approach is taken. Conversely, there are some women who have already been discharged from the hospital, only for symptoms to inexplicably set in when they think all is well and don’t know to monitor their BP, or to get to a doctor if it gets too high.
It’s easy to complain, and I certainly do my share of it, but I am also grateful. I had great medical care, a doctor who was able to keep me calm during the worst of it, and a husband who was more concerned for my health than I was. I also got the sweetest little girl, whose personality is a daily reminder that the greatest gifts come with their own unique challenges.
May is preeclampsia awareness month. Now, I know that every month is the awareness month for something these days, and it is impossible to keep track of them all. I mainly share my experience so that if a woman reading this notices these symptoms in herself, she can get to a doctor and have it checked out. If you’re interested in learning more, please check out the Preeclampsia Foundation here.