What it was like dealing with preeclampsia

Note: This is my own experience with preeclampsia and should not be used for medical advice. Feel free to read my account below, but talk to your doctor with any questions or concerns you have.

There’s a likelihood you’ve heard of preeclampsia — also known as “toxemia” — before, whether from a friend’s experience or from a high-profile news story. It can be scary to read about and even more so to experience for the first time. At its best, it can be developed late in the pregnancy and still lead to a healthy baby. At its worst, it can have an earlier onset and be life-threatening for both the baby and the mother. The most important step to managing it is to attend prenatal appointments so that doctors can catch it early and monitor it.

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Some preliminary info about preeclampsia

Preeclampsia can be hard to explain and still sometimes difficult to fully comprehend — even after two pregnancies with it. A great resource for the disorder is the Preeclampsia Foundation website. But in essence, it’s the body’s initial reaction to the kidneys not being able to fully filter out protein released by the placenta. Some of the most common symptoms — although not everyone gets them — are high blood pressure, protein in the urine, swelling, and headaches. Here is the full list for reference.

It is the precursor for eclampsia which are prepartum or postpartum seizures that can lead to other complications. The only known cure for preeclampsia is to give birth and to monitor the mother’s blood pressure after (in case of HELPP syndrome). But depending on when a woman is diagnosed and the severity of it, the doctor may have to monitor and manage it until the baby is closer to term. I’m not a medical professional, just someone sharing their personal experience. The best resources to learn more are your doctor and you can read more about it here.

Initial symptoms in my first pregnancy

I had been feeling a fullness in my head in the days leading up to my 34-week appointment. It wasn’t entirely out of the ordinary as I’ve dealt with seasonal allergies before and sinus pressure felt the same to me. However, it was only February and normally mine didn’t kick in until late March. What I also didn’t realize was that the edema I was experiencing was more than what I should have anticipated.

My blood pressure readings at the appointment that week were in the 140/90 range. That part stuck out as they’re usually around 120/80, even during my pregnancies. The dipstick they used for my urine sample didn’t show signs of elevated protein levels. However, to be on the safe side, she scheduled for me to come back a couple days later to have my vitals checked again. I bought an at home blood pressure cuff to keep an eye on it in the meantime. It’s important to note here that at home blood pressure cuffs aren’t as accurate as the doctor’s readings. It was just supplemental to the tests the OB was running.

At the next doctor’s appointment, my blood pressure was still high and my urine sample began showing elevated protein levels. The sonogram of the baby was also showing that he was measuring a little smaller than normal. This is significant as preeclampsia can impair growth due to a lack of oxygen and blood flow to the baby. The OB schedule some blood tests to check my kidney and liver function and the doctor had me start a 24-hour urine collection.

With the results of those, I was diagnosed with mild preeclampsia around the 35-week mark and given a prescription to help manage the blood pressure. My doctor also had me start coming in for appointments twice a week with the stipulation that I call in if anything felt off with the baby (such as less movement or activity), if my blood pressure spiked or if I started having headaches that wouldn’t go away with Tylenol. What she was trying to balance was making sure the baby had enough time to develop while also trying to avoid a dangerous situation for both the baby and me.

Being induced

Luckily, my preeclampsia didn’t worsen over the next week and a half (though I did have a few nervous breakdowns about it) and my doctor scheduled for me to be induced at the 37-week mark. Being told that I was going to deliver three weeks early was a bit surreal. It’s hard to explain why as we were both aware that it would likely happen. However, we were at a point where we had become familiar with what preeclampsia was like and had a strange hope that we could wait it out. But what the OB reminded us of is that preeclampsia can escalate quickly and at 37 weeks, the baby was in a good place development-wise.

I went in that morning with the mindset that I wanted a natural birth, but that I’d be willing to do what was necessary for the health of the baby and myself. They set up the IVs and monitors, and about an hour after I arrived, they gave me a dose of pitocin which starts the contracts. Contractions hit me fast, and within 20 minutes my epidural was in place.

Luckily, my cervix was already pretty dilated and effaced, and the only thing they had to watch was the baby’s position — he was already downward, but his head was back instead of tucked in. He fixed his position on his own and soon after the doctor broke my water.

This all happened over the course of three hours. The next eight were pretty laid back, with the doctor coming to check on me, chatting with my husband and the nurse, and eating ice chips and the occasional popsicle. Right around 10.75 hours, I was dilated enough, completely effaced, the baby was in position, and my contractions were close enough together. I went through rounds of pushing for about an hour and a half (which weren’t as scary as I thought they would be) and our little guy was born.

Postpartum effects on the baby and me

Our son was born at five pounds which was underweight for his gestational age. However his APGAR score (appearance, pulse, grimace, activity, respiration) at both one and five minutes were high. The only thing that was low was his glucose level. So over the next two days, they had to measure it after every meal to make sure he was absorbing enough nutrition.

The hospital continued to monitor me for the next two days as well to make sure my blood pressure was dropping back to normal. Luckily, it did within the first day so I was dispatched early. Our little one ended up staying until the following morning before we could take him home.

Differences with my second pregnancy

The second time, my blood pressure didn’t spike until the end of the 35-week period. Instead of having me do another 24-hour collection, the moment protein was present on the dipstick, the doctor diagnosed me with mild preeclampsia. I went in for more appointments over the next two weeks and towards the end of week 36, the OB decided to induce me that following Monday at 37 weeks.

That Sunday, we had planned to meet with family for lunch when I started getting a bad headache. It didn’t seem to let up even with Tylenol, so we stopped by the labor and delivery triage area just in case. They watched my blood pressure bounce up and down a few times as the headache subsided. I remember vividly when the on call OB stepped in as my husband went to answer a call. Assuming she was going to discharge me and say to just come back for my appointment in the morning, I was shocked when she said that they would induce right then and there. My husband was equally surprised when he got back into the room. Per the OB, they didn’t want to risk it since my BP wasn’t going down on its own.

Just as last time, I was given pitocin to start my contracts and just like last time, my nerves were a bit high. This time around though, they had to add magnesium sulfate to my IV to help stabilize my BP. I was in the first stages of labor for around five hours and once I started pushing, it took about 13 minutes before our little one was born. He was clearly ready for his debut!

Born at 5.5 pounds, he didn’t have to be tested for his glucose levels and his APGAR scores were as good as his brother’s. This time around, it was mainly me that they had to watch to make sure my BP dropped back to normal. They continued to give me magnesium sulfate, which also meant that I couldn’t be left alone with the baby. Since it’s a muscle relaxant, they have to make sure the mother doesn’t drop the baby or fall asleep while holding it. We were then both discharged right after two days.

What might have contributed to my preeclampsia

There’s no absolute known cause for it, but there are risk factors that increase your chances. In my case, I know that my weight didn’t help as I went into my first pregnancy with unhealthy eating habits. I was also not treating my kidneys well as I was drinking less water (while working overtime to prepare everything for work), I wasn’t sleeping enough, I drank a fair amount of tea (caffeine can be a diuretic), my system was already a bit haywire from stress, and I had had kidney issues in the past (infections and stones). This is purely speculation on my part, but at the very least I’m sure these habits didn’t help.

Conclusion

Although my experience with preeclampsia was mild, it can be a life-threatening complication for mothers and their babies alike. Doctors have to balance giving the child long enough to develop in the womb with trying to prevent the condition from escalating to eclampsia by inducing labor to help bring the blood pressure down. Ideally, they’ll wait until 37 weeks if they can. This is why it’s important for doctor’s to catch the condition early and monitor it as close as they can. It’s also important to voice concerns about how you feel as preeclampsia can manifest in different ways.

Going into pregnancy, there are things that I would do differently regardless if it lessened my chances of developing preeclampsia. Mainly, I would try to maintain a healthier lifestyle before and during the pregnancy. I would also make an effort to lessen my stress from work and put more emphasis on eating better, drinking enough water, and trying to sleep more. I may not have the opportunity to be pregnant again, but I hope sharing my experiences with preeclampsia — and low progesterone levels — can help others who want to learn more about what it was like to deal with it.

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