Pre-eclampsia affects about 7.5 percent of women during the latter half of pregnancy. The most common signs are high blood pressure and elevated levels of protein in the urine. There is no way of preventing pre-eclampsia, nor are there any tests to predict who will get it.
Shawna Dolman was diagnosed during a routine visit to her midwife in her 39th week. “My midwife was shocked to see how swollen I had become in only a week since my last visit,” says Shawna, 33, and now a mom to a son and daughter. Her blood pressure was higher than normal and Shawna was sent to the ER after a housecall two days later. After 15 hours of labour, Shawna required an emergency C-section and blood transfusion. Her son was born healthy, but Shawna says the experience was terrifying.
Dr. Clare Hutchinson, who specializes in general pediatrics and pediatric rheumatology at North York General Hospital in Toronto, offers more insight. “For the mom, pre-eclampsia can cause damage to the liver and kidneys, and can even cause seizures. It can cause decreased blood flow across the placenta, which can result in slower growth of the baby and lower levels of amniotic fluid."
Most women with pre-eclampsia will have no symptoms and pre-eclampsia will only be detected at a routine doctor’s appointment, says Dr. Hutchinson. “That’s why your urine and blood pressure should be checked at every obstetrical visit. When women do have symptoms, they can include headaches, changes in vision, upper abdominal pain, rapid weight gain, decreased urination or swelling in the hands and feet. If you have any of these symptoms, it is important to let your doctor know right away.” Women who have pre-existing high blood pressure or kidney disease before pregnancy, gestational diabetes, pre-eclampsia in a previous pregnancy, or women who are having twins or triplets are at higher risk.
The only cure for pre-eclampsia is to deliver the baby and the placenta, so women close to their due date may be required to deliver early. “In cases where the pre-eclampsia is mild enough that immediate delivery is not necessary, both mother and baby will be monitored closely until the baby is born,” she says.
Looking back on her experience, Shawna knew something was wrong.
“I remember being in the shower the day before and seeing spots in my vision. I just assumed I was light-headed or stood up too quickly.”
In the end, she had a positive outcome. “My son was in perfect health and I didn't suffer from any long-term effects,” says Shawna. “When I had my second child I was in a higher risk bracket to develop pre-eclampisa again, which luckily I didn’t. I also was not able to have a midwife because of the increased risk.”
After her delivery, she was sent home on blood pressure medication that she took for a month. The advice she would pass on to other expectant moms? “Listen to your body and look for the warning signs.”
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, February 2014.