Preeclampsia, a condition that can cause concerning issues for both mother and baby, affects about 7.5 percent of women during the latter half of pregnancy. There is no way of preventing preeclampsia, which is thought to be caused by an issue with the placenta, 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,” said Dolman, whose blood pressure was charted as much higher than normal. When this reading hadn’t come down a couple of days after her appointment, she was sent to the ER. After 15 hours of labour, Dolman required an emergency C-section and a blood transfusion. Her son was born healthy, but Dolman says the experience was terrifying.

Dr. Clare Hutchinson, who specializes in general pediatrics and pediatric rheumatology at North York General Hospital in Toronto, offered more insight. “For the mom, preeclampsia can cause damage to her 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 preeclampsia will have no symptoms and preeclampsia 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, preeclampsia in a previous pregnancy, or women who are having multiples are at higher risk.

The only cure for preeclampsia 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 preeclampsia is mild enough that immediate delivery is not necessary, both mother and baby will be monitored closely until the baby is born,” Dr. Hutchinson says.

Looking back on her experience, Dolman knew something was wrong.

“I remember being in the shower the day before my appointment 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 Dolman. “When I had my second child I was in a higher risk bracket to develop preeclampisa 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 to take 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.