It’s bath time. After 14 months of this routine, it remains one of my daughter’s favorite activities. Suddenly, the splashing and laughing become frozen in time. An overwhelming feeling of gratitude floods my body. This happens often as I realize how close I was to never experiencing moments like these. I’m one of the lucky ones who survived severe preeclampsia and HELLP Syndrome.
In the beginning, my pregnancy was smooth sailing. My baby and I were cruising along clear waters until one day in April 2016, when our boat suddenly capsized. My daughter, June Harriet, was born 10 weeks early. A 2lb 4oz miracle baby came out crying. Appropriately, her NICU nurses described her as ‘feisty’.
With the help of phenomenal medical care, she not only survived, but thrived. She spent six weeks in the NICU, where she was monitored every minute. When she finally came home, the follow-up care was superb. It was like they would deploy the Coast Guard to save June at the first sign of distress.
The story of my rescue could not be more different. I was given a leaky life vest and expected to fend for myself in dangerous and uncharted waters.
I’ll go back to when things first get choppy…
It’s April 2016. I’m 29 weeks pregnant and I’m swelling up. I alert my OB/GYN, to which they respond that it sounds normal and they’ll check me at my scheduled appointment in one week. Two days later, I wake up with a killer headache and know something isn’t right. I make myself go to the nearest pharmacy to get my blood pressure checked. It’s dangerously high. The pharmacist looks scared. I cry. I call my doctor. They tell me to get to the nearest hospital. This is when it feels like the boat is beginning to sink.
I’m admitted and diagnosed with severe preeclampsia. Their goal is to stabilize me long enough to keep the baby inside until I’m 34 weeks. Five more weeks to go. Pretty standard stuff, but not to me. I’m scared of having a seizure, losing my baby, losing myself. I start having panic attacks for the first time in my life.
Jump forward a couple days … I know I’m having contractions. The nurse doesn’t believe me. It feels like I am drowning, so I call for more help. This time, the resident comes. Sure enough, I’m having contractions and am dilated. I knew it! They check my blood again. My liver enzymes have spiked and my platelets have dropped. It has progressed to HELLP Syndrome, a life-threatening pregnancy complication occurring in only 0.5 percent of pregnancies. Now I feel like I’m losing air. The only way to stop it is to have the baby.
They finally move me to a labor and delivery room. Breathe.
Once there, the maternal-fetal medicine specialist tells me they want to keep this baby in longer to help her develop. What about me? What about my health? I need a life vest, and he’s giving me nothing. How long can I keep fending for myself? The resident and I look at each other in confusion. We remind the doctor that I’m dilated, having contractions and, most importantly, had HELLP Syndrome. Did he even read my chart?
Okay, now we got through to him. He induces me, and 12 hours later I have my miracle baby. After delivery, I’m monitored for only one day longer than a typical, full-term mom. They put me on the highest dose of blood pressure medicine, tell me it could take months for it to go back to normal and send me on my way.
After my blood pressure goes down, the only scheduled follow-up is the standard six week postpartum visit with my OB/GYN. She mentions I have a 25 percent chance of getting preeclampsia again in future pregnancies, but that was about all she said regarding HELLP Syndrome or preeclampsia. No mention of my increased risk of vascular disease, hypertension, heart disease, stroke and venous thromboembolism. I had to request labs be done to make sure everything was going back to a healthy, normal state. She does screen me for postpartum depression, but at this point I barely have my head above water. It wasn’t until later that I realize I have the baby blues, like so many new moms. Nearly 80 percent of mothers, in fact, experience baby blues or worse, according to the NIMH. If it’s so common, why do we all feel so alone?
For the next year I continue battling to get the care I need as I deal with complications such as postpartum thyroiditis, chronic swelling, hives and other autoimmune concerns. Through various doctors and specialists, I am misdiagnosed, dismissed as “just hormonal,” and literally cut off, such as when a physician disabled the email reply feature.
Through it all I can see June on the boat. I’m getting closer to her. She’s safe, she’s beautiful and she’s healthy. I need to be with her, but I haven’t been given the same rescue crew. She needs me, and I’ll do what it takes to get there. Even if I have to do it on my own.
As I look around me, I see other moms. They’re everywhere. Treading water. Crying for their babies. I hope they get the help they need, or trust their maternal instincts and demand it.
The medical community in the United States does inspiring work. However, when it comes to the health of a mother, they have so much more to do. A maternal-fetal medicine specialist once told me they know next to nothing about preeclampsia. It’s a disease that’s been around since Hippocrates’ time. Think that’s bad? The US is ranked 50th globally for its maternal mortality rate, and it’s one of eight countries in which the maternal mortality rate has been on the rise.
Because I trusted in my maternal instincts, I’m not included in that statistic. But we can do better for women everywhere who deserve quality healthcare. Now, more than ever, is the moment to fight for it.