For almost nine years, preeclampsia has tormented my family. My anxiety from it creeps up in small waves, occasionally awakening underlying feelings of guilt. PTSD triggers sometimes send me back to visions of a time when I was a different person. I probably wouldn’t recognize the man I was before preeclampsia. I don’t know if I could face him or if I’d even want to.
One of the most common risk factors for stroke in pregnancy, particularly postpartum, is preeclampsia. In the most recent Nationwide Inpatient Sample study of stroke in pregnancy, preeclampsia was associated with a 4-fold increased risk of stroke. Preeclampsia is classified as one of the hypertensive disorders of pregnancy. It is generally defined as new onset hypertension during pregnancy, although the term is also used to describe worsening blood pressure in women with a history of chronic pre-pregnancy hypertension. The fetal syndrome includes fetal growth restriction, small-size-for-gestational-age (SGA), reduced amniotic fluid, and placental insufficiency. Preeclampsia can occur near or before term, with or without fetal complications.
When our son Timothy was born preeclampsia was just something that happened. Nothing concerning. “You went preeclamptic during delivery” they said. The baby was delivered safely, so you’re in the clear. Mom and baby are just fine, or so we thought. No in-depth education. No, “hey, this could be serious”. No additional information or reason to research what happened. I was side by side with the most amazing woman I’d ever met and our son. It was an exciting time. Two days later we were on our way home, out of the hospital and working on the beginnings of our new life as a family. I was so in to my role as a new dad. I remember neglecting the cardinal rule to sleep when the baby sleeps, simply because I wanted to help my family as much as possible. Ha…until I crashed and was no help at all. I don’t believe that anyone is ever “ready” to have children. But you learn as you go and know that deep down inside this is where you want to be.
To this day I feel so naive and angry at myself. I got caught up in the most exciting event of my life and never questioned what preeclampsia was, why it happened, or should we be concerned in the future. I trusted the professionals would convey the gravity of the matter, if any existed. And since they didn’t, it never occurred to me to learn more about it.
A few short years later, when our daughter Riley was stillborn, we found out about preeclampsia the hard way, like many others do. Riley’s was a picture-perfect pregnancy, until 36 weeks when it wasn’t. My wife, Mary, hadn’t felt her move in a while, and we went in to have her checked out. The silent doppler and perfectly still ultrasound are moments that I can never forget. Then the realization came that we still had to go through labor to bring her in to the world. I have pictures in my head of family and friends holding her. With her black curly hair peeking out from her cap. I remember a tear falling next to a drop of Riley’s blood on my jeans. I remember the shock and confusion as I tended to my empty shell of a wife. I wanted to help. Even as I was in no condition to contribute anything to anyone, including myself. preeclampsia was now officially a thing that blindsided us. A thing that shattered my family and friends. A thing that shattered us, and left us scrambling to pick up as many of the pieces as we could. Life was like we learning it all over again, taking it minute by minute, doing our best to just get out of bed in the morning.
We were broken. She wasn’t the Mary I knew. She didn’t eat. She wouldn’t sleep. I would hear her in the shower crying at all hours. I wasn’t the Jay she knew. I didn’t know how to interact with anyone. And nobody knew how to interact with me. I took as much time as possible off work to be with Mary and Timothy. Going back was surreal. I was at work but my mind wasn’t. I would constantly replay all the ‘what ifs’ and ‘what should have beens’. Mary rested when I got home and I wanted to follow. But Timothy was ready to play with daddy. He was our light. He kept us going. He’s the reason we got up to face another day. He didn’t deserve this. His energy and excitement for mom and dad fueled me to keep going. Timothy carried us in ways few others could.
Soon the phone stopped ringing. Text messages and sympathy cards dwindled and disappeared. We were left with figuring out this new version of ourselves together. It was confusion and living in a fog 24/7. Gradually we were able to get our feet on more solid ground. Mary and I both grew up with siblings and we knew that we wanted Timothy to experience life with a sibling as well. So, after some time, we decided to put our fears aside and try again.
Our third pregnancy was deemed high-risk from day 1. Mary’s blood pressure never fully regulated itself back to a normal rate following Riley’s loss so we were monitored closely. We were excited… and terrified. It was like we held our breath for 9 months. Always looking over our shoulder. The fear of preeclampsia kept us on guard. We were on the lookout for anything that could be a sign of preeclampsia. Armed with a blood pressure cuff, Mary vigilantly checked her blood pressure daily. Slowly the months passed as we approached 35 weeks. Her readings kept creeping higher and higher, until she was admitted for observation and bed rest. One week later, at 36 months and 4 days, Mary was preeclamptic again and was induced. Later that night, our Alana was born. And for a third time, our family was transformed by a child loved so deeply. She spent 10 days in the NICU until her lungs were strong enough for her to come home. Mary healed, though she will have chronic high blood pressure for the rest of her life as a result of preeclampsia.
I’m the proud father of three amazing individuals. Each has gifts and personalities that can change the world. Mary and I couldn’t imagine our world without each of them. So what if our family doesn’t quite look like what we envisioned. This is the story that helped shape who we are. All 5 of us. Holding it all together.
The ThriveBaby app is the perfect tool for monitoring and controlling your risk for preeclampsia. The app allows you to track your weight and blood pressure from home then share that information with your obstetrician. Download ThriveBaby now on App Store.
Bushnell, Cheryl, Chireau, & Monique. (2011, January 20). Preeclampsia and Stroke: Risks during and after Pregnancy. Retrieved from https://www.hindawi.com/journals/srt/2011/858134/
Tell your preeclampsia or HELLP syndrome story. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.preeclampsia.org/get-support/our-stories