Though pre-eclampsia only affects 5% of pregnant women it is important to be vigilant for this serious condition, as Becky Durnin discovered.
FOR many women the most common ailments during pregnancy are nausea, heartburn and fatigue. But some develop more serious conditions which can be potentially life-threatening for themselves and their unborn baby.
Pre-eclampsia, when a pregnant woman develops high blood pressure and protein in the urine, is one such serious condition. Although it only affects about 5% of pregnant women, the effects can be very serious and anyone showing signs of the condition may be admitted to hospital for the duration of their pregnancy.
Symptoms vary in severity from mild headaches to severe pains and swelling and although the condition can be detected through blood and urine tests, it is difficult to predict who may develop it and why it affects some women but not others.
But recently Inform Bioscience, an Irish biotech company, signed an agreement with the world-renowned Mayo Clinic in America to acquire a portfolio of biomarkers for use in developing a prognostic test for advance diagnosis.
This will enable doctors to screen for the condition and potentially save the lives of thousands of mothers and babies.
Becky Durnin from Louth developed pre-eclampsia when she was five months pregnant with her first daughter, Trinity. But as the initial symptoms weren’t very severe, it wasn’t until the middle of the final trimester that she was actually admitted to hospital.
“From about 20 weeks into my first pregnancy, I started suffering from headaches and hypertension,” says the 26-year-old.
“This wasn’t too much of a concern but I had raised blood pressure when I went for my antenatal check at 37 weeks and was admitted to hospital because my hands and feet were swollen too. I was put on 24-hour monitoring with blood pressure checks and urinalysis.
“I wasn’t told initially what was wrong so as far as I was concerned I had been admitted with high blood pressure and needed observation — I only discovered I had pre-eclampsia when Trinity was six weeks old. ”
She was admitted to hospital just in time because five days afterwards, she suffered an eclamptic seizure and was rushed into the operating theatre so her baby could be delivered safely.
“Shortly after I was admitted, I had a day of vomiting, blurred vision, severe headaches and chest pains which felt like heartburn initially but a lot stronger,” recalls the mother-of-two (Trinity is now two and her other daughter, Saoirse, five months). “I was also really swollen and couldn’t get my feet into my husband’s size 11 slippers, even though I usually wear a size 6.
“My legs were trembling involuntarily, my hands began to shake and my chin began to chatter. This movement changed quickly from a slight tremble to the point where I was no longer able to control my limbs.
“I passed out several times and needed magnesium sulphate through an IV line to try to stop the seizure. I don’t remember too much after this.”
Although she was in severe distress, Becky managed to call her husband, Peter, who arrived in theatre just in time to see their first baby being born by C- section.
It was a frightening experience. “I didn’t know if I would see my baby or if she would grow up without me . I thought I was dying and was drifting in and out of consciousness. But luckily both myself and my baby were relatively well after the ordeal — the outcome could have been very different if I hadn’t been in hospital when the seizure began.”
Fortunately for the Durnin family, their story had a happy ending. But Becky was traumatised by her experience and would advise other women to be aware of any unusual symptoms and seek help as soon as possible.
“I didn’t cope too well at all and was severely traumatised by the event,” she admits. “We were extremely thankful that Trinity and I recovered physically from the birth and the illness. But no-one in the hospital debriefed me on what happened. I didn’t even know I had an eclamptic seizure until I arrived for my six-week postnatal appointment.
“Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place and found it hard to keep it together during the post- natal period. So my advice to other women would be to speak out and don’t get brushed off.
“Trust your instincts. You do know best, your body is very intelligent and if you feel something isn’t quite right, go ahead and get a second and third opinion.
“I have a happy, healthy two year old now, but had I not been in hospital, this may not be the case — I am blessed.”
Professor Louise Kenny of UCC is a leading specialist in pre-eclampsia and says the condition can be very serious but sometimes symptoms do not present until very late in the pregnancy so women should ensure to attend antenatal check-ups.
“Pre-eclampsia causes high blood pressure and can be a massive killer for both pregnant women and babies,” she warns.
“It usually affects first-time mothers but some are more at risk than others if they have an underlying health condition or a family history. It can also occur in other pregnancies and despite the huge amount of research into the disease over the years, we don’t really know what causes it.
“Symptoms include terrible headaches, chest pain and severe swelling of limbs and even the face. But some women have mild signs which are only picked up by blood-pressure readings and urine tests. I strongly advise women to keep antenatal appointments as checking for high blood pressure and protein in the urine is the main point of examinations.
Pre-eclampsia is not a minor condition but many people don’t know anything about it, so it is important to raise awareness.”
*´It usually affects first-time mothers but can affect others with a family history of the condition.
* Symptoms include: High blood pressure, swelling, headache, nausea or vomiting, Abdominal, lower back and or shoulder pain.
* Some women may experience sudden weight gain and changes in vision.
* Pre-eclampsia can double the risk of stroke in pregnant women.
* In some cases, symptoms do not appear and the condition is only detected during ante-natal appointments which is why it is important to visit your midwife or obstetrician regularly during pregnancy.
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