Millions of Downton Abbey fans were shocked this past Sunday night when one of the show’s most beloved characters, Lady Sybil Branson, died from eclampsia after giving birth to her daughter. The harrowing scene in which Lady Sybil suffers a fit of seizures before suddenly passing away at age 24 was both heart-wrenching and devastating. Lady Sybil was under the care of two physicians throughout her labor and delivery. The village doctor, Dr. Clarkson, who had known her since she was a child, noticed there was much cause for concern over her telltale symptoms of confusion, headache and swelling, and he recommended she be sent to the hospital for an immediate C-section, which was the only possible cure at that time (the period drama is set in the year 1920). The other presiding doctor, Sir Philip, dismissed and overruled Dr. Clarkson’s diagnosis, and instead dispensed the fatal opinion that Sybil would be absolutely fine in spite of any distressing signs to the contrary. A reminder to women everywhere to be their own advocate or have someone who can advocate on their behalf if their doctor is not taking their symptoms seriously.
Downton Abbey has taken the world by storm and viewers are hopelessly hooked on the compelling storylines and impossible to resist cast of characters who fuel the superbly written and acted drama. Sybil’s death has left people feeling “shattered,” and the opportunity to educate women on the topic of preeclampsia and eclampsia since it has been brought to the spotlight in this realm, should not be dismissed. Today, women in developed countries with access to health care can be properly diagnosed and treated for preeclampsia. However, Every Mother Counts responded to Sybil’s death with the reminder, “…let’s be grateful we live in a time when we have solid medical treatments that can prevent most women from (preeclampsia). And let’s bear in mind that the whole reason why Every Mother Counts exists is because women in many parts of the world still live without even basic access to medical care. It’s up to all of us to find solutions so that every mother survives childbirth. It’s the 21st Century. Mothers shouldn’t die anymore.”
Read on to learn more about preeclampsia, the symptoms of preeclampsia as well as factors that increase your risk for preeclampsia.
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What is Preeclampsia?
Preeclampsia is a condition that affects just 5%-8% off all pregnancies, so the odds of you having problems with preeclampsia are rare. However, thousands of women and babies will die or get very sick each year due to complications caused by preeclampsia — and globally, preeclampsia and other related hypertensive disorders of pregnancy are a leading cause of maternal and infant illness and death according to the Preeclampsia Foundation. Preeclampsia and related disorders such as HELLP syndrome and eclampsia are usually characterized by high blood pressure and the presence of protein in the urine, and the condition comes on very quickly in most cases. This condition can lead to seizure, stroke, multiple organ failure and death of the mother and/or baby. Typically women will only experience preeclampsia after 20 weeks gestation (in the late 2nd or 3rd trimesters or middle to late pregnancy) and up to six weeks postpartum. In very rare cases, some women may get preeclampsia before the 20 week mark. Note that preeclampsia is sometimes referred to as toxemia or Pregnancy Induced Hypertension (PIH), but both of these terms are outdated and not used by medical professionals anymore. (You may see these terms in older pregnancy books).
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Symptoms of Preeclampsia
Researchers aren’t entirely certain why some women develop preeclampsia and others don’t. However, since it’s such a dangerous condition, you should be aware of preeclampsia symptoms. In general, swelling, sudden weight gain, headaches and changes in vision are the key markers of preeclampsia, and symptoms such as these should always be reported immediately to your doctor or midwife. Note though, that some women experiencing rapidly advancing preeclampisa may not have symptoms and often, women mistake the symptoms for something else. This is one reason why proper prenatal care is vital. Having regular and frequent prenatal checkups allows your care provider to spot symptoms you may have missed and is often essential to the diagnosis and management of preeclampsia. As a pregnant women, pay attention for the following symptoms and always report them to your care provider right away:
- Fatigue or a general feeling of being unwell.
- Fluid retention.
- A sudden, significant rise in blood pressure and swelling of the hands and feet.
- Trouble concentrating.
- Excess weight gain (may be very sudden).
- Increased need to pee.
- Any nausea and vomiting that continues to get worse not better.
- Nausea and vomiting late in pregnancy.
- Pain in the upper right part of the abdomen, usually under your ribs on the right side.
- Blurry vision, light sensitivity or seeing spots.
- Nosebleed or other bleeding that won’t stop easily (rare).
- Seizures or convulsions (rare).
As you can see, many symptoms of preeclampsia are easily brushed off — like trouble concentrating, for example. It’s very important that you always discuss pregnancy symptoms, no matter how small, with your care provider. Something else to be aware of is that preeclampsia, because it’s a rare condition, is often mistaken for the flu or other viral illness, gallbladder disease, hepatitis, idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (ITP), lupus flare or thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura. Because of this, it’s wise to take a second look if you’re pregnant and diagnosed with one of the above conditions.
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Factors that Increase Your Risk for Preeclampsia
The Preeclampsia Foundation notes that you’re more at risk for developing preeclampsia if:
- This is your first pregnancy.
- You have a family or personal history of preeclampsia
- You have a family or personal history of chronic high blood pressure, diabetes or kidney disease.
- You’re overweight or obese.
- You’re pregnant with twins or higher multiples.
- You’ve had in-vitro fertilization.
- You’re younger than 18 years of age or older than 40 years.
- You’ve experienced other conditions such as polycystic ovarian syndrome, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, sarcoidosis or multiple sclerosis.