In August 2002, my husband and I found out I was pregnant. After having miscarried the previous year, this pregnancy was met with caution at first, then grew into complete joy when we saw the heartbeat. During my pregnancy, I loved seeing my belly expand. The doctor said I had a ‘text-book’ pregnancy. I gained only 28 pounds, exercised regularly and waddled to and from work on the train. Despite the typical swelling of my hands and feet, and lower back aches, I loved being pregnant.
Sunday morning, April 20, 2003, I awoke to contractions. I was 1 week from my due date. Contractions had woken me before, but unlike the previous times, these contractions didn’t stop while pacing the hallway. They got progressively stronger and more frequent. Once at 5 minutes apart, I woke my husband, Tim, and told him this was it. It felt like I’d seen it in the movies.
When we got to the hospital, the contractions were 2 – 3 minutes apart, and I was 3 centimeters dilated. Vicky, the nurse, checked my vitals, took some blood and pronounced me in ‘active labor’. I got settled in and called my family, who came with the Sunday paper to keep us company. My oldest friend also came for a visit.
That’s when the textbook part of my pregnancy came to a shrieking halt…
3 hours after arriving, the nurse, Vicky, came in with the attending OB/GYN. She had suspected something wasn’t right when I arrived, but didn’t say anything. The attending physician explained that I had HELLP Syndrome, which was a variant of Preeclampsia. She told me what HELLP Syndrome stood for and that I was at risk for seizures, liver failure, and/or a stroke, that could lead to brain damage or even possibly death to me and/or the baby. The only cure was immediate delivery. I instinctively looked at my father, a physician himself, for reassurance. He turned away from me, crying. Trying not to panic, I said the first thing that came to mind, “Will you do an emergency C-Section?” With the low platelets and being in active labor, they felt the best option would be to break my bag of water, give me an epidural, start Pitocin to increase contractions and Magnesium Sulfate to prevent seizures and a stroke.
The nurses and doctor questioned me about possible signs and/or symptoms of HELLP Syndrome- swelling, high blood pressure, sternum pain, vomiting, headaches and/or blurred vision. Clearly I had swelling- my ankles were almost as wide as my knees. I had what I thought was heartburn for the last 2-3 days, and just assumed this pain and the swelling were normal symptoms of pregnancy. Ironically, I started vomiting and had blurred vision within hours of the diagnosis. It became clear to me that my diagnosis was made just in time…
4 hours after receiving the news about having HELLP Syndrome, our daughter Macy Tess Aiken was born at 7 pounds, 7.4 ounces. Although she was healthy, I was in the high risk unit of the maternity ward, bed ridden with a catheter. My blurred vision was due to my brain swelling from the high blood pressure, and it didn’t return to normal for almost a week. I wasn’t able to hold Macy while in the hospital without someone else being in the room due to my vision being so poor. Fortunately, 3 days after delivery, my blood pressure returned to normal levels and I was able to go home. I was released and was put on partial bed rest for two weeks.
Once back on my feet and physically healthy, I scoured the Internet about HELLP Syndrome. I found the Preeclampsia Foundation and read the posts from other survivors and family members of those who lost their lives as a result of Preeclampsia and/or HELLP Syndrome. After learning more and hearing what others went through, I am so grateful things ended the way they did. I will never forget that not everyone is as lucky.
I started volunteering for the Preeclampsia Foundation when the annual charity gala, Saving Grace, was going to be in my hometown of Chicago, in 2009. For the first time, I met others who had experienced this disease and heard their stories first-hand. While I had physically healed weeks after my delivery 6 years earlier, I strongly believe that my emotional healing didn’t really start until I met and began interacting with others who had Preeclampsia and/or HELLP Syndrome. In an odd way, I felt I’d become part of a club no one wants to be a part of.
My healing continued as I became more involved in the Preeclampsia Foundation, co-coordinating the Promise Walk for Preeclampsia in Chicago in 2010 and 2011. In 2012, I coordinated the walk in addition to taking on an important role within the Foundation as Regional Coach (RC). In the RC position, I was able to help other walk coordinators with planning their walks, answering questions and providing ideas on how to make their events most successful. I look forward to continuing my role as RC for 2013 and helping the Chicago Walk Coordinators plan our fourth annual event for May 19, 2013.
As time passes I look back and realize how lucky I am. I have a wonderful biological family including healthy parents, siblings, a husband and a spirited, independent, smart and beautiful daughter. In addition, I also have a growing group of people whom I proudly call my family as well- fellow survivors and/or family members of those who weren’t as fortunate. I will never forget what has happened to me, and strive to ensure others are aware of the signs and symptoms, so they hopefully, will never have to experience Preeclampsia and/or HELLP Syndrome and join the club no one wants to be a part of.