“You are very sick, and we need to deliver your baby.”
These were not the words I expected to hear when I went to the hospital at 37 weeks pregnant. Hours prior, I was sitting on my couch with my husband eating ice cream, sorting through baby gifts and enjoying the last few weeks of being pregnant.
But a nosebleed that happened earlier that day is what prompted me to go to the ER. When it happened in the morning, I thought nothing of it, but as the day went on, it began to bother me. I had had slightly high blood pressure throughout my pregnancy and had been monitoring it at home. That day, the readings were consistently getting higher.
Then, on a whim I took my temperature with a baby thermometer we had received as a shower gift. I was just testing out the thermometer, so imagine my surprise when it showed that I had a fever. I felt fine, but the nosebleed and fever were enough to make me worry. We threw together our bags, just in case, and went to the hospital. We didn’t call my mom because we thought they would send us home.
The hospital took me in right away, did some blood work, and then a few hours later I was wheeled upstairs to the labour and delivery floor where an OB stood in a doorway, backlit by harsh hospital lighting, and told me what was happening. She explained that I had HELLP syndrome and we needed to get the baby out right away because we were both in danger.
HELLP Syndrome is the rarest and most dangerous variant of preeclampsia. It stands for Hemolysis, Elevated Liver enzymes and Low Platelets and can be deadly for both mom and baby. Symptoms include high blood pressure, blurry vision, headaches that won’t go away, swelling, unusual bleeding or pain, and protein in the urine.
I didn’t have typical HELLP symptoms during my pregnancy. I never had lingering headaches, blurry vision, or protein in my urine. My high blood pressure was mostly chalked up to White Coat Syndrome (or medical anxiety) because it was never as high when I took a reading at home.
My feet did swell, but I told myself that it was just the heat and pregnancy. I was beginning to worry, but as a first time mom, I didn’t always know the right questions to ask. My OB made me stop working at 34 weeks because I work in a fast paced environment with lots of heavy lifting and bending. The doctor mentioned preeclampsia potentially becoming a concern, but because I had no other symptoms, I was just advised to rest as much as possible.
But now my blood work showed that my liver and kidneys were failing. The nosebleed was a sign of really high blood pressure. The pain I was having in the upper area of my chest that I just thought was my sons bum pushing against my body was actually my organs failing. The placenta was at risk of detaching at any moment.
My platelets were so low I was unable to have an epidural.
They were afraid to perform a C-section because they thought I would bleed out and die.
HELLP is so rare that my hospital had to contact a hospital in Toronto because they weren’t sure how to help me. I had so many IVs that they had to look up how to connect them all. My mom got there and the OB took her outside the room to tell her what was going on, and still to this day, she won’t tell me what was said.
The details get blurry from here because they hooked me up to magnesium sulfate to prevent seizures, which makes you really drowsy. They started the induction right away and thanks to the magnesium sulfate I was able to somewhat rest. I was in and out of consciousness and barely remember the next twelve hours, although I do recall feeling very intense contractions and wishing I could have gotten that epidural.
I also remember not caring about what happened to me. I just wanted our son to be okay.
The time to push came faster than I thought, but I was ready. I was determined to get him out as quickly and as safely as possible. The one thing that went right was that he was in a great position. After only a few pushes, our son was here and he was absolutely perfect. Hearing his first cry was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard. I still wasn’t out of the woods yet, but delivering the baby and placenta is typically the ‘cure’ for HELLP. That’s not always the case, but it was for me.
I began to get better right away, and didn’t have any lasting organ damage. I was up and walking around the next day. I got a platelet transfusion while in the hospital and stayed on the blood pressure medication for a few weeks after birth, but it was more of a precautionary measure.
Mentally, I struggled. I blamed myself and felt that I had done enough research and I should have known what was happening. I felt that if something had happened to the baby, it would have been my fault.
In truth, no one knows for sure what causes HELLP, but research suggests that it has to do with the placenta. Nothing a mother does, or doesn’t do, can cause HELLP.
The one thing that soothed me was knowing that despite my son being born three weeks early, he was completely healthy. He didn’t need any special care. Despite his tumultuous birth, he was perfect.
I spent a lot of time feeling guilty for not realizing something bigger was going on, but we can’t know everything. All we can do is pay attention and advocate for ourselves if we think something is off. Ask for blood work. Ask for extra appointments. Don’t assume everything is a pregnancy symptom.
We went on to have surprise twins a few years later. I did get HELLP again with the twins, but thankfully, less severe. HELLP threatened my life, but I was one of the lucky ones and I will spend my life forever grateful to be here.
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