Recently, Downton Abbey featured the death of the youngest daughter in the Crawley family. Lady Sybil’s death in childbirth following eclamptic seizures shocked and surprised the loyal American audiences who have grown to care about the lives of those who live in Downton Abbey. Eclampsia is, thankfully, a fairly rare condition. The related condition, preeclampsia, is however not as rare. The Preeclampsia Foundation estimates that the condition occurs in approximately 8% of all pregnancies. For pregnant women, this equates to a 1 in 12 chance. This may not seem like much, but it amounts to hundreds of thousands of women each year.
In the show, Sybil complains of swollen ankles (an indication of edema), headaches, “muddled” thinking, and pain. All of these symptoms can indicate the presence of preeclampsia. The albumin (protein) in her urine is another cue that she is on a collision course with eclampsia. Awareness is absolutely essential in cases like Sybil’s. The arguments between the doctors show how the reckless dismissal of Sybil’s distress contributes to the inaction that leads to her death.
I wish that this story was of the past, comfortably ensconced behind 100 years of scientific and medical breakthroughs. But science still doesn’t have all of the answers. We don’t know what causes preeclampsia. We don’t know how to cure it, either. It can be managed, in most cases – but for some women eclampsia and preeclampsia will still be a stark and dangerous reality.
I know this because I developed eclampsia during my second pregnancy. Unlike Sybil, I was alone in my kitchen when the first seizure struck. I couldn’t call for help. All I could do was stay where I was and hold on until someone came home. I knew my husband would come. I knew my friend Anna was on her way. The daycare would call someone when I didn’t show up to pick up my son. I lay on the floor, holding on, for at least three hours.
Somehow my son and I both survived this ordeal. After Anna arrived and called 911, I was taken to the nearest hospital. My son was delivered soon after. He wasn’t breathing. His respiratory effort is listed as “absent” on the medical records. The doctors and nurses were able to revive him, but it was a very, very close call. I was unaware of this at the time because I myself was unconscious and on life support.
In addition to writing for The Mommy Docs, I also volunteer with the Preeclampsia Foundation. This year, I am coordinating the Orange County Promise Walk for Preeclampsia. The Promise Walks are a nationwide series of walks to raise money and awareness of preeclampsia. The Orange County walk is on May 18, in Irvine. Please go to promisewalk.org to find a walk near you, start a team, or support a walker. My team is called Team Donovan. We walk because we still can – and because there are too many women like Lady Sybil who cannot. On behalf of Dr. Hill, myself, and preeclampsia survivors everywhere – thank you for your concern about this terrible disease.