May is Preeclampsia Awareness Month

bigstockphoto_My_future_sibling__738782In my novel MOTHER MONA, my main character Mona travels to remote Alaska to help her daughter who is hospitalized with preeclampsia.

What the heck is preeclampsia? A lot of people have never heard of it. Neither had I, until I had it.

The first time I had preeclampsia, I thought the swelling in my legs and face and the headaches were just a normal part of pregnancy. Thankfully, my doctor thought otherwise and put me on strict monitoring and bedrest. A few days later, my daughter was born.

The second time – being seen at the hospital on base this time – I showed up for an appointment and my blood pressure was 250 over 210. Yeah, you could say that’s high. Because of a mistake on the appointment calendar, the front desk people almost wouldn’t let me be seen. Fortunately an on-the-ball nurse saw the state I was in, and my baby was delivered by c-section that afternoon.

The third time I had preeclampsia (back to a civilian provider) I ended up on strict bedrest for three months (with four young kids. Yeah.). At 34 weeks into the pregnancy, things started going downhill. My baby still wasn’t due for another month. Initial test showed I had protein in my urine and I looked like the Michelin Man, but my doctor wasn’t too concerned. However I had a feeling of complete dread – headaches, dizziness, I *knew* something was horribly wrong. My doctor knew about preeclampsia, but in my opinion didn’t fully appreciate how deadly it was. At 36 weeks I was back in her office, in tears, begging her to do something. To humor me, she re-did the tests. She called a few hours later. I was scheduled for a c-section the next Monday. When I showed up at the hospital, they re-did the tests again. I was worse. My doctor said, “(Bleep bleep), get her on the mag sulfate and in the OR now!”

I am incredibly fortunate blessed. At 36 weeks my baby was born healthy, his lungs fully developed. It was determined that I had severe preeclampsia and also had acquired HELLP Syndrome, a complication of preeclampsia that attacks the liver. Having the baby is the only cure for preeclampsia (although it can also attack after delivery), and within a few days my blood pressure had dropped to the point I was no longer in imminent danger. Yet, it took months for my body to return to normal. Five years later, I still have residual liver and kidney problems. I am just thankful to be alive.

When I was sitting around on bedrest for those three months, I came across a group called the Preeclampsia Foundation. Literally, they saved my life. Talking to their experts, and the encouragement and support from other women on the forums, gave me the confidence to insist the tests be repeated. If I hadn’t had that encouragement, if I had waited another few days, I could have lost my baby or even died.

The takeaway is this: sometimes doctors and nurses are up to speed on the symptoms and complications of preeclampsia – sometimes they’re not. It is up to every woman to learn for herself what the danger signs are, and to stand up for herself if the health care system isn’t listening. This holds true, I suppose, in all situations, but with preeclampsia, often the mother just knows something is wrong. That feeling of impending doom that had me questioning my own sanity? A major sign preeclampsia is getting critical. During my pregnancy, the the preeclampsia Foundation forums I got to know a lot of women all across the country who had preeclampsia. Some of the friends I made lost their babies. One of my friends had to deliver at 26 weeks, and I watched with tears for updates on the forums every day. Happily, her baby survived – a miracle if ever there was one. But there is a section of the forums dedicated to moms and babies who were not so fortunate. The testimonies of surviving children, spouses and parents will rip you heart out. Especially because so often, their loved ones’ deaths could have been prevented by a better understanding of this disease.

The Preeclampsia Foundation reports that “by conservative estimates, these disorders are responsible for 76,000 maternal and 500,000 infant deaths each year” around the world. And that’s not just in underdeveloped countries. Preeclampsia affects 5-8 percent of all pregnancies. Doctors don’t know what causes it, although they have identified a few risk factors. The point is, it is unpredictable. It usually starts after the 20th week of pregnancy. But not always. Know the symptoms:

  • No Symptoms (surprise! yeah, that’s why this disease is so evil. You can have it and not even know)
  • Hypertension – high blood pressure
  • Proteinuria – protein in your urine. That little stick you dip every prenatal visit? This is why.
  • Edema (Swelling) – beyond the usual swollen feet. I gained 70 pound of water with my first.
  • Sudden Weight Gain – again, beyond the obvious
  • Nausea or Vomiting
  • Abdominal (stomach area) and/or Shoulder Pain
  • Lower back pain
  • Headache (worst headache of your life? Go to the ER immediately. I mean now.)
  • Changes in Vision
  • Hyperreflexia – overactive or over-responsive reflexes
  • Last but not least, my personal “favorites:” Racing pulse, mental confusion, heightened sense of anxiety, shortness of breath or chest pain, sense of impending doom

The Preeclampsia Foundation is an incredible resource. Check them out. And while you’re there, please donate a little something in honor of Preeclampsia Awareness Month. And in honor of all those who didn’t make it through.


Making a good Mother

Woman taking cherry pie from oven

Yeah, no. Not that kind.

As a matter of fact, I am sitting at my desk NOT doing laundry, not baking banana bread, listening to my kids argue over which episode of Go Diego Go to watch … but hey, it’s a snow day. Nevertheless I am fully appreciating the irony here. Feel free to take part.

The Mother I am referring to, actually, is the novel I am working on, “Mother Mona.” Here’s the gist of it, from the back of my imaginary best-selling book:

Mona, a 49-year-old divorced CPA from Newport Beach, was never a contender for Mother of the Year. However, her daughter Beth needs her now. Beth’s pregnancy has gone wrong, and Mona’s son-in-law Sasha asks her to come help her daughter recover after childbirth almost kills her. Mona travels to the remote Alaskan island where Beth and her family live – without electricity, in-floor heating or running water.

 Mona is completely out of her element in the remote Alaskan cabin. There’s a humungous spider named Pip living in the outhouse. After years of living on takeout and salads, her daughter’s wood burning cook stove is a complete mystery to her. She refuses to feed slimy slugs to the ducks that happen to despise her. One more meal of canned salmon and she’s going to cry. Her daughter is distant, her son-in-law is absent, and her quirky, homeschooled grandchildren think she’s nuts. Her only friends are a small group of Russian nuns that live on a nearby island and a  64-year-old Alutiiq hermit who thinks like a pirate.

The thing is, writing a novel is a lot like being pregnant for the first time. You obsess over every little detail. You stand in line at the grocery store and jot different names on scratch paper under “milk, bread, tomatoes.” You read every writerly book, magazine article and online blog you can find, and hope like heck that you’re doing it all right. It’s all you can talk about – even as you watch the eyes of friends and acquaintances gloss over like dead salmon on a hot beach. And worse, the writing muse will kick you in the gut without warning, waking you up at night and making you gasp out loud in public. Your concerned husband will ask if you’re OK, and you’ll reply, “Ouch! I just figured out what was wrong with chapter 3!”

Sadly, no one feels the urge to pamper writers like a woman in that “delicate condition,” although I would maintain that being in the midst of writing a difficult scene is a pretty delicate condition to be in. No one offers to rub your feet or cook you dinner. No one urges you to take it easy “for the sake of the novel” or eat because you’re “thinking for two now.”

So, that being the case, I suppose I’d better get a load of laundry going and feed the kids something healthy for lunch. Like any good mother would. Just as soon as I finish these last few pages.