Touching Lives - June 2006
My Story - High pressure pregnancy
“The first I knew that anything was wrong was when I went to my doctor for my routine weekly check-up, about five weeks before my now-15-year-old son Joe was due. The doctor checked my blood pressure and found that it was very high. He told me to go home and rest.”
Until then, Jane’s first pregnancy had been progressing nicely. She knew she was expecting a big baby, so was steeling herself for a bit of pain, but nothing could have prepared her for the reality of the delivery of her eldest son.
A few days after seeing the doctor, Jane’s midwife called round. By then, Jane’s ankles had begun to swell, she was feeling generally unwell and her blood pressure had gone up even further. The midwife referred Jane to a consultant, who diagnosed pre-eclampsia immediately and admitted her to hospital.
Jane recalls, “I had read about pre-eclampsia in a baby book, but in there it talked about headaches as the main symptom, and I hadn’t been suffering those.”
Jane spent four days on the ward being closely monitored. On the fifth day doctors found that Jane’s blood pressure had peaked even higher, and checks on the baby revealed that it was in distress. The only option was to deliver the baby early by emergency Caesarean, and just half an hour later Jane was in the operating theatre under general anaesthetic.
But things were not straightforward. While she was under the anaesthetic it was discovered that Jane had picked up an infection and had fluid on her lungs. She had to be brought round from the anaesthetic and given another form of pain relief called a spinal block, similar to an epidural, but which takes effect much more quickly.
Jane says, ^”I was very lucky. I was told afterwards that if they hadn’t been able to bring me round from the general anaesthetic when they had, I wouldn’t be here today.”^
Thankfully, despite his early arrival and the complications in the operating theatre, Joe was born weighing in at a more than healthy 9lbs. Jane was taken straight into Intensive Care, and it was three days before she was able to see her son.
“The minute Joe was born he was taken away. They showed him to me briefly, but I wasn’t really with it. All I had after that was a Polaroid photo of him beside the bed.”
Doctors continued to monitor Jane’s blood pressure after the birth, and they began to see the gradual drop that is typical of pre-eclampsia. After two weeks recovering in hospital Jane returned home, and with the help of a nanny for the first month or so, eased herself into life as a mother.
Second time unlucky
Two years later, the Donnelly’s began to think about having another child. Concerned about the risks of suffering pre-eclampsia with another pregnancy, Jane sought advice from her consultant. He told her that it was very unusual to develop the condition in a second pregnancy.
But not so for Jane. She recalls, “About a month before my second child was due I began feeling unwell. We’d been out for the day, and when we got back I began being sick. John called the doctor, and, what with my history, he was here in ten minutes flat!”
Jane’s blood pressure was again dangerously high, and she was admitted to hospital straight away. Despite being fully aware of the dangers that pre-eclampsia posed both to her and her baby, Jane felt a little better this time around.
“My attitude was that this time the doctors knew my problems. If I’d got through it the first time when no-one knew what was going to happen, at least this time they could be prepared.”
Jane had already been booked in for an elective Caesarean, but after several days of bed-rest, it was decided that the operation should be brought forward to minimise the risk of the pre-eclampsia affecting the baby.
“Thankfully it was much more relaxed this time, because it was an elective rather than emergency Caesarean. And John was able to be in theatre with me which was much better for both of us.”
James, now twelve-years-old, was delivered three-and-a-half weeks early. Despite weighing a whopping 9lb 3oz, his prematurity did have an effect and he spent his first week in an incubator. Jane laughs as she recalls him looking like a giant next to the other tiny incubated babies, almost filling his own from top to bottom.
She says, “Compared to some premature babies, James was not particularly early, but he did have problems feeding and his weight dropped significantly. The doctor said to me ‘What we’re all forgetting here is that James is a premature baby. He may have started out at 9lb 3oz, but actually he shouldn’t be here yet.’ This brought home to me just how devastating pre-eclampsia can be, and how lucky I was to have my boys.”
Long term effects
Six months later, James was back in hospital, this time with bronchiolitis, which made him very poorly, and then developed into asthma. Jane has often wondered whether this was also a result of James‚ early birth.
^Pre-eclampsia held repercussions for Jane too. Unlike with her first pregnancy, Jane’s blood pressure did not return to normal after James was born.^ Doctors kept a close eye on her after she left hospital, but six months later she began suffering from bad headaches, a sign of high blood pressure. As a result, Jane has taken daily medication ever since and thinks she will probably continue to do so for the rest of her life.
Need for answers
Jane has been a voluntary fundraiser for Action Medical Research for over twenty years and is a keen fundraiser for our Touching Tiny Lives Campaign.
Jane says of Touching Tiny Lives, “It would be great if researchers could find the causes of pre-eclampsia. When you are told that you have something wrong, the first thing you ask is ‘How did this happen, is it something I’ve done?’ but at the moment doctors can’t answer these questions when it comes to pre-eclampsia. OK, we may be getting better at dealing with it, but if we knew what caused it in the first place, doctors would surely have a much better chance of preventing it.”
Looking back on her experiences, Jane is still shocked at how quickly pre-eclampsia can progress. She says, “The most frightening thing for me was realising how quickly the situation could change. From ‘Yes your blood pressure’s high we need to monitor you‚’ to, all of a sudden, ‘it’s gone even higher, the baby’s in distress, we need to deliver now.’ It really was that quick.”
What is Action Medical Research doing to help?
We have funded research teams looking into the causes of pre-eclampsia for many years, most recently as part of our Touching Tiny Lives Campaign. Current thinking is that there is a link between the placenta and the lining of blood vessels in the mother, and the onset of the condition. One Action Medical Research team, based in Edinburgh, is looking at how the placenta and blood vessels work in pregnant women to try and shed some light on this mysterious pregnancy complication.