Last night, Downton Abbey’s writers succumbed to one dramatic cliché piled on another. In Cliché #1, Lady Sybil was “punished” for marrying below her class (eloped with the chauffeur, for gawdsake!) by being killed off in childbirth. The death of the disobedient daughter, a phenomenon related to slut-shaming, is so common in literature and drama that we all pretty much expect it as soon as a young woman falls for the “inappropriate” boy. In Cliché #2, her death was the occasion for a showdown between the wise country doctor and the titled, pompous physician from London. Guess who won the argument? Guess who turned out to actually be right? Somehow, I expected more originality. (Note to self: Avoid Cliché)
That said, Sybil’s fictional death can serve a great non-fictional purpose: Warning women about eclampsia
Eclampsia is still around, and still potentially deadly. In its early stages, called pre-eclampsia, the pregnant woman has a large, sudden rise in blood pressure accompanied by kidney failure. Untreated, those symptoms can and often do, progress into full-blown eclampsia, the seizures you saw Sybil suffer. Each year, some 300,000 women in the US alone develop pre-eclampsia or eclampsia, and about 75,000 of those have severe complications that can cause premature birth, loss of the baby, organ failure and other damage. Of those, about 300 women die each year. (Figures come from this article in The Daily Beast.)
My blood pressure suddenly spiked about 4 weeks before my first child was due. My doctor immediately started monitoring me. I had to collect my urine to see if I was shedding protein (a sign of kidney failure) and I had to go in daily to get my blood pressure taken. Fortunately, my blood pressure went back down as soon as a certain financial stressor was removed (My husband had been unemployed due to his company closing. He’d found a new job, but that month until the first paycheck was tough!). But Dr. C still watched me closely until after the delivery and was ready to do what he needed to protect both me and the baby.
And that’s what’s changed in the last hundred years: pre-eclampsia can now be treated, so it doesn’t have to turn into eclampsia. There are drugs to lower blood pressure, anti-seizure meds, and so on. But the warning signs have to be caught, and for that to happen, you have to be informed. If you’re pregnant or know someone who is pregnant, read the article linked above and be aware of the following symptoms:
Signs and symptoms of pre-eclampsia and related conditions, from the Preeclampsia Foundation website.
Sudden Weight Gain
Nausea or Vomiting
Abdominal (stomach area) and/or Shoulder Pain
Lower back pain
Changes in Vision
Racing pulse, mental confusion, heightened sense of anxiety, shortness of breath or chest pain, sense of impending doom
The best way to protect yourself from ravages of preeclampsia and eclampsia is to get proper prenatal care, as I was fortunate to have. But if at any point in late pregnancy you start feeling any symptoms, or even “just don’t feel right”, TELL YOUR DOCTOR or go to the ER and insist that someone listens to you. That insistence could save your pregnancy. And your life.