This year I was asked to share my story at the beginning of the walk. In the interest of brevity, I usually leave out most of the details of my illness when I talk about Will. This annual event is important to me because it brings together so many women and their families who have suffered the effects of preeclampsia. This is what I said:
Good morning. My name is Mary Kenyon. My husband John and our son Edward are also here with me today. Our son Will is with us as he has been each day of the last two and a half years, in our hearts.
I live in
I was 23 weeks pregnant in mid-October 2004 when a sharp and burning pain under my ribcage on the right side woke me in the middle of the night. I’d never had heartburn but associated it with pregnancy, so I thought perhaps my spicy dinner coming back to haunt me. I shuttled between the bedroom and the bathroom that night and finally was comfortable only in an upright position. The next day was Sunday and I thought I was feeling better, but that night the pain returned. I called my doctor’s office the next morning, a Monday and reported my symptoms—sharp pain, vomiting, diarrhea. They asked if I had a headache-No. Blurry vision? No. Excessive swelling? No. In fact, other than these nightly episodes, this was a textbook healthy pregnancy. No morning sickness, no swelling, no problems to speak of.
“Well, it’s probably a stomach virus,” they said. “It’s going around. Lots of our patients have it. Drink plenty of fluid and rest. Call if you don’t feel better.” I stuck to my weak-stomach diet: bananas, rice, applesauce, chicken broth, 7-up, but still spent the rest of the week in that same nocturnal pattern. Each day I called the doctor’s office to report the continuation of my symptoms, but they sounded confident that this was a nasty virus and explained that it takes longer to recover from illness while pregnant because the baby gets first dibs on the available resources. They offered to see me in the office, but the way I was feeling the last thing I wanted was to drag myself there just to be told to go back home to rest.
“If there’s nothing they can do,” I thought, “I’d rather just stay home.”
My regularly scheduled 24-week appointment was the Monday after I’d spent the week home feeling horrible. By the time I got there I was so weak and dehydrated it was difficult to provide the requisite urine sample. The nurse who took my blood pressure tried to remain calm even as her eyes bugged out at the reading and she instructed me to lay down on my side. My doctor came in and explained that the protein and blood pressure indicated danger and that she wanted to order some blood tests before deciding on a course of action. She said I could stay at the hospital to wait for the results or go home and she’d call me later. I couldn’t face another night like those I’d endured the past week so I said I’d rather be at the hospital where they could take care of me. The clinic was closing for the afternoon so they took me to Labor and Delivery where I could lay down and wait for John to come after work.
We were totally unprepared for the doctor’s words when she came with the lab results: You have severe preeclampsia and HELLP Syndrome. We will have to deliver your baby within the next 24 hours. I had heard of preeclampsia but thought the treatment was typically bedrest. I had never heard of HELLP Syndrome. It would be weeks before I fully understood how serious it was and that it might have killed me. In fact, I didn’t really understand until I read the Quad City Times story about Shelley the following February. At that moment I had only one thought, and clutching John's hand with tears streaming down my face, I struggled to voice it: "Is the baby viable yet?" Yes, we were told, but it will not be easy. University Hospitals neonatologists have a 60 to 70 percent success rate with 24-week premies, but still the longer the pregnancy can be prolonged the better. Each day of development in the womb is worth two outside, so even a matter of hours could make a difference for the baby we did not yet know but would soon love with every fiber of our being.
I was given a steroid shot to help his lungs mature and we hoped for enough time for the second shot 24 hours later. They started a magnesium sulfate drip and inserted a catheter. When I was all connected and back in bed, my doctor tried to further explain what was going on. She told us that HELLP stood for hemolysis, elevated liver enzymes and low platelets. She said my body was in a way rejecting the placenta and that the only way to reverse that was to deliver the baby, thus removing the placenta. Normally a jovial and energetic person, she was calm and direct in these discussions. But she did not say, “If we’re not vigilant you could die.” I know she was thinking it though, because later that night when my parents arrived from
We did make it long enough for that second steroid shot, but not much longer. About 28 hours after I was admitted, our son Will was born by emergency C-section on
I was lucky not to have any complications in my own recovery. I was very weak and tired and it took all my strength to make it from the parking lot to Will’s room in the NICU where I would sit and watch him for hours, holding his hand when I could, allowed to help with only the simplest tasks like diaper changing and taking his temperature. It was December before I was able to make it though a whole day without an afternoon nap.
Will faced enormous challenges as a result of his extreme premature birth. He fought through infections, a heart defect and corrective surgery, the constant pounding of the high frequency ventilator shaking his lungs to keep them open. His obvious determination to overcome the odds against him stole the hearts of everyone who came in contact with him, even the briefest encounter. He lived for 12 weeks and four days, but finally faced more than he could bear and died on
As a mother you’re supposed to protect your children and I did all I could at Will’s bedside, all the while knowing that HELLP had robbed me of my ability to provide the most basic shelter from harm: a full gestation. Nothing I did caused it. Nothing the doctors did could have changed it, even if they had recognized it sooner, despite my “atypical” presentation much earlier than in most cases and lacking many of the telltale symptoms.
The symptoms of preeclampsia have been observed for more than 2,000 years since the time of the ancient Greeks. It was defined as a distinct syndrome in the 1920s. It is the leading cause of both premature birth and maternal morbidity and yet there still is no preventive or curative treatment. This is our third year walking for the Preeclampsia Foundation, and we are so grateful to John and Brenda and the rest of the organizers for their commitment to education and awareness of this silent killer. We can’t wait another 2,000 years for the answers.
About four months after Will’s death, we discovered to our great surprise that I was pregnant again. The following months were full of anticipation and anxiety. I gave myself shots of heparin, a blood thinner, twice a day, though there was no way to know if that would avert another onset of symptoms. Starting at 24 weeks I saw my OB every week and when my blood pressure went up at 35 weeks, she did not hesitate a moment in admitting me to the hospital for further tests and monitoring. Edward was born on Christmas Day 2005, five weeks early but strong and healthy, the best present we ever could have received. Sent from heaven, from Will.