A popular television program has raised awareness about a top killer of pregnant women. Now, local families affected by the condition are trying to get the word out to save lives.
The condition is preeclampsia. An episode of PBS's Downton Abbey deals with dueling doctor's opinions about whether one of the characters has it. It is less likely to kill now than it was in the 1920s, when the show takes place.
But the condition is still a leading killer in pregnant women, and its cause remains unknown. What doctors do know are the symptoms, which are often hard for women to detect as anything other than a difficult pregnancy.
"Preeclampsia actually is a great mimic," said Dr. Carl Weiner, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Kansas Hospital. "It could look like lots of different diseases. And unless you are thinking about it, you will miss it."
That's what almost happened to Heather Belgstad, who lives in the Northland. She thought she had heartburn.
"I had made key lime pie that night," said her husband, Dustin Belgstad. "She was blaming it on me."
But his wife had a sense something wasn't right.
"So I went to the ER to get checked out and the next thing I know I'm in an ambulance headed to another hospital that had specialists for me and a high-level NICU for my son," she recalled.
A doctor there told her she had 48 hours to have her child or she ran the risk of losing his life and hers. She had an emergency C-section at 25 weeks.
The list of symptoms are often experienced by women experiencing a normal pregnancy. The symptoms include excessive weight gain, swelling, high blood pressure, headaches and abdominal pain.
One symptom that can help detect the condition is the shedding of protein into the mother's urine.
Back in the 1990s, the hit TV show, ER, made headlines for an episode called Love's Labor Lost, where a woman is seemingly having a normal pregnancy but then it goes horribly wrong. The mother, who died in the episode, came to the ER suffering from stomach pains and frequent urination.
The woman had a C-section and gave birth to a premature baby. Not all actual cases go like the fictional one, but doctors say the earlier that preeclampsia occurs in a pregnancy the more danger to both the mother and child.
"Most of them recover and do fine," Weiner said. "But there is a small group, especially those who develop the disease early, who are at especial risk as are their newborns."
Those risks include heart failure, stroke and kidney failure.
Typically, Weiner said, a vigilant doctor and regular prenatal care will allow for red flags to be seen in time to monitor the situation and react accordingly. The only cure for preeclampsia is to deliver. Doctors try to do so as late as possible, for the baby's well-being, while still protecting the mother. This can often be done by addressing associated issues like the high blood pressure. Sometimes delivery must take place very early, like in Heather Blegstad's case.
"I was looking at the possibility of losing both of them if things didn't go well," said Dustin Blegstad.
That's why the couple advises potential mothers to do what Heather Blegstad did.
"If you feel like something is wrong, go to your doctor," she said, "And if you feel like they are dismissing something, get a second opinion. It's OK to get a second opinion. It's OK to go to the ER just to get checked out because it is for you and your baby."
A local group will have a walkathon this spring to raise awareness and research funds. The deadline to register and receive a free T-shirt is March 22.
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