For several weeks prior (from about 27 weeks or so), I had experienced some symptoms that I now understand can be a sign of HELLP. Though I was under the regular care of a great group of doctors through the local maternity clinic, I realize I did not share a number of the signs as I believed them to be part of a normal pregnancy and convinced myself I was fine each time. Some of the symptoms included swelling (it was a very hot summer so that made sense), difficulty stopping bleeding with minor cuts (your blood volume increases with pregnancy, so that was logical), headaches (normal), strong heartburn-like discomfort that did not go away for long periods of time (heartburn is a very normal side effect of pregnancy – I now know this to be ‘upper quadrant pain’). During this time, we went overseas for a holiday. I remember lying awake the night before our flight home, having really intense pain thinking ‘wow, if this is what heartburn is, I feel really sorry for people who get it regularly’. It got so uncomfortable, I came very close to waking up my husband and saying we needed to go to the hospital, but somehow managed to talk myself out of it (again).
The day I ended up being diagnosed, I went in for a regular check up with my doctor, and my blood pressure was elevated which was a first for me. She asked me a series of questions leading me to share the other symptoms I had been experiencing for some time. She also checked my reflexes. They were incredibly fast. Apparently that can be a sign as well. She was very calm and didn't share details on what she thought might be going on, but sent me for bloodwork and suggested I head home, put my feet up and relax. I did. A few hours later, I got a phone call from the doctor telling me there were some concerns with my lab results and calmly asked me to make my way to the hospital as soon as I could. I had no idea what was wrong, or the severity of it, and to be honest, really wasn’t overly concerned as the doctor did not sound very alarmed. When I got to the hospital, the admissions team was expecting me, and I was whisked away to the maternity ward.
I really don’t remember many details because I was quite out of it due to the magnesium I was on throughout. My memories are really based on my husband’s story - which I ask him to remind me of every so often, so I don’t forget. But I do remember being aware that something serious was going on with the snippets of conversations I heard and retained, the hourly bloodwork and constant checks, and the seemingly large group of doctors and nurses that were in the room for the birth which included my clinic doctor who stayed with us throughout labour and assisted with the delivery. But most importantly, I remember the overwhelming feeling of joy inside when they told me we had a boy, even though I could not express it.
I don’t recall them telling me directly that I had HELLP. My husband knew something serious was going on, and learned the name of it, but does not recall being told many details other than they needed to get the baby out. To some people, that may sound wrong - that we should have been told the details, but for us, we just felt so well taken care of by the doctors and nurses that had been assigned to us, we just focused on having the baby. Which is what they needed us to do. I often say I was blissfully unaware. And for us, that was a positive thing.
We spent about a week in the hospital, and it wasn’t until we got home and I researched exactly what it was I had, the severity of it started to hit home. I am so grateful we received prompt care by a fantastic medical team. And I am so glad I had the same level of care (with the same OBGYN) when we went through the pregnancy with our second son. It was really then, that the full impact of having had HELLP really set in for me. It was incredibly stressful on a few levels at the time, and I had overwhelming feelings of guilt about the ‘what ifs’, and the potential impact on my first son and husband if things went wrong. It is also really important to understand and appreciate the impact the experience had on your husband or partner. They are the ones that had to watch us go through it and know all too well how serious it was. The thought of it happening again is overwhelming for them too.
Happily, after very close monitoring and testing throughout my pregnancy by my doctor (the same OBGYN) and through the high risk clinic, I did not develop HELLP again, and we welcomed our youngest son into the world. I did end up with a c-section after a few hours of pushing (and medical intervention), but that was fine by me. I did the best I could, and the most important thing was to deliver a healthy baby as safely as possible.
I try to avoid giving advice to women that are expecting, except one thing. Enjoy being pregnant, and try not to stress yourself out with all the things that could go wrong. But do make sure you find an experienced medical professional (doctor, midwife - whichever works best for you and your family), and make sure they are someone you feel comfortable sharing everything with. All of your symptoms. No matter how ‘normal’ they may seem. It could save your life.
Since the birth of our second son, I have been trying to think of what I can do to help bring awareness to HELLP Syndrome. I have decided to do that through running, which is something fairly new for me in the past couple of years. My sister (who lives in the States) and I have decided to meet somewhere in the U.S or Canada each year to run a half marathon together. We’ll be running our third together this spring in Nashville, and I’ll be following it up with a fourth in the fall in my hometown. At each of these runs, with her and on my own, I will be wearing my HELLP Survivor shirt. This is how I choose to honour my experience and all the families who have been affected. Too many wonderful women and babies have lost their lives from HELLP, and face long-term health issues and consequences because of it. I hope one day soon they will find a cure.