I was officially diagnosed with HELLP syndrome when I was 23 weeks pregnant with our first child. I hadn't heard of preeclampsia, let alone HELLP syndrome.
My husband, Peter, and I always knew that we wanted to have a family. When I got pregnant had been together for three years, and happily married for almost a year. In the summer of 2011, I was crazy busy taking a summer institute at university as part of my Bachelor of Education degree. I was studying hard all week and working at a bakery on the weekends. When school was over and our one year wedding anniversary passed I thought to myself… where on earth is my period?
After promptly peeing on a Costco sized package of pregnancy tests, it was determined that we were officially expecting. After making a frantic call to my husband, Peter hurried home to calm me down. We went for ice cream and a walk on the beach. Peter, in his sensible and level-headed way, assured me that we could make it work. That it wasn’t the worst timing (like I thought) and that we were going to have a baby! I was so happy and excited and scared and nervous and totally blissed out. I had baby fever. Because I’ve never kept great track of my cycle, and because I had been so busy, we didn’t know when we had conceived the baby. But after a dating ultrasound, it was determined. Our baby was due March 22, 2012. The moment I saw our baby on the monitor, I was totally in love.
I was scheduled to finish my final teaching practicum in September, but I felt totally wound up and baby crazy. I felt really anxious about all of the stress I would be under during my practicum. I was worried that the lack of food and sleep would impact my pregnancy. So I decided to put school on hold and finish it at a later date. I planned to work full time at the bakery and finish my degree after the baby was born. Everything progressed without a hitch. I was having a healthy, normal pregnancy. I had some morning sickness (more like all day sickness), but generally I felt really good! I was diagnosed with Placenta Previa, but my doctor believed it would sort itself out before the delivery. No big deal.
I started having upper right quadrant pain at 18 weeks. The pain was absolutely terrible- horrible stabbing pain that seemed to only come in the night when I had to sleep. My doctor thought it was heartburn, so she encouraged me to take Zantac and watch my diet carefully. The Zantac didn't help one bit! When I told my doctor, she suspected gallstones and ordered an ultrasound. At 19 weeks, I made my husband take me to the emergency room at 3am because the pain was unbearable. I was given a numbing super-strong antacid that again, didn’t do anything. I was discharged from emergency because there was nothing else they could do for me.
For me, the first noticeable sign of HELLP syndrome was the upper right quadrant pain. It was absolutely excruciating. I also felt generally lethargic and simply unwell- kind of like I had a mild flu. The unwell feeling slowly escalated, and I started throwing up. On the day I was admitted to the hospital and had severe pitting edema on my lower legs, feet, hands and face. I also had a headache, slightly blurry vision, and my eyes were very sensitive to bright light.
On November 21, 2011 (22 weeks, 6 days), I went in for my regular doctor’s appointment. I was experiencing some swelling of my ankles, which I thought was perfectly normal… however, my blood pressure was much higher than it had been in previous appointments. My doctor was concerned, and ordered me to go for blood and urine tests. I was told to come back right away if I had severe headaches or any vision disturbances or severe and sudden swelling. The next morning I woke up early and my face and hands were swollen and I was having a bad headache. I went into my doctor’s office right away. My blood pressure was through the roof. It was so high, my doctor was worried I might have a stroke. I was told to go home, call my husband, pack a bag and get to the hospital as soon as possible. Peter left work immediately, came home, and took me to the emergency room. I called my mother and sister, who came right away. At this time, I didn’t realize the severity of the situation. Obviously things weren’t good, but my pregnancy had been relatively uneventful and I hoped for the best. I was taken for blood and urine tests and for an ultrasound where I saw our baby for the last time. There was very little amniotic fluid and the placenta was damaged. I had an extreme amount of protein in my urine and my liver enzymes were dangerously high; the abdominal pain I had been experiencing was actually due to my liver and kidneys shutting down.
I had severe preeclampsia and HELLP syndrome, and the only cure was to deliver the baby, which was too young to survive. My condition was worsening very quickly. The nurses had a difficult time getting the IV started because I was so puffy and have small veins. When the IV team got me all hooked up I was given magnesium sulfite to protect against seizures. I was given morphine for the abdominal pain. My last ultrasound determined that the placenta previa had improved and I would be able to have a vaginal delivery, rather than a c-section. I was started on Misoprostol to induce labour. Most of my hospital stay feels like a blurry dream, and there are still a lot of missing pieces.
Fiona Sophia Lockhart was born and passed away in the evening on November 23, 2011 at 23 weeks, 1 day. It was, by far, the worst day of my life.
Fiona's birth story and my experience with HELLP are just the beginning. It has taken a very long time for me to recover, emotionally and physically. I have battled depression and PTSD for two and a half years, but I'm now managing, thanks to my wonderful family. My husband and I had a healthy son on Christmas Day, 2012. Just over a year after losing our daughter (HELLP free!). He is beautiful and amazing and such a gift. Thank you so much for reading my story. I wish all the other HELLP families peace, love and healing! xox