Our birth photos were a glimpse of grace in the storm - Mom's Experience of Preeclampsia

Montfort Birth Midwives Newborn baby smiling 

I have learned a lot - about women, families, birth, strength, unpredictability, life - through this job as a birth photographer.  I'm honoured to be present at births and humbled when I'm invited because I know it is such an important and intimate space. 

A chapter of this birth story is about a disease that doctors don't know a lot about. 

It's a mystery why it happens to some women and not others, some pregnancies and not others - I asked Mom if she was comfortable sharing her story because it is one that she has been telling and sharing with her friends online so eloquently since her daughter was born.  Because of her, I now have a far better understanding of what is known about "Pre-E" and most of all the impact it has on a woman's experience of pregnancy, birth and postpartum, and most of all on HER.  Thank you, Christine for sharing your story and writing it so beautifully. 

In Mom's words...

Some photos of the birth I find difficult to see. I remember the intensity of the experience – my anxiety and the pressure building in my head. I remember what came after.

Dad holding infant cuddled on his chest at Montfort

My first pregnancy was healthy until I was a week overdue. I was induced for an odd spike in blood pressure. It was almost five days postpartum when I was brought back to hospital. My daughter didn’t sleep and I was exhausted. My husband and mother tried to give me moments of rest. They worried about exhaustion and postpartum depression. Except it wasn’t that. My head pounded. My feet swelled uncontrollably. I felt overwhelming panic and a sense of doom. I’d wake up crying.

A routine visit by the student midwife sent me to the ER. I was no longer allowed to walk after the OBGYN saw me. My reflexes were so hyperactive that I nearly kicked the doctor in the face, indicating my central nervous system was agitated. I spent two days in a darkened room being fed magnesium through my veins so I wouldn’t stroke or seize. Nurses kept vigil in shifts. My blood pressure climbed. Liver enzymes elevated I was separated from my daughter for two nights, just as my milk was coming in. I wasn’t aware enough to take care of her without someone else there.

I spent months afterwards curled inwards. Friends and family made it better. Time.

With this pregnancy, we were cautious but hopeful. Typically speaking, it’s more likely in a first pregnancy. But I was unusually sick and my instinct said something was wrong. My midwives arranged for shared care with a sympathetic but calm OBGYN. We took good care. I took baby aspirin and we waited. We hired a doula because my first birth had been so long. I painted my toenails sea green. I still hoped to birth my second baby in the water at the Birth and Wellness Centre.

Newborn baby skin on skin after birth

But. The pressures were too high at the end. Too high for midwifery care. They still hoped to attend the birth but it was too quick. Aoife was born after a precipitous 2 hour labour in hospital. Our doula Pia kept me together. Kim recorded the birth in photos.

Aoife was caught by the nurses as they were surprised by the quick progression and the OBGYN on call wasn’t able to get there in time. My midwife arrived not long after. I can’t remember much of the birth. I had to ask others what happened. My husband and I were shell shocked. You can see it some of the photos. Along with the relief and temporary calm.

Two nights after the birth, I felt the same squirrelly upper right quadrant pain as I had two years ago. My blurry eyesight doubled. Flashes of light. Headache growling at the corners of my brain. I waited in the dark with my two daughters for my mother to come. Another few days in hospital, more magnesium, the dark. The doctors will be afraid of me. I scare them. Preeclampsia/HELLP is unpredictable. I am a tiny percentage of a tiny percentage. But my second daughter stayed with me at hospital and the preeclampsia wasn’t as severe.

The Preeclampsia Foundation notes that “preeclampsia and other hypertensive disorders of pregnancy are a leading cause of maternal and infant illness and death. By conservative estimates, these disorders are responsible for 76,000 maternal and 500,000 infant deaths each year.”

It impacts only 5-8%s of pregnancies, but can (rarely) run into the postpartum period. Preeclampsia is still not well understood by doctors and has been noted by the World Health Organization as an underfunded area of health research. I was fortunate to have excellent care from midwives, nurses, doctors. Unlike many other women who are not taken seriously until they are extremely ill. Unlike women in some countries without access to postpartum care.

I’m grateful for the birth photos because they give me a glimpse of grace in the storm. Kim was my eyes when I had them closed.

Montfort Birthing Centre Mom holding her newborn daughter skin to skin