Birth, Babies, and Beyond

Pregnancy, birth, and parenting

Toxic Mothers: What Every Pregnant Woman Must Know

Downton Abbey sheds light on a pregnancy complication.

When my older brother, Andrew, was born in 1957, my mother suffered from dangerously high blood pressure, otherwise known as pre-eclampsia. If anyone was watching carefully, they would have realized that her blood pressure had been creeping up all along.  The problem was that her typical blood pressure was low so no one noticed until she showed signs of toxemia—high blood pressure plus swelling, signs that can lead to seizures, kidney failure, coma and even death. They immediately gave her barbiturates to lower her pressure. And then my mother breastfed my brother. The nurses said he was the calmest baby in the whole nursery. His first meal, of course, was spiked breast milk. Little Andrew went from calm to an angry wreck when he got home a week later. My mom figured out the drug link and he eventually got through the withdrawals. ( BTW: my brother is now a respected orthopedic surgeon without any repercussions from his first stint with drugs and doctors no longer give nursing women barbituates.) Fortunately for my mother, her pre-eclampsia never progressed to full-blown eclampsia, which can kill.

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My point isn't laced breast milk-that's for another blog--but the continued dangers of eclampsia. If you watched Downton Abbey last night, you would seen a tragic story. As Eleni Tsigas and Christine Morton write in today’s Daily Beast, that while viewers tonight “may dismiss the dramatic plot twist as unrealistic, or express relief that women today no longer die so tragically in childbirth, those viewers would be mistaken on both counts.” Their piece discusses the current situation of eclampsia in the U.S. and what women can do to make sure they are armed to prevent its dangerous repercussions.

Like everything else in pregnancy, the history of eclampsia has been riddled with wacky and useless advice. During my mother’s next two pregnancies, her doctor threatened her with hospitalization should she gain a pound over the arbitrary number 15, fearing another bout. The thinking was that keeping thin would prevent bloating. But they had it mixed up: eclampsia causes water retention not vice versa. It could have been worse. If my mom had given birth 100 years earlier, she would have been purged and bled. Back then, they thought they were removing the toxins that trigger seizures but as you can imagine it just made women feel weaker and sicker.

To this day, eclampsia mystifies doctors. No one really knows why it strikes some women and not others, nor what precisely happens in the body to make a woman seize. But you should know the warning signs, which will allow doctors today to take simple steps to prevent the dangerous cascade—to stop Downton Abbeyish endings. As Tsigas and Morton say: Diligence—"educating women and improving health care response to preeclampsia—is not expensive, while the worth of a mother’s or baby’s life is incalculable."

 

 

Randi Hutter Epstein, M.D., is the author of Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank.

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