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Heart-to-Heart with Fellow Survivors by Janel Kovarik

Last Updated on Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Upon being diagnosed with any medical condition, it is human nature to ponder, "Did anyone in our family have that?"

This is especially the case when diagnosed with preeclampsia - what our mothers' and grandmothers' generations called "toxemia."

When I was diagnosed with preeclampsia during the 35th week of my first pregnancy, I was mystified and kept thinking: What on Earth is this? I am 27. I run. I eat well. My blood pressure is always a perfect 120/80.

But I have to say before any of these questions surfaced, I looked to my mother and asked, "Mama, did you have that?" She looked at me with tears in her eyes and shook her head no, unable to give me the normal guidance and comfort that mothers so naturally bestow.

One woman that could provide some guidance was my mother-in-law, Kathy Hutchison, who immediately called me upon hearing my diagnosis, being a two-time survivor herself. What were the odds that she too had had preeclampsia?

Fairly high, according to Dr. Ashley Hill of Florida Family Practice, who described a variety of genetic links currently being researched, including placental issues, compromised immune systems and genetic protein markers.

I questioned my mother-in-law her about her experience with preeclampsia, not realizing how much it would impact my life or that I would one day be volunteering with this Foundation to help other women like me and my mother-in-law.

According to Kathy, preeclampsia was known during the late 70s and early 80s as, "the pregnancy disease that you get and that goes away when you give birth." Though Kathy suffered from preeclampsia with her first child, (my husband) she noted that the term 'preeclampsia' was not really used until the late 80s, when she was pregnant with her second child.

The accompanying rumors and misinformation were much the same as today: If you had it with one child, you will not have it with another; giving birth is the cure, etc. Kathy noted that doctors did not tell her much about the condition, just the symptoms: protein in your urine, consistently high blood pressures, and severe edema.

She not only had preeclampsia with both her pregnancies, but her own mother had preeclampsia in the early 1950s with her and had almost lost her life. Kathy added that her mother only spoke of her experience briefly, and mentioned that she really "felt like going towards the light": not simply experiencing high blood pressure, but essentially realizing that she was dangerously close to death. When asked if Kathy believes in the generational component of preeclampsia, she quickly added, "I do. I had it and then my son produced it. How could I not?" Kathy also noted that she knew of no one else who suffered through the disease other than her mother and sister, and was given virtually no information about the potential outcomes.

Although genetic research into preeclampsia is continually changing, a well-established finding is the link to heart disease, especially in women with a history of severe preeclampsia.

In the case of Kathy, her mother, and sister, there was no such link. Heart disease was absent from their family's medical history, but then again, as she noted, "times are different." Today, women are more empowered to take responsibility for their health and knowledge about conditions affecting their pregnancy, as the Preeclampsia Foundation continually advocates.

Thirty years later, it may seem as thought nothing has changed--the same rumors, no cure, no known cause-- but there really have been some strides: identifying the link to heart disease and communities like the Preeclampsia Foundation, where women talk about life-threatening pregnancy conditions like preeclampsia. It is no longer a taboo subject among pregnant women.

So this Mother's Day, pull up a chair next to your mom, your grandmother, your mother-in-law, your sister... and share your common experience. The more we talk, the more we will know. Heart-to-heart really does work.

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