Until the evening of September 18, 2006, I had never heard of HELLP Syndrome. But what I do know is the worry I saw in the eyes of the doctors and nurses when they told me my identical twins had to be delivered immediately via c-section. There was no time to wait!
The silence that took over the room amongst the chaos was startling, to say the least. The nurses were frantically rushing around, gathering items, prepping me for surgery while speaking in whispers to one another. Their whispers were protecting me, essentially keeping me away from the truth. The babies were going to be okay, but I was in critical condition. I was terrified, confused, and I couldn’t even begin to understand what was happening to my body since I had never been informed about HELLP Syndrome. At times, I am still baffled, thirteen years later, but beyond blessed that the doctors, anesthesiologists, and nurses were all prepared that Monday evening.
I knew very little about my condition, but this is what I did know:
From an OB/GYN appointment on Saturday morning at 10 a..m. to the appointment Monday at 4 p.m., my blood pressure spiked. I had protein in my urine, my platelet counts were below 50,000, and my body swelled within three days to the size of a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.
I felt fine that morning, except legs that looked like elephants, but I chalked it up to carrying multiples and having an almost two- year old and three-and-a-half-year-old who kept me on my toes day and night. When I saw a friend that morning, she told me quite frankly that I looked awful and I should get an appointment with the doctor. Thankfully, I was not in one of my stubborn moods, and I took her comment with great concern because, within two hours of the appointment, the twins were delivered.
Since my platelet counts were dangerously low, I was required to have a c-section with general anesthesia. An epidural or spinal was not an option. Therefore the waterworks of tears took over my body, knowing it would be hours until I could hold my babies. Then more sad news, my husband could not be in the operating room with me. He would only be allowed in when the doctors were ready to quickly take out Baby A, then Baby B would follow, and then my husband would abruptly be pushed out of the OR to wait with my dad in the waiting area.
What is HELLP Syndrome?
HELLP Syndrome is a life-threatening pregnancy complication usually considered to be a variant of preeclampsia. Both conditions typically occur during the later stages of pregnancy, or sometimes after childbirth. HELLP Syndrome was named by Dr. Louis Weinstein in 1982 after its characteristics:
H (hemolysis, which is the breaking down of red blood cells)
EL (elevated liver enzymes)
LP (low platelet count)
HELLP Syndrome can be difficult to diagnose, especially when high blood pressure and protein in the urine aren’t present. Its symptoms are sometimes mistaken for gastritis, flu, acute hepatitis, gall bladder disease, or other conditions.
The mortality rate of HELLP Syndrome has been reported to be as high as 30%. That’s why it’s critical for expecting mothers to be aware of the condition and its symptoms so they can receive early diagnosis and treatment.
Symptoms of HELLP Syndrome
The physical symptoms of HELLP Syndrome may seem at first like preeclampsia. Pregnant women developing HELLP Syndrome have reported experiencing one or more of these symptoms:
- Nausea/vomiting/indigestion with pain after eating
- Abdominal or chest tenderness and upper right upper side pain (from liver distention)
- Shoulder pain or pain when breathing deeply
- Changes in vision
Signs to look for include:
- High blood pressure
- Protein in the urine
The most common reasons for mothers to become critically ill or die are liver rupture or stroke (cerebral edema or cerebral hemorrhage). These can usually be prevented when caught in time. If you or someone you know has any of these symptoms, please see a healthcare provider immediately.
After all of these years, I still question how HELLP Syndrome came on so suddenly, especially since I was never diagnosed with preeclampsia and why I initially only had one of the warning signs. The other symptoms soon followed but would not be known until testing at the lab was done. I am beyond blessed that my babies were healthy, fully grown for twins at 36 weeks, and never entered the NICU. I am also blessed that the team of on-call doctors that evening were able to protect me and essentially save me while not leaving my husband as a widow with four children under three and a half.
The ten-day stay in the hospital is not written in my top moments of motherhood, but I can look back on this experience and smile. I may have been hooked up to a magnesium drip to prevent seizures and passed out during most attempts to go to the bathroom due to extreme anemia, but I felt cared for even when riddled with fear. The nurses managed to aide me with breastfeeding twins on a demanding schedule while also dealing with an overwhelming amount of tears since I missed my other daughters who were at home. The nurses were rock stars, and I am forever indebted to them for keeping my spirits up.
I write this to all of you… for the soon to be moms to be educated and know the warning signs and also for the friend or family member who can also read this, gain knowledge, and advise their soon to be mommy friend to go to the doctor ASAP.
I know I am blessed for my friend, who told me I looked horrible… may we all be that friend.
For information on HELLP Syndrome, please click HERE.