Pregnant? What You Need to Know About Preeclampsia and HELLP Syndrome

Eight-and-a-half months of nothing. Okay, not nothing. There were five or so months in there that included full-day morning sickness. That slowly subsided, and my pregnancy became what seemed like a super-easy time. I didn’t know what was coming.

My feet were swollen. Not like normal pregnant mum swollen, but like ‘I can’t actually put on shoes’ swollen. So was my neck and my face. But, it was the summer and humid. And, I just thought swelling was normal in the third trimester. My head hurt, my body ached and I was less than thrilled to wake up early and roll my swollen body into the OB’s office for a 7:45 am appointment at 36 weeks.

Same questions, same routine. How was I feeling? Any problems? Issues? No? Then came the blood pressure cuff. As the nurse took the reading a sort of scared look flashed in her eyes. Only for a second, but long enough for me to notice. I still remember how she fidgeted with her glasses and mumbled something along the lines of, “I just can’t see the reading right.” She practically ran out of the room.

In less than a minute the doctor rushed in. It was typically a 30 minute (or longer) wait in between seeing the nurse and seeing the doctor. This time it was clear something was wrong. Very wrong. “You have to deliver this baby. Now,” he said. I had preeclampsia and the only ‘cure’ was delivery.

What’s preeclampsia?

If you haven’t heard of it and you’re pregnant or even just considering becoming a mum (or a mum again) you need to know what it is. Preeclampsia is a condition of later pregnancy that includes high blood pressure, protein in the urine and swelling (typically more severe than just slightly swollen ankles). The condition affects roughly 5 – 10% of pregnancies in Australia. If left untreated, preeclampsia can cause seizures, kidney issues and liver problems.

The symptoms typically resolve soon after delivery. But, not in every case. Days after my son’s birth my BP was still sky high and I had elevated liver enzymes – a possible sign of HELLP (Haemolysis – red blood cell damage, EL elevated liver enzymes, LP low platelets). HELLP can arise with preeclampsia or on its own. The symptoms may be silent or can include upper abdomen pain (from liver involvement), headache and vomiting.

HELLP recently made news when an Adelaide mum died on an overseas trip to Las Vegas from the condition. Natasha Angie, who was 26 weeks pregnant at the time, was on holiday with her partner when the syndrome struck. After being rushed to the hospital her baby was delivered stillborn. The young mum’s heart gave out shortly after.

Both my son and I were much luckier. I was given magnesium sulfate, a medication given to help prevent seizures, and had to deliver ASAP. Delivery is the only ‘cure’ for preeclampsia.

After my experience I wanted to know one thing – why me? No one knows exactly what causes preeclampsia or HELLP. The condition may mimic other conditions or pregnancy problems. This makes a doctor’s diagnosis essential. Not only can preeclampsia and HELLP affect pregnant mums, but it can also start after delivery. In this case delivery is obviously not a fix. Post-delivery, HELLP may require bed rest, blood pressure medication or blood transfusions.

Even though we don’t know what causes preeclampsia or HELLP, a previous pregnancy with the condition, being over 25 and having multiples seems to increase the risk. Without a precise cause known, early detection is necessary for proper treatment. If you’re pregnant, or know someone who is, get familiar with the signs and symptoms of preeclampsia and HELLP. Doing so could save a life!

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Erica Loop is a mum, parenting writer and educator with an MS in child development. Along with writing for websites such as PBS Parents,, Scary Mommy,, Modern Mom, and others, she also is the creator of a kids' activities and art blog.

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