“I felt that I had failed my child”
This is what Julia Seugling kept on telling herself after her baby had been delivered by emergency C-section at 28 weeks.
It wasn’t exactly the blissful scenario that she had envisioned for the birth of her first child, but there simply was no other choice. A day earlier, Julia had been unaware that she had pre-eclampsia, a potentially life-threatening complication in pregnancy that is marked by high blood pressure and high protein levels in a woman’s urine ‒ the only ‘cure’ being the baby’s delivery.
At about 24 weeks into her pregnancy, Julia had seen her gynaecologist with complaints of ‘bloating‘ due to water retention, but the doctor couldn’t find anything wrong. “My urine and blood pressure were OK. When she reassured me and recommended a special diet to get rid of the water retention, I ignored my own instinct,” she recalls.
Like Julia, many women don’t realise they have pre-eclampsia, even when their condition is severe. Often there are no obvious signs and the symptoms, when they do appear, can be similar to those of other health issues. The condition can be life-threatening for both mother and child. It affects two to five percent of pregnancies and roughly 15 percent of all premature births are due to pre-eclampsia. At the time of Julia’s first pregnancy, there was no reliable screening test for pre-eclampsia.
When Julia fell seriously ill at 28 weeks, she was rushed to hospital. A day later, she was a mother. “The worst thing was that it was so unexpected, suddenly having to hear that I was a time-bomb waiting to explode. And coming out of the anaesthetic with an empty belly. My little girl weighed just 700 grams, was covered in tubes and didn’t really look like a proper baby,” says Julia, who nearly lost her daughter as well as her own life.
“My daughter had to stay in the hospital for ten weeks – that’s 70 days during which I felt that I had failed my child every evening when I left the hospital,” she remembers.
Second time’s a charm
After that harrowing experience, it took quite a while for Julia and her husband to decide to have another child. The second time, however, the doctors were prepared. They used newly developed special blood tests that allow clinicians to decide within hours whether or not a woman showing symptoms of pre-eclampsia is actually suffering from the complication and needs to be hospitalised. “And in fact a detailed diagnosis showed that there was something wrong with my blood flow again,” says Julia.
Nevertheless, everything went smoothly as doctors were able to regularly monitor the pre-eclampsia markers in Julia’s blood. “From week to week we could see that there was no acute risk and that the baby could stay in my womb for longer,” she recalls.
This meant Julia was nearly full-term when her second daughter was born at 35 weeks. “She weighed more than twice as much as her sister and she was able to come home after just two and a half weeks because she had reached the important two kilograms,” explains Julia, as she holds her now 11-week old daughter, seemingly without a care in the world.