Thursday, January 31, 2013

Long ago & far away? Unfortunately not...

(Headline edited, with apologies to Lisa at Life Without Baby....!) 

Confession: I have yet to watch a complete episode of what seems to be everyone's favourite TV show of the moment, Downton Abbey.  When I tell people, I inevitably get a shocked reaction, followed by assurances that I would love it, I really should watch it, etc. I'm sure I'd love it too;  it's just that it's on until 11 p.m., which is generally way past my bedtime (and I'm already staying up until 11 on Mondays to watch "Dallas" -- two nights in a row is too much for this old gal...!), and I've already missed the first 2.5 seasons and catching up on DVD is a b*tch...

Anyway. While I have yet to see a full episode myself, I still can't help knowing all about the show & the various characters, thanks to watercooler & Internet chatter, etc. 
(Spoiler alert!!)

And after last Sunday's episode, my Facebook news feed was flooded with comments of "Not Sybil!!"

Lady Sybil, the youngest of the three daughters who live at the Abbey, died in Sunday night's episode, after giving birth to a daughter. The cause? Eclampsia.

I've been waiting to see what, if anything, the ALI blogosphere might have to say on the topic.  Cecily at Uppercase Woman wrote about how watching the episode triggered PTSD and memories of her own experience with eclampsia, which resulted in the loss of her twin boys, nine years ago. There was also an article in today's Globe and Mail.

My fear, after hearing about Lady Sybil, was that those fortunate viewers who have never confronted high-risk pregnancy or pregnancy loss might think (as I once did) that eclampsia is a thing of the past, that such things would not, do not, happen today. They would be wrong.

In my 20s, like so many naive young women, I didn't think that anybody died during childbirth anymore. Certainly not in North America, anyway. I learned differently soon after I started working on the newsletter for the company that still employs me. One of my first tasks was to contact human resources and compile a list of all the employees and pensioners who had retired or died during the previous month. Imagine my shock when I was handed a death advice for a 35-year-old woman. I had to call her boss to verify one of the facts, and she was only too willing to share all the gory details with me, unprompted. She had died in childbirth. Childbirth?? I was shocked. Who dies in childbirth in late-20th century urban Canada??

I probably shouldn't have been surprised. I came very close to not being here myself, because of eclampsia.

Growing up, I would sometimes overhear my mother saying that she'd had "a hard time" giving birth to me, and was in the hospital for two weeks afterward (which was a long time, even back then,, when stays of a week after a normal birth weren't unheard of). But it wasn't until many years later, perhaps during my own pregnancy, at age 37, that I remember hearing her use the terms "toxemia" and "eclampsia." I'm sure my mother probably mentioned it to me then;  I do remember her asking about my blood pressure. (I never had problems with high blood pressure or started taking medication for it until well into my 40s.) 

In later years, I remember her saying to me that we were both lucky to be here. Just over Christmas, I overheard her telling a neighbour that she went into convulsions while delivering me.

In my 20s, I gave both my grandparents one of those fill-in-the-blanks memory books and asked them to write in them. After they had both died, my mother gave them back to me. Grandma's remained blank, but I was tickled to find that my grandfather had filled in the first few pages, in a shaky hand. Under the question, "Where were you when I was born?" he had written, "Not far away." My mother chuckled ruefully as she read that: "I'm sure he was," she said. My poor Grandpa;  I can just picture him. How worried he must have been for us both.

After losing Katie, on message boards and in our real-life support group, I heard many more stories about pre-eclampsia, about soaring blood pressure and difficult decisions, about emergency C-sections and babies delivered prematurely or stillborn. Yes, it does still happen today. 

And then I gradually started making the connection from the stories I was hearing from other women my own age who had survived the horror of eclampsia but watched their babies die, to the snippets I'd heard from my mother about my own birth story. And realized how very, very lucky we both were.

My mother recently started watching "Downton Abbey." I can't quite bring myself to ask her if she saw last Sunday's episode.

More information on (pre)eclampsia & related conditions such as HELLP can be found at the Preeclampsia Foundation.


  1. I hadn't seen Downtown Abbey at all- just... not my style. :) So don't feel bad about that.

    I do know that one of my great grandmothers had died in childbirth- but what specifics, I don't know.

  2. This was a great public service announcement. Thank you for that. Like you, I was astounded to find that pregnancy can actually still be a life-threatening situation - though I discovered it in early pregnancy through two ectopics. It is important that people know this.

    As for Downton Abbey, my advice is to wait till you can get the DVD of the first series, make some time one cold weekend when you have nothing to do, curl up with a glass of red wine and a blanket, and indulge. Don't try to catch up now - there's too much background.

  3. After the hype...I started watching Season 1 on Netflix. So far, so good...but not as addicting as some of the other shows out there.

  4. Aaaarghhh!!!! I've a good mind to exclude you from the blog round-up I'm compiling that caused me to wander over to your site today!! I am 2 episodes behind and have been avoiding spoiler alerts like the plague, but you, YOU....!!!!!

    I will come back later to actually read your post, but now I have to go and recover from the shock of the news! ;-)

  5. Ooops... sorry Lisa!! I guess I gave away the game with my headline, didn't I? I'll try to think of something different to spare the next D.A. fan the shock. ; ) (Although headline writing is NOT my forte...!)

  6. Oh, Loribeth, you should be watching Downton! By the end of the first episode in Season 1, you'll be thinking, "WHY have I missed this?!"

    Sibyl's death scene was very hard for me to watch. I cried for half an hour. I knew she wasn't going to make it as soon as everyone started talking about her swollen legs. (I hadn't read any spoilers.) I had an uncomplicated twin pregnancy with low blood pressure, but a difficult labor and delivery and preeclampsia that developed after a long unproductive labor. It culminated in an unscheduled C-section, bedrest/separation from my twins, and a rough recovery. Anyone interested in the full details can read it here -- I don't mean to hijack the whole comment thread.

    At the end of that post, I said that I didn't know whether my ob should have done anything differently. I'm less wishy-washy now. She converted to C-section 2 hours later than she should have done. I still strongly resent my ob for letting it go that far. There's a note in my chart to that effect, at my request! But I am well aware that it could have gone much, much farther.

    My SIL was a labor & delivery nurse at the local "Baby Factory" (popular and posh hospital for childbirth). After one month with several stillbirths and a maternal death, she asked to be transferred to another department. It was too harrowing.

    And now I need a drink...!

  7. I'm back, having watched the episode in question last night, so now I can comment with some sanity.

    Yes, it's stunning to realize that this can still happen.Hopefully something that has changed since then is that slowly we're starting to talk more openly about these topics so that people realize this isn't a thing of the past. With the advances medical technology, there's an expectation that anything can be cured or fixed or avoided. Clearly that's not the case.

    I also found it striking that the opinion of the country doctor, who'd known Sybil her whole life and who knew her symptoms weren't normal for her, was overridden by the big city hot shot. That level of personal care and knowledge is also sadly missing from today's medical care.

    In hindsight, I was glad I went into this episode prepared by you spoiler. ;-) Another spoiler hint I picked up also prepared me for the newly forming infertility subplot that I will now have to watch unfold. Something else that is not a thing of the past.