Until one month before her daughter’s birth, Darla Brown’s first pregnancy had been a textbook story of happiness and good health.
Then, Brown’s feet and ankles began swelling — in itself, not an unusual event even among the healthiest pregnant women. But her blood pressure and the levels of protein in her urine also climbed. About 10 days before her due date, Brown’s OB-GYN ordered her to stop working and stay in bed. She was diagnosed with pre-eclampsia, the leading cause of death among mothers-to-be in the United States.
“I couldn’t believe it. I felt fine. I didn’t have any problems. Out of nowhere, I had this serious condition. It was frightening,” said Brown, 32, director of community affairs at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston.
Symptoms of pre-eclampsia, also called toxemia, include high blood pressure, elevated protein levels in the blood, reduced or absent urination, swelling, headaches, vomiting and nausea. If it becomes a more severe condition called eclampsia, women can suffer seizures and convulsions.
Inducing labor and delivering the baby is the only known cure for pre-eclampsia, which threatens the life of both mother and child, and occurs in about 5 percent of all pregnancies. Three days after her diagnosis, Brown was induced and gave birth to a healthy girl, Hannah, on June 18, 2003.
With a $20 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, the University of Texas Medical School at Houston and 13 other sites across the country are conducting a study of 10,000 pregnant women, hoping to find a treatment for pre-eclampsia.
“It’s a terrible condition. Now we have a good chance of finding out how to control it,” said Dr. Susan Ramin, director of the Maternal-Fetal Medicine Division at the medical school and principal investigator for the study in Houston.
Doctors have identified several risk factors for pre-eclampsia, the most important being first pregnancies (such as Brown’s), but also including obesity, previously existing high blood pressure and a family history of the condition.
Evidence suggests that pre-eclampsia begins with the proliferation of free radicals in the body, leading to oxidative stress and an abnormal implantation of the placenta in the lining of the uterus.