It was supposed to be a vacation two years in the making, an Australian couple’s first trip to the United States, with Las Vegas being their last stop.
The expecting mother appeared to be in good health, and even doctors gave the okay for her to make the 3 week trip across the U.S.
But, in a matter of 2 days, a husband lost his wife and his unborn child to a rare disorder they didn’t even know she had.
“Every organ was fine in her body. She never had a problem with any other pregnancy. We never thought this would happen,” said John Shaw.
“Everyone in her whole family thought she was alright. I thought she was alright. She thought she was alright. She wasn’t.”
Last week, Shaw’s wife Natasha started to feel sick. She had a migraine and abdominal pain, but the couple didn’t think it was anything serious. Natasha just wanted to rest.
“We thought it was just migraines,” said Shaw. “It was the same feeling she thought she had when she had a migraine back home, you know?”
The migraines and abdominal pains came and went for three days. Then early Saturday Natasha woke up her husband. Shaw says she had stroke-like symptoms and became unresponsive. He called 911.
“On the ambulance bed, when she was taken out of the room, I told her I love you. She said I love you back to me twice, and that were the last words that came out of her mouth,” he said.
After a number of tests, doctors diagnosed her with HELLP syndrome.
HELLP is an acronym, standing for:
H (hemolysis, which is the breaking down of red blood cells)
EL (elevated liver enzymes)
LP (low platelet count)
It’s a life-threatening pregnancy complication among women in their third trimester. It’s considered to be a form of preeclampsia, which is a rapidly progressive condition characterized by high blood pressure and the presence of protein in the urine. Important symptoms include swelling, sudden weight gain, headaches, and changes in vision, however, some women with rapidly advancing disease report few symptoms.
“Five percent of women are going to get preeclampsia. Of that 5%, about 20% of women develop HELLP syndrome,” said Dr. David E. Kartzinel, the Vice Chairman of the OBGYN Department at Sunrise Hospital.
“Usually, a woman comes in complaining of the worst headache she’s had in her life, complaining about nausea, about visual disturbances. When the nurse checks their vitals, they have high blood pressure and protein in the urine. Usually, when those symptoms are showing and you get treatment, the patient always get better, but the important thing is to recognize and treat it. People who don’t get treated, 1 in 4 of them develop a serious case of HELLP syndrome if it’s not recognized and treated properly,” said Dr. Kartzinel.
He says it can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms are sometimes mistaken for gastritis, the flu or acute hepatitis. It’s diagnosed through blood and urine tests.
“They come on very, very sudden. Usually, it’s rapidly progressive and it does get worse, and sometimes I’ve seen patients get worse in a few hours, and sometimes patients get worse over a few days,” he said. “The sooner it’s recognized, it’s better off for the mom and the baby.”
Dr. Kartzinel says the risk factors for HELLP syndrome include being over the age of 35 for a first pregnancy, gestational hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and also having multiple pregnancies such as twins or triplets. But the number one risk factor is having preeclampsia in a previous pregnancy. He says 25% of women who have preeclampsia in a previous pregnancy could have HELLP syndrome in another pregnancy.
Shaw says Natasha had no problem with her past three pregnancies, so the condition came as a shock. In an effort to save Natasha’s life, doctors delivered her 26-week-old baby while she was sedated.
“The baby was already deceased when it came out. I got to hold him for a few hours and get some memories with him. Then he was brought to the morgue. She never ever knew what was going on,” he said. “Her heart and kidneys failed on her. They put her on life support that night. I went there the next morning to find out she had swelling in the brain and bleeding in the brain. The doctor said to me what was wrong with her and I asked him if she is basically gone, dead. And she said yeah. That was the hardest thing.”
He had to call his family and his three children. Through video call, the children said their last goodbyes to their mother.
“My little baby is only 3. He didn’t know what was going on,” said Shaw. “Natasha always wanted the best for our children. She wanted to give them things she didn’t have growing up, and I want to be able to do that for them, for her.”
Shaw is sharing his story in hopes to raise awareness of the condition.
“If you’re pregnant and you feel those symptoms, go to the doctor because it happens all too quick,” he said. “I’m bringing them back home in a box, which I never thought would happen.”