Kelli Carlson’s first pregnancy was a doozy. “In the beginning I was sick a lot and then I was OK for a while,” recalls the 26-year-old resident of Burlington, Iowa. In the third trimester, severe pain developed in her upper right chest and there were numerous headaches, yet it was still being regarded as a normal pregnancy.
“My doctor thought it was just the baby kicking,” Kelli says.
By her 36-week appointment, however, Kelli was getting sicker with frequent severe headaches. Her unrecognized condition was preeclampsia, characterized by high blood pressure and excess protein in the urine. Untreated, preeclampsia can lead to dangerous seizures (eclampsia) and life-threatening liver, lung, and kidney failure.
Kelli’s continuing sickness—still undiagnosed—finally got so bad that she was virtually incapacitated. Her blood pressure soared to dangerous levels. Doctors in Burlington decided to perform an emergency C-section.
“I just remember them telling me my husband couldn’t be in the room because I had to be put completely under,” Kelli recalls. My husband, Caleb, had left to get some food so my mom called him to get back right away. He got there right before they took me away.”
Happily, the C-section culminated in the birth of a healthy son, Camden. However, Kelli continued to spiral rapidly downward with kidney and liver failure along with life-threatening septic shock, a severe whole body infection.
This led to an AirCare emergency helicopter flight to University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, where Kelli spent the next 87 days receiving care from teams of UI Women’s Health specialists. During this time she underwent three life-saving surgeries to address infection, pancreatitis, and a hole in her colon and spent 47 days in the Surgical Intensive Care Unit.
Mark Santillan, MD, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist with University of Iowa Women’s Health was a member of the team that worked to save Kelli’s life. In reviewing the circumstances that led her to death’s door, Santillan says her early symptoms were “classic signs” of severe preeclampsia.
“We tell our patients to look for upper abdominal pain, blurry vision, and headaches that don’t go away with simple things like Tylenol®,” Santillan says. “We always tell our patients to trust their symptoms and tell their OB (obstetrics) provider if they don’t feel right.”
Kelli adds, “For women who think they might be preeclamptic, I would say, ‘Put your foot down.’ If you think you are symptomatic, don’t let anyone tell you you’re not!”