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  • Grace Chavez, 40, is mom to Sam, 4 ½ and her newborn, Hope. While Hope is her second child, she was Grace’s third pregnancy with her first, resulting in a blighted ovum. She is married to Wilson, 35, a seafarer.
    PHOTO BY courtesy of Grace Chavez

    Not too many women have heard of HELLP syndrome. I didn’t know about it until I was diagnosed with it when I got pregnant with my second child, Hope.

    HELLP stands for

    • Hemolysis or the breakdown of red blood cells
    • Elevated Liver Enzymes, which indicate liver damage
    • Low Platelet count, which prevents blood clot

    Think of HELLP syndrome as preeclampsia, one of its risk factors, with severe features. It often happens in the last trimester of pregnancy.

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    Symptoms of HELLP syndrome

    On July 2, 2020, I was scheduled for a regular checkup with my OB. Before I left the house, I had a sudden urge to check my blood pressure (BP), and it read 150/100. It was high, but I dismissed the reading and assumed something wrong with my BP device.

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    As it turned out, my BP’s device was not wrong. At my doctor’s clinic, my BP was abnormally high — it was 160/110 that jumped to 180/110 in a matter of minutes.

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    An ultrasound showed my baby was too small and had only the weight of a baby on its 29th week — I was only 31 weeks pregnant. My OB told us to stay put at the clinic and recommended a hospital for my confinement.

    As these events were happening, I felt fine. Then the symptoms came suddenly: dizziness, difficulty breathing, and a strange feeling similar to hyperacidity under my ribcage. My OB probably suspected it was HELLP but decided not to tell me yet at the time.

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    Emergency Cesarean section

    Two days later, on July 4, I was still confined to the hospital. I was hoping to be sent home since I felt okay. I was not because my OB was requesting bags of blood for possible transfusion. She told me she needed to perform emergency CS because my platelet count was only 42 — the normal count was 140. My hemoglobin was very low, while my liver enzyme was high.

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    I couldn’t think clearly. Then symptoms suddenly showed a few hours before my operation:

    • nose bleeding
    • swollen face
    • pain in my stomach
    • a feeling like my baby was going to come out

    A few minutes before being wheeled to the operation room, my OB explained it was my pregnancy that was causing HELLP and its complications. In such instances, the baby had a 50-50 chance of survival because it would be born premature, and the mother’s life was the priority.

    I had second thoughts about pushing through with the CS. If my baby does not survive, I will feel like it’s all my fault. But if I didn’t push through, we will both be at risk. I felt like I was left with no choice.

    At 31 weeks, Grace gave birth to Hope, whose birth weight was only 1.18 kg or 2.6 lbs.
    PHOTO BY courtesy of Grace Chavez
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    Surviving HELLP syndrome 

    According to my doctors, HELLP symptoms typically go away days or a few weeks after giving birth. I had been improving, but I had to have blood extractions every day for four days.

    Three weeks after delivery, I still experienced episodes of high blood pressure. My OB said that it was highly likely that I would experience HELLP if I got pregnant again.

    Once out of the hospital, all my focus was on baby Hope. Thankfully, she only had the usual complications of premature babies like slight pneumonia and coffee ground discharge from her stomach, which were treated with antibiotics.

    Hope at NICU
    PHOTO BY courtesy of Grace Chavez
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    Hope had a common preemie eye disorder called Stage 1 Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP), which is mild and will resolve. I would visit the NICU every day to spend four to five hours with her at the hospital for skin-to-skin sessions. Hope recovered well and was discharged on the first week of August when she reached 1.48 kg or 3.26 lbs.

    Hope finally "graduates" from NICU after a month.
    PHOTO BY courtesy of Grace Chavez
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    The financial cost of having HELLP syndrome reached Php225,000, excluding the drugs and tests I would have to take every month. In her third week, my baby’s bill was Php300,000. I am lucky with family, and friends’ full support as my husband just got on board his ship for work.

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    Grace, shown here with NICU nurses, visited Hope every day for skin-to-skin sessions.
    PHOTO BY courtesy of Grace Chavez
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    Spreading awareness about HELLP syndrome

    After what I’ve gone through, I just hope more moms become aware of HELLP syndrome. Its cause is still unknown, so there’s no way of preventing it. The next best thing is to always check your blood pressure and have regular checkups with your doctor. Once any of the symptoms shows, contact your doctor at once because early detection is critical.

    Perhaps my highest realization from this whole experience is how a healthy pregnancy can still go wrong. I had thought my baby and I were doing great until HELLP happened.

    Thankfully, the worst is over. Now, I just look forward to the days I will spend at home with Hope, our miracle baby.

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