Earlier this year, the death of 32-year-old track-and-field star Tori Bowie put the issue of pre-eclampsia and eclampsia in pregnant women in the spotlight. The conditions, which are relatively rare, are becoming less so – particularly in Black women.
Eclampsia was listed as a contributing factor in Bowie’s death. Two of her former Olympic gold-medal-winning teammates, Allyson Felix and Tianna Bartoletta, developed pre-eclampsia during their pregnancies, but their outcomes were very different. All three women are Black.
Pre-eclampsia, which involves severe high pressure, is considered the primary risk factor for developing eclampsia, which can cause seizures and death. Those with high blood pressure are more likely to develop pre-eclampsia in the second half of pregnancy than other women. However, women who don’t have high blood pressure can also develop it. The Mayo Clinic warns, “Left untreated, preeclampsia can lead to serious — even fatal — complications for both the mother and baby.”
How testing can save lives
Fairly routine testing for pregnant women can help diagnose pre-eclampsia. In addition to high blood pressure, one sign is protein in the urine, which can be found in lab tests.
Just this summer, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a blood test that can identify women at immediate risk of developing pre-eclampsia. One professor of maternal fetal medicine says it’s “the first step forward in pre-eclampsia diagnostics since 1900 when the condition was first defined.”
The test has been used in Europe for several years. It’s typically given to women in their last trimester who have been hospitalized for high blood pressure to decide whether it’s safe to release them. If they’re determined to be at high risk for developing pre-eclampsia within a couple of weeks, they may need to have the baby early.
This new test and other, more routine, tests, are especially important because the symptoms of pre-eclampsia (like headaches and swelling) can be easily brushed off as part of pregnancy. However, it can quickly escalate if not treated.
Too often, people go undiagnosed for treatable conditions because their doctors don’t think they “fit a profile” or don’t display what a doctor considers “typical” symptoms. This is why it’s important to advocate for yourself and your loved ones. However, it’s also physicians’ responsibility to provide sound medical guidance.
Failure to diagnose isn’t always medical malpractice. It depends on the situation. If you or a loved one suffered harm because a serious condition wasn’t correctly diagnosed, it may be worthwhile to determine what your legal options are.