January 16, 2005, is a day that changed our lives forever.
On that day our daughter, Shelly Lynn Bridgewater, 25 years young, lost her fight to live to preeclampsia/HELLP syndrome. She passed away one week after giving birth to our first grandchild, Hailey Lynn. Although we love Hailey dearly, our experience of becoming Grandparents has been very bittersweet.
Shelly loved life. Her smile and spirit would light up any room.
Shelly graduated from Iowa State with a degree in elementary education and Spanish. While at Iowa State she worked at Lutheran Social Services, tutoring neglected and under-privileged kids. After graduating she moved to Iowa Falls where she was a fifth grade teacher. Shelly had a love and passion for kids.
Shelly married "the man of her dreams" Brad Bridgewater on September 4, 2004, the same date Shelly's grandparents had gotten married over 50 years ago. Brad is also a teacher. Along with teaching 2nd grade, Brad is also an assistant football and basketball coach at the high school in Iowa Falls. Now, because of preeclampsia/HELLP syndrome, he had also become a single parent.
Shelly was a healthy and very active person. During her pregnancy she did everything "by the book". She never missed a doctor appointment, took her prenatal vitamins religiously, and walked nearly every morning with her friend and fellow teacher, Nikki.
It was during a scheduled visit Shelly had with her doctor on Tuesday, January 4th that the roller-coaster chain of events would begin.
Shelly had developed swelling in her ankles, face, and fingers, a condition she had expressed frustration about while us visiting during Christmas. Her doctor assured her during an earlier visit that it was a common occurrence among pregnant women. But by January 4th the swelling had increased, and the protein in her urine was slightly elevated. Shelly's doctor put her on bed rest and told her to monitor her urine for 24 hours. For those of you that didn't know Shelly, bed rest did not fit her itinerary. But she knew it was for the best, so she took her doctor's advice.
Shelly returned to her doctor on Thursday, January 6th. It was determined then that Shelly had developed preeclampsia. The protein levels in her urine were highly elevated. She was 33 weeks into her pregnancy. The doctor decided the best alternative would be to deliver the baby. The hospital in Iowa Falls was not equipped to handle babies at this early stage of the pregnancy. Shelly was transported by ambulance to Iowa Methodist Hospital in Des Moines, a hospital noted for their care of premature babies. Before leaving
Iowa Falls Shelly was given a steroid shot to help develop the baby's lungs.
We arrived at the hospital Thursday evening and found Shelly, the multi-tasking person she was, sitting up in her bed, talking on her cell phone, and writing Thank You cards to give to her students who had given her Christmas gifts. To look at her you could never guess anything was wrong, other than the swelling.
Shelly would never get the opportunity to hand out those Thank You cards.
Friday afternoon Shelly was given a second steroid shot for the baby's lungs. The doctors had decided to induce Shelly on Saturday evening, predicting that she would deliver sometime Sunday afternoon. With that in mind, we decided to make the 2 ½ hour drive home, catch up on farm chores, get a good night's rest and return Sunday morning.
That is a decision I regret to this day.
During the night Shelly would become violently sick, with dry heaves and pain under her ribs. Our journey through hell was about to begin.
Sunday morning at 6:30 we got a call from Brad. Hailey was born at 6:09 a.m. She weighed 3 lbs., 7 oz. She was taken to NICU and given oxygen. Considering she was born 7 weeks early, she was doing very well. Shelly was put in ICU and given magnesium sulfate to prevent seizures from preeclampsia. Little did anyone know what was happening inside our daughter's body.
We arrived back at the hospital late Sunday morning and went into Shelly's room. Our younger daughter, Kim, was sitting next to Shelly's bed. The curtains were drawn to keep out the sunlight, and Shelly was lying on her side, sleeping. A nurse came in to check on Shelly, and after checking some of her vitals, she asked us to step out of the room momentarily. Moments later, more nurses were going onto Shelly's room. We were then asked to wait in the lounge, and they would be out to talk to us shortly. Brad was up in NICU with Hailey, who was already off oxygen and breathing on her own. They called for him to come to Shelly's room.
Brad came out to us after being in Shelly's room. The nurse had detected some abnormal bleeding. They would take Shelly to CCU (critical care unit) for x-rays and further testing.
The next couple of hours seemed like an eternity. Then, a doctor came to us with the results. The preeclampsia had progressed to HELLP syndrome, and blood was pooling on her liver. The doctor was concerned of possible liver damage and suggested she may need a liver transplant. They were giving her units of blood and platelets to aid in clotting. We went in the room and sat with her, as she was in and out of sleep. While we were in her room, the nurses from NICU brought Hailey in to see her mom. Brad put Hailey cheek to cheek with Shelly.
Monday morning, January 10th, Shelly was airlifted to University Hospitals in Iowa City, as the hospital in Des Moines was not equipped to perform liver transplants. Hailey was transferred to Iowa City by ambulance, so as to be in the same hospital as her mother.
Doctors struggled to control Shelly's vitals Monday and Tuesday. Her blood was not clotting, and they had put her on mild dialysis to help flush the toxins out of her body, as her kidneys had now been affected. Unless they could stabilize her and control her bleeding, she would not survive the surgery. Doctors told us her condition would worsen before it would improve, and they were hoping her body would start to recover on its own.
Shelly was in and out of sleep on Tuesday. At one point during the day, Shelly turned to her mother and said, "Mom, I don't feel good. Get my shoes, and take me home". Brenda, fighting back her tears, explained to Shelly we would take her home as soon as she got better. Shelly smiled, said "ok", and fell back asleep. You could detect that the toxins in her body were having an effect. Later that day, the nurses brought Hailey into Shelly's room. They put Hailey in bed next to her mother. Shelly looked at her daughter and was beaming. Hailey was looking at her mother with a little smile. From their eye contact you could sense Hailey knew who she was looking at.
It would be the last time they would see each other.
On Wednesday Shelly became less coherent. There was a time during the day that Shelly was awake when she looked at me, and whispered "turn it off, Dad. Turn the machine off. It's ok." Those were the last words my daughter would ever say to me. At that time I thought she was referring to the vibration from the blood pressure cuff. Looking back now, I think Shelly already knew and had accepted her fate.
Later on Wednesday, the doctors decided it best to put Shelly on a breathing tube to reduce the stress on her body. The doctors strapped her hands to the bed to prevent her from removing the tube. Shelly jerked her head side to side, showing her displeasure about the tube. The doctors then proceeded to sedate Shelly and put her in a paralytic state to further reduce the stress on her body. Later that day her vitals began to show signs of stabilizing. We began to gather new hope.
Thursday came and went. We sat there looking at our daughter with a feeling of helplessness.
By Friday afternoon, Shelly's condition had taken a turn for the worse. Doctors feared she was on the brink of total organ failure. They could wait no longer, and put her on the liver transplant list as a priority 1. The doctors told us there was a 50% chance of locating a liver within 24 hours, and a 75% chance one would be found within 36 hours. After that timeframe, it wouldn't matter.
Early Saturday morning doctors shaved half of Shelly's head and inserted a probe to monitor pressure on the brain. They told us this was standard procedure for a person undergoing transplant surgery. We were now looking at our daughter with a half head of hair, a probe sticking out of her head, and a tube down her throat. Her skin color was jaundice, an indication that her organs were on the brink of failure.
We sat around Saturday with several family members and a group of Shelly's friends from Iowa State, waiting for word that a liver had been located. Around 6p.m. a group of us decided to leave the hospital for something to eat. We got to a restaurant a short distance from the hospital when my cell phone rang. It was Brad, who had stayed at the hospital. They had located a liver. Brenda and I rushed back to the hospital. We were tearful, joyous. Our prayers had been answered, or so we thought.
When we got back to the hospital, the doctor who would perform the transplant sat down with us to discuss the procedure. Shelly would be prepped for surgery around 3am Sunday, allowing time for the liver to arrive. They would begin surgery around 6am, and it would last 4 to 6 hours. The doctor told us Shelly's chances of surviving surgery were only 20%, and normally he wouldn't perform surgery when the percentage was so low. But he said Shelly didn't ask for this illness, and she deserved a chance to live. He discussed other complications he may encounter and that other surgeries may be needed later. We had no choice but to proceed if we wanted our daughter to have a chance of living, and to be a mother to her daughter.
At 1am Sunday morning the team of doctors came to the waiting area. You could see the look of seriousness on their faces. They said they were concerned with the lack of brain activity from Shelly's tests. They were going to do a CAT scan to confirm their concerns.
It would be the longest wait of our lives.
We should have been told the results of the CAT scan within two hours. It was 5am when the doctors came to us with the results. We knew by the look on their faces it was news we didn't want to hear.
The CAT scan confirmed there was little or no brain activity. The toxins in Shelly's body had progressed to her brain, depleting it of oxygen. The transplant would now be futile.
It was a moment in time when we felt as is our own breath had been taken away, and our hearts had been torn from our bodies. A week of highs and lows had succumbed to this.
We stood around Shelly's bed and watched as the nurses slowly began shutting down the medication, the dialysis, and the breathing tube. One by one we kissed Shelly's forehead and said our goodbyes. At 5:55am, almost one week exact to giving birth to Hailey, Shelly's life was over.
January 19th, 2005, in the church where barely 4 months ago I was experiencing one of the happiest moments of my life, walking Shelly down the aisle on her wedding day. 4 months later I'm walking down that same aisle with Shelly, walking behind her casket. It was one of the worst days and moments of my life.
It's been 3 years since Shelly passed away. Our tears still flow, and our hearts still ache. Our wedding anniversary, Mother's day, Father's day, have less meaning. August 3rd is Shelly's birthday. It is a very difficult day. Labor Day weekend would have been Shelly's wedding anniversary. Instead of celebration, we visit her in the cemetery.
Hailey, despite being born 7 weeks premature, has grown to be an active 3-year old. She continues to be our greatest comfort, and therapy. Brad recently got re-married, and we were special guests at his wedding. We see many similarities between his new wife and Shelly,
Because of preeclampsia/HELLP syndrome, Shelly never experienced the joyous moments of motherhood.
Because of preeclampsia/HELLP syndrome, Hailey will know her mother only from the memories we share with her.
This illness has existed for centuries. Even though we live in a time of highly advanced medical technology, the medical profession still is searching as to why this illness happens to pregnant women, and how to treat it. Today, the only "cure" for preeclampsia is delivery of the infant. But, as we have witnessed, the results can still be catastrophic.
The day my wife and I left the hospital after Shelly's passing, we vowed to each other we would do everything we could to promote awareness about preeclampsia.
I urge everyone to continue showing your support towards the Preeclampsia Foundation. Hopefully, with continued support and research, the cause will be determined, and prevent another family from walking in our shoes.
John (and Brenda) Warner