As 39 weeks pregnant I was diagnosed with HELLP syndrome, a rare form of preeclampsia. I am lucky that my baby and I survived. But here are the steps I took to feel confident about getting pregnant again.

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Jackie Terribile and her kids.
Credit: Alice G. Patterson

At 39 weeks pregnant, I lay exhausted on the cold bathroom floor vomiting from severe stomach pain and wondered to myself, "Is this normal?" I had never been pregnant before and when I complained of abdominal pain to my doctor a week before, she told me it was probably just Braxton Hicks. Who was I to question her on it? After three hours of suffering, my husband convinced me that I needed to call my doctor.

It turns out I had developed HELLP syndrome, a severe and rare form of preeclampsia with a mortality rate as high as 30 percent. HELLP stands for hemolysis, which is the breaking down of red blood cells, elevated liver enzymes, and low platelet count. It's so rare that my OB-GYN missed it for weeks. My stomach pain was caused by the enlargement of my liver. Luckily when I arrived at the hospital, my nurse had seen the condition before with another patient and the doctor on call was able to diagnose it and start treatment: the immediate delivery of the baby.

The next few hours were a blur. I went in and out of consciousness from the pain and the drugs they gave me to reduce my blood pressure. Because of my condition, an epidural was ruled out by my doctor. A cesarean section remained a last resort. The doctors prepared for the possibility of a blood transfusion.

My skilled new doctor and his team were able to induce labor with very few complications. Once my son was born, my symptoms began to subside. Everything seemed to be improving until the next morning when my son started vomiting and was rushed to the NICU. They had to put a small tube in his throat and an IV in his tiny arm. After five long days, I was able to go home but my son had to remain in the NICU for eight days.

With a traumatic birth, a NICU stay for my son, and three months of recovery time for myself, I didn't think I'd want another baby. I had accepted that he would be an only child and I focused all my attention on him. After a couple of years, I began to wonder if we could have another. My heart told me that someone was missing from our family. My husband did not want to take the risk but went along with me as I got a second opinion from a specialist, did all the research, and weighed the pros and cons. Here are the reasons I felt comfortable enough to have a second child.

I Picked the Right Medical Team

In hindsight, there were many signs that something wasn't right in my first pregnancy. I had never been pregnant before so that made it more difficult to trust that something was off. What's worse, many conditions can look like HELLP syndrome, a reason why my doctor missed the diagnosis. Even though my gut told me something was off, I didn't want to be pushy.

The most important piece of advice I now give to others is to always follow your parental instincts. You must advocate for yourself. If I was going to have another baby, I needed to do just that for myself and my family. I trusted the doctor who delivered my son—in my eyes he had saved our lives. He assured me I'd be monitored closely throughout another pregnancy. We went for a second opinion anyway, seeking the expertise of a specialist in the field. I put myself in good hands.

I Took Precautions

I knew I was going to be at risk to develop HELLP syndrome again since I had it during my first pregnancy. There is no way to prevent developing preeclampsia, but you can take precautions. I ate healthy foods and worked out every day. I closely monitored my blood pressure and tried to avoid stress (although that wasn't always possible when I was chasing my toddler around). Some doctors prescribe a daily low dose of aspirin to prevent preeclampsia. My doctor scheduled more frequent checkups and ultrasounds to check on the baby. I paid attention to how I was feeling and spoke up when I felt something wasn't right.

I Followed My Heart

I prepared as much as I could by finding experienced doctors I was comfortable with and making healthy choices. Since there was no guarantee that I would have a healthy pregnancy, I had to look inward. Was I willing to risk it all because I had a feeling someone was missing from our family? My heart said yes! I convinced my husband to take a leap of faith with me. Luckily, I had a near-perfect second pregnancy and a healthy baby boy.

The Bottom Line

Developing HELLP syndrome and coming so close to losing my baby and my own life too was the scariest thing I have ever been through. Having another baby knowing I might have to go through that again was terrifying, but I carefully considered my options, surrounded myself with a great team, and trusted my heart. That made all the difference.