A mother and a father recently visited their newborn in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at WellSpan York Hospital.
During their visit, the mother complained of a severe headache. Gracen Schilling, NICU nurse at the hospital who was caring for the newborn, alerted Crystal Ziegler, charge nurse who works in a supervisor role at the NICU, about the mother's complaint. While some may have dismissed it, both Schilling and Ziegler, who had recently completed an educational session on post-birth warning signs led by labor and delivery nurse Christa Winemiller, knew the severe headache could be a symptom of a more serious problem – postpartum preeclampsia.
Preeclampsia is a serious disease related to high blood pressure. Many people believe preeclampsia can only happens during pregnancy but in reality, it can happen to any woman, both during pregnancy and up to six weeks after the baby is born.
The risks of postpartum preeclampsia include stroke, seizures, organ damage and even death. So, early diagnosis can save a life.
Ziegler approached the parents and began to talk to the mother, asking her questions about her health. Other symptoms of preeclampsia include stomach pain, nausea, seeing spots, shortness of breath and swelling of the hands and feet.
Ziegler recommended the mother go immediately to labor and delivery at the hospital to be evaluated. Before a recent policy change, new mothers visiting their newborns in the NICU would have had to go to the emergency department to be evaluated. The mother was naturally hesitant. But, Ziegler and the father were able to convince her to get checked out.
Once in labor and delivery, the mother said she also was experiencing visual disturbances. After evaluation, the mother was admitted to WellSpan York Hospital and treated for increased blood pressure.
"Others might have said the mother was just tired, but Crystal knew it was more than that," says Adriane Burgess, program director for WellSpan Women and Children's services. "Moms often neglect self-care because they are so busy caring for their newborns."
Burgess says Ziegler's quick action in convincing the mother to be evaluated in labor and delivery was critical.
"If the mother had gone home with those symptoms, there's no telling what might have happened. She was very sick," emphasizes Burgess.
Burgess says the risk of severe maternal morbidity and mortality continues for the first postpartum year. It is very important for women and their support people to be aware of the risk and to notify their care providers of any changes, such as chest pain, trouble breathing, heavy bleeding, severe headache, extreme pain or depression.
Without the NICU staff education, the mother may not have received timely attention.
"The education we recently received was huge," says Ziegler. "In the NICU the babies are our top priority. However, the overall well-being of the family is a crucial role as well. We are always stressing to mothers the importance of caring for themselves so they are able to effectively care for their babies. The education Gracen and I received was key in this situation. It aided in a positive outcome for this family."
According to the CDC Foundation, 59 percent of maternal deaths are preventable.
"It is our hope that by reducing barriers to maternity care and standardizing processes, we can improve outcomes among mothers who deliver in WellSpan hospitals," says Burgess.
Burgess says one of the lessons from the recent incident is that nurses' voices matter. "Their voices are making a difference," she stresses.
For more information on WellSpan Health and Maternity Services, visit www.WellSpan.org/Maternity.