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Fighting a silent killer: Madison doctors search for answers to deadly pregnancy disorders

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MADISON (WKOW) -- 800 women around the world die every day from pregnancy or childbirth related complications, according to Madison doctors.

Many of those deaths are caused by hypertensive disorders, conditions that are common in women here in Wisconsin.

Now, doctors at UW Health and Meriter are fighting to find a cure for the silent killer.

It nearly took Ann Reinhart's life.

"I was 29 weeks pregnant to the day and working as a labor and delivery nurse," she says. "I got very sick very fast. My blood pressure just kept skyrocketing. I just, I can't even describe the amount of pain. It was the worst I'd ever, ever felt."

Her blood pressure was off the charts, a condition during pregnancy known as preeclampsia.

"The only cure for that was gonna be delivery of my daughter."

So, that's what doctors did.

"She was born August 3 and she weighed 2 pounds, 4 ounces," Ann says. "A little fighter. She was in the NICU for about another two months. Had I not been a labor and delivery nurse, working where I was at, I probably would've died or my baby would've died."

What happened to Ann, could happen to anyone.

Doctors in Madison say 20% of pregnant women in Wisconsin suffer from hypertension and the consequences could be deadly.

"Once preeclampsia develops, there's not a way to stop it or treat it," says Dr. Kara Hoppe, a UW Maternal Fetal Medicine doctor at Meriter.

Women can still suffer severe symptoms from hypertension even after childbirth, weeks after going home.

That's why doctors at UW Health and Meriter and working on new research to treat those mothers and keep them from ending up back in the hospital.

Doctor Hoppe is leading the research.

"What we developed is an at-home blood pressure monitoring program that has a Telehealth component, nurses that remotely monitor the blood pressures and mom's symptoms as well as need for treatment," she says.

Each patient in the study is sent home with a tablet and blood pressure monitor, to update the clinic every day on their vitals.

"To identify ways that we can improve care for women and make it easier for them to access care and get the care that they need."

But answers are still hard to find.

Dr. Hoppe says, "Years and years of research, we know what preeclampsia is, but we just don't know how to prevent it. And we don't know how to treat it other than ultimately to deliver the baby, which can have catastrophic outcomes if the baby's really early."

500,000 babies and 76,000 mothers around the world die every year from hypertensive disorders, according to the Preeclampsia Foundation.

The symptoms are often easy to ignore.

Ann says, "I didn't pick up on the symptoms. In fact, the symptoms were very different for me than they are for other people."

The symptoms include headache, blurry vision and abdominal pain.

And if those symptoms aren't treated immediately, they could lead to other complications such as stroke or even death.

Ann and her baby were saved, but she will have lasting impacts.

"It is known that people with preeclampsia have probably a 3-5 fold increased risk of long term cardiovascular events," says Dr. Hoppe.

As for Ann's daughter, she's now a healthy teenager.

"I do see her as a little miracle, because she was so tiny when she was delivered. To grow up to be this young woman, is just amazing at this point," she says.

Here are some links to information on hypertensive disorders and resources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Preeclampsia Foundation

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