A mother's mission to save lives by raising preeclampsia awareness

May 25, 2023

For many, pregnancy can be a very special and personal milestone. It’s also a dynamic time: both mother and baby change and evolve daily. Anything involving rapid change also comes with the potential for complication. When it comes to pregnancy, one of the most dangerous complications is preeclampsia.

Preeclampsia symptoms usually involve a mother’s blood pressure spiking to dangerous levels. This can lead to other complications—including seizure, stroke, multiple organ failure and death of the mother or baby. These complications can occur as early as 20 weeks—and in some rare cases—even earlier. However, when caught early, your healthcare provider team can help navigate preeclampsia and improve pregnancy outcomes.

Theresa Dunn was diagnosed with preeclampsia near the end of her first pregnancy and then again during her second pregnancy. She knows firsthand how vital it is to understand the symptoms and advocate for yourself during pregnancy. This is why she’s passionate about sharing her preeclampsia experience to empower, advocate and educate.


Signs of preeclampsia: What to watch for

“Towards the end of my first pregnancy, I started seeing stars and black spots but couldn’t tell if it was stress or something else,” Theresa says.

On the day of her 38-week check-up, her systolic blood pressure was over 140 mm Hg—a dangerous level, putting her at risk for serious health problems. She was diagnosed with preeclampsia and needed to be induced immediately. She then gave birth to her first child, a healthy son named Mason.

When it started happening again 15 weeks into her second pregnancy, Theresa quickly learned two things:

  1. If you’ve had preeclampsia before, you may be likely to get it again
  2. Preeclampsia has a real awareness problem


What are the chances of having preeclampsia again?

Theresa believes it’s important that more people know the chances of having preeclampsia multiple times, which according to research is around 20%.

“When I became pregnant with my second child, I started noting similar symptoms around 14 to 16 weeks or so,” she says. She was retaining a lot of water and gaining pregnancy weight at a much faster rate. But unfortunately, it was not taken as seriously, even though she had preeclampsia before.

“They [the medical practice] didn’t have a ton of one-on-one engagement time—I wish they had provided more education about preeclampsia, especially the chances to get it again. There was no discussion about any of that,” she explains.

Preeclampsia experts cite a number of factors that can change the likelihood of getting preeclampsia again to anywhere between 5% and 80%. Some significant factors include:

  • Timing of your first preeclampsia diagnosis
  • When you had it during your first pregnancy
  • How severe it was the first time
  • Race and/or ethnicity
  • Family history and other factors

While Theresa wants all expectant mothers to hear her story—she’s especially looking to reach Black mothers. In the U.S., it’s three times more likely for a Black mother to die from a pregnancy complication like preeclampsia. Theresa did not receive this level of information and wishes she had.

“As a Black mother, especially, there’s still a stigma when it comes to taking care of us,” she says. “I was a woman in Princeton, New Jersey, with great health insurance—but the risk factors for Black mothers were never explained to me.”

Advocating for your loved ones

For Theresa, her own mother helped empower her to advocate for herself about preeclampsia.

Theresa’s mother did not suffer from preeclampsia while she was pregnant with her children, and so she insisted something serious might be happening with Theresa’s unusual symptoms.

That’s when Theresa started bringing her mother and other family members to her appointments. “Advocacy is easier in numbers,” she says. “It helps generate a quicker outcome like it did for me during my second pregnancy.”

When pregnant with her second son Micah, Theresa and her family made sure to speak up sooner. By 28 weeks, she was already considered “high risk,” clocking systolic blood pressure levels at 150 mm Hg and above. Her doctors let her get as far into the pregnancy as possible, but by week 32 it was time to induce.

Micah was born after three days’ labor, arriving just in time to share a birthday with both his mother and grandmother. And despite a difficult two weeks in the NICU, Micah’s early arrival began a wonderful tradition of celebrating son, mother and grandmother on the same day.

The importance of preeclampsia awareness: How you can learn more

Today, Theresa focuses her advocacy on education about the medical and emotional impact of preeclampsia.

“It’s not just an awareness issue,” she says. “It’s an education issue. There should be more information about this out there.”

She wants her story to empower others to advocate for themselves during pregnancy and to seek information on their risks.

Whether you’re learning to take charge of your own health or striving to close gaps in care as a healthcare provider, we should look to advocates like Theresa. One shared story can make a huge impact, and we can all help these stories be heard. By sharing these stories, you could help save someone’s life.

Learn more about preeclampsia and other pregnancy information by visiting the following: