By Dr. Maria Simbra

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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Jessica Gage had a baby almost three years ago.

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But it happened sooner than she expected. She was only at week 28 out of 40. She went to the ER for some mild belly pain and a headache.

“As soon as I got there, they checked my blood pressure and said, don’t move. You’re not allowed to get up,” Jessica recalls.

She had a condition called preeclampsia.

“So, for two days, I was on bed-rest. They had monitors all over. I had oxygen. A fetal monitor for him,” she said.

It’s dangerous for the baby and the mother. The baby has to be delivered for the trouble to resolve.

“I remember the night before my emergency c-section the next morning, hearing his heartbeat over the fetal monitor, and just praying that we get to hear it the next day, too,” she said.

This problem occurs after the 21st week of pregnancy. It’s marked by extremely high blood pressure.

“In association with that, they tend to have protein in the urine, they can have some swelling in their legs,” explains Allegheny Health Network cardiologist Dr. Indu Poornima.

Because preeclampsia is now a known risk factor for heart disease later in life, Jessica is enrolled in a program to be closely monitored.

“What we’re realizing is that the risk that these women carry does not stop after pregnancy or after the delivery of the baby, and it can be a lifetime risk,” says Dr. Poornima.

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For moms who had preeclampsia, a cardiologist will join their obstetrician for the eight-week post-partum visit.

“These women are at higher risk of high blood pressure at a young age, and that can be difficult to control as well,” Dr. Poornima said.

No one knows what the preeclampsia triggers in the body to increase the risk.

“We’re also finding out that it is a risk factor for future heart attacks, strokes, as well as congestive heart failure,” Dr. Poornima adds.

Mary Anne Farrell had preeclampsia 34 years ago when the risk wasn’t known.

“It was like, you’re good now! You had the baby, your blood pressure is back to normal, go one with your life,” she said.

Then, two years ago, she had sudden symptoms of an odd sensation across her shoulders, back, and chest. She went to the ER.

“They started hooking me up, and they said, ‘Do you know you’re having a heart attack?’ And I’m like, ‘No, I don’t know I’m having a heart attack.’ I was stunned! All through the years of going to doctors, no one ever addressed it,” Mary Anne said.

Dr. Poornima led a study reviewing the records of about 300 women diagnosed with preeclampsia. They were followed with phone calls three to seven years after delivery. They were compared to women who did not have it.

“We found the incidence of high blood pressure was significantly high. Close to 60 percent of these women have a diagnosis of hypertension,” says Dr. Poornima.

The next question is whether more aggressive treatment prevents problems in the long run.

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“So, I’ve started that process of being followed throughout my life span,” Jessica says. “Now that I’m aware there could be problems in the future, I want to be proactive.”

Dr. Maria Simbra