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Preeclampsia and Downton Abbey

Spoiler alert: If you are one of the millions of American Downton Abbey fans and have yet to watch the most recent episode, this post will contain spoilers about a surprising twist.

Now in its third season, Downton Abbey scarcely requires introduction. The incredibly popular PBS show, an import from the UK's BBC, depicts life at an aristocratic British manor in the 1920s. One of the central and most popular characters died suddenly in the most recent episode, shortly after giving birth to a daughter.

While Downton Abbey is known for some far-fetched soap opera-style plot lines, this character's death was the result of an all-too-real condition that still affects new mothers today. Known as "toxemia" in the 1920s, eclampsia is still a dangerous and often fatal complication.

As Downton Abbey illustrated, eclampsia causes severe seizures and can result in comas, serious brain damage and even death. Eclampsia itself is very difficult to treat. However, this condition usually follows another well-known complication known as preeclampsia. The most common indicators of preeclampsia are high blood pressure and kidney failure, generally during the third trimester.

Preeclampsia affects between 5 and 8 percent of births in the United States. Because the signs and symptoms of preeclampsia should be well known to doctors, the condition is rarely fatal. If doctors miss these indications, however, eclampsia and serious consequences can occur. This outcome is unnecessary and preventable - a doctor's failure to spot preeclampsia can constitute medical malpractice.

Source: CNN, "Eclampsia: 5 things you need to know," Ashley Hayes, Jan. 28, 2013

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