It was supposed to be the happiest day of her life. Instead, it turned into a near-death ordeal.
At a routine checkup during her 40th week of pregnancy, Kylie Mohr’s doctor told her that her blood pressure seemed high. Two days later, she nearly bled out on the operating table during an emergency Caesarean section.
Her son, Lincoln, survived, but 10 months later Mohr still hasn’t recovered from the complications of his birth.
The 29-year-old went into congestive heart failure twice after Lincoln was born, and then her kidneys failed. Her blood pressure is still high, she no longer produces her own blood and she relies on a cocktail of shots, medications, restricted diet and dialysis to keep her body running.
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“It’s just exhausting,” said Mohr, who along with her husband, Joe, is a member of the Georgia Air National Guard at Robins Air Force Base. “I wear down really, really quickly. And it’s scary.”
In Georgia, births like Mohr's can be especially dire.
The state has the worst maternal mortality rate in the nation. For every 100,000 live births, 46 mothers die, according to a 2018 report by America’s Health Rankings, a nonprofit organization that analyzes national health data. In California, which has the lowest rate, there are less than five deaths per 100,000 live births.
Preeclampsia, a hypertensive disorder that can arise toward the end of pregnancy or in the first weeks after childbirth, is one of the most common causes of death during childbirth in Georgia, said Dr. Padmashree “Champa” Woodham, director for maternal-fetal medicine and the Regional Perinatal Center at Navicent Health.
On Sept. 1, at Mohr's 40-week appointment with her obstetrician at Houston Medical Center, she learned she had high blood pressure and protein in her urine — symptoms of preeclampsia.
The condition affects 5 to 8 percent of pregnancies, and once it strikes, the stakes elevate quickly, according to the Preeclampsia Foundation.
Risks to expectant mothers with preeclampsia include seizures, stroke, organ damage and death, said Debbie Helton, director of marketing and communications for the Preeclampsia Foundation. Babies of mothers with preeclampsia are prone to premature birth or death, in the most serious cases.
The Preeclampsia Foundation reports that preeclampsia and other hypertensive conditions account for 76,000 maternal deaths and 500,000 infant deaths worldwide every year.
Mohr suffered from a particularly severe strain of preeclampsia called HELLP Syndrome. The condition leads to the breakdown of blood vessels, liver malfunction and low levels of blood platelets, which can result in hemorrhaging and organ damage during labor, Woodham said. Doctors diagnosed Mohr with HELLP when she was transferred to the intensive care unit at Navicent after her emergency C-section.
Before that, Mohr had never even heard of the condition, let alone known to look for its symptoms. When her ankles and feet started swelling, she thought it was normal. Now, Mohr wishes she had read up more and asked her doctors better questions. She wishes she had advocated for herself.
“I should have fought,” she said.
A mother's gift
Because of her kidney failure, Mohr spends each night lined with tubes, hooked up to a dialysis machine that filters the toxins from her blood.
But in a few weeks, she hopes to have a functioning kidney again.
On June 22, Mohr learned that her mother, Kelli Caudill, is a match and can donate one of her kidneys to her daughter. She is scheduled to undergo a kidney transplant surgery at Emory University Hospital on July 31.
“She says it’s her duty as my mom. As a new mom, I understand. I would do it in a heartbeat,” Mohr said.
Still, Mohr worries about the surgery. She’s afraid that something will go wrong and either she or her mom won’t make it. And even if the surgeries go as planned, Mohr fears her body might not accept the kidney, and her mother’s sacrifice will be for nothing.
Caudill said since learning she’s a match, she’s been waking up in the middle of the night with panic attacks, agonizing over the same fears as her daughter.
“If it doesn’t work, where do we go from there?” Caudill said. “I don’t know. That’s a huge, huge weight.”
But Caudill has never questioned her choice to donate her kidney. For her, it’s “a mom’s job.”
Next February, Caudill and Mohr's sister, Tawney Craig, will hike Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, along with her aunt, cousin and a friend who also survived preeclampsia, to raise money for the Preeclampsia Foundation.
“The climb is two-fold,” Caudill said. “It’s personal. It helps us channel our grief and helplessness. It gives us focus — something we can actually be doing — because there’s nothing we can do to change Kylie’s circumstances.”
But Caudill said it’s also a way to send a message to doctors and expectant mothers.
“It’s about awareness,” she said.
On Sept. 3, Lincoln will celebrate his first birthday.
By then, Mohr will have a new kidney, her husband will be back from deployment in Japan and a full year will have passed since the day she nearly lost her life.
But the future is uncertain. Mohr wants to have more kids, but she and her husband fear it’s not safe for her to get pregnant again. Once a mother suffers from HELLP Syndrome, she’s more likely to have it again.
Mohr hopes to see a fetal medicine specialist after her transplant to discuss her options, and she and husband Joe have also considered adoption.
For now, Mohr is focused on regaining some semblance of normalcy.
“I just want to be healthy,” she said. “I want to get off dialysis. I want to do some good.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/samantha.max.9 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.