In April 2003, mom-to-be Johanna Aiken left her 38-week prenatal appointment with a clean bill of health.
"I had a very simple pregnancy," she said. "My doctor called it a textbook pregnancy."
Four days later Aiken went into labor, but when she arrived at the hospital nurses noticed her high blood pressure and took two vials of blood.
A few hours later the lab results came back and showed that Aiken, who by then was vomiting and suffering from abdominal pains, tested positive for HELLP syndrome, a form of preeclampsia.
"I looked at my father, who is a medical physician, and he turned around and was crying in the corner," the Evanston resident said. "I knew that something was very seriously wrong."
Though its cause is unknown, preeclampsia is a complication affecting seven to 10 percent of pregnant women. It can range from very mild to a life-threatening condition for both mother and baby, said Barbara Parilla, director of maternal and fetal medicine at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge.
Symptoms include headaches, right upper quadrant pain, dramatic increase in weight, high blood pressure, body swelling and protein in the urine. The complication can rapidly become more serious, resulting in the need for a quick delivery.
"Even if you make an early diagnosis you can't prevent preeclampsia," Parilla said. "Early diagnosis is key to better outcomes."
Aiken, who spent three days in critical care after giving birth to her daughter, Macy, who's now 9-years-old, has since made a goal of raising awareness of preeclampsia so others will recognize its symptoms and seek help.
Aiken serves as coordinator for the Preeclampsia Foundation's Chicago Promise Walk, which takes place at 9 a.m. Sunday at Busse Woods, groves 5 through 16, in Elk Grove Village. It is one of 35 walks and 5K runs across the nation taking place in May as part of Preeclampsia Awareness Month.
"I feel passionate about helping educate other women about the signs and symptoms," said Aiken, who helped start the event a few years ago. "I realized that I could partner with a couple of people and we could really try to get more awareness."
The event will include recognition of women and children who have died from the complication. From 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. there will be a family fun fest, featuring kid-friendly entertainment, including a dance troupe and face painter.
Registration is $25 for adults and $10 for children under the age of 12. There is free parking and participants can register in advance online at chicagopromisewalk.org or in person starting at 8 a.m. on the day of the event.
Parilla advises women who have symptoms of preeclampsia -- some of which, like headaches, are common during any pregnancy -- to take Tylenol and measure their blood pressure. If their blood pressure doesn't go down and they don't feel better after some rest they should see a doctor immediately.
"I would encourage people to talk to their doctors," she said. "If for some reason they're not comfortable, that should be a red flag."
Hoffman Estates resident Jasmine Mago started noticing red flags -- primarily weight gain and swollen feet -- when she was about 28 weeks pregnant in 2010. Her doctor recommended she drink more water and decrease sodium in her diet.
"She definitely reassured me that I would be OK," Mago said. "She kept telling me it was manageable. As my doctor I trusted her."
At home Mago researched preeclampsia on her own and grew concerned over what she was reading. Two days later she woke up with more swelling and drove herself to an emergency room.
"I knew it was me who was not fine," she said. "There was never any issue about the baby."
Within a few hours Mago's symptoms worsened and she was airlifted to a hospital in Rockford.
"I thought I was going to die," she said.
Mago's son, Kabir, weighed only two pounds when he was born July l5, 2010. He was forced to stay at the hospital for six more weeks. The health issues he faced in the months that followed -- including anemia, weak lungs, a hernia and jaundice -- were a result of his early delivery. He is now a healthy 22-month-old.
Mago participated in the Chicago Promise Walk last year and said it helped her realize other women have had similar experiences. She encourages preeclampsia survivors to join the walk so they can share their story.
"When this happens to you, you feel like you're alone," she said. "When I went there (to the walk) and saw all these women and their children ... it really felt good."
Aiken noted that the effects of preeclampsia are life-changing.
"Women who are survivors ... double their risk of heart disease," she said. "This is not something you have and survive and are done with."
Both women said preeclampsia education before pregnancy or in its early stages is vital, and hope the walk will help spread the word about the complication to women who may not have been familiar with it beforehand.
"I think the education has to be done earlier (in the pregnancy) rather than later," Mago said. "Doctors are wonderful ... but they have a lot of patients and at the end of the day you have be your own advocate."