The moms are in the kitchen sharing childbirth stories.
Water breaking and blood pressure rising and urine tests and blood pokes and operating rooms and beautiful babies.
Brandee Weber’s little girl, Reagan, turned 4 in December. Cris Petersen’s son, Max, will be 4 in June.
And Jeni Faustman’s blond-headed boy, Robbie, will have his fourth birthday in the heat of summer, July 10.
His mom isn’t here to talk about that day, about her own water breaking in the bathroom, her spiking blood pressure, about the worry before the C-section and how bad her head hurt after her son was born.
So her twin sister, Steph Reikofski, and her mom, Deb McGowen, tell the story instead. Of 31-year-old Jeni and her huge heart, who died three days after Robbie’s birth from a deadly form of pre-eclampsia called HELLP syndrome.
Next Saturday afternoon, the women in this kitchen and their husbands and children — and Nikki Bates-Rush, who is Zooming from home with two sick little ones — will circle Holmes Lake, part of Lincoln’s first Promise Walk to bring attention to pre-eclampsia.
“Our mission is definitely to raise awareness,” Reikofski says. “I went from not knowing anything to being a kind-of self-proclaimed expert.”
Even after her identical twin became pregnant, the sisters never talked about the pregnancy-induced disorder, she says.
Jeni didn’t have the typical signs — high blood pressure or headaches or blurred vision or even much swelling.
It wasn’t until she was in labor and after Robbie was delivered that everything went wrong. Her blood pressure rose dangerously high and a series of seizures triggered a stroke that left her on life support. Robbie was baptized in her hospital room, and her organs were donated.
On sleepless nights after losing Jeni, Reikofski searched the internet looking for answers.
“I needed to know if there was anything else I could have done. If there was something I had missed.”
If what happened to her sister could happen to her.
And almost from the start, she and her mom talked about forming a chapter of the Preeclampsia Foundation.
But the grief was fresh and Robbie was small and he and his dad, Mike, needed all the help they could get from the women who loved Jeni, too.
Then she married Derik Reikofski — little Robbie standing up in his mom’s place as her little man of honor.
Last summer, it finally felt like time. The Promise Walk was the foundation’s signature event, scheduled in cities across the country, usually in May.
Steph and Deb enlisted the help of their friends, these women who had mourned Jeni, too, and had been pregnant when she was.
Two of the three had developed pre-eclampsia — believed to affect up to 8 percent of all pregnancies.
Weber’s daughter was delivered five weeks early, after Weber's blood pressure rose and her urine turned orange and a blood test showed her platelets far below normal. Her ob/gyn diagnosed HELLP — and earlier this month, she donated $250 to the cause and is joining Weber's team, Walk for Reagan.
Petersen is leading Team Max. The 45-year-old had gestational diabetes during her pregnancy in 2014. She developed high blood pressure, clots in her legs and ended up needing an emergency C-section — and was diagnosed with pre-eclampsia.
“I felt guilty for being alive,” she says.
The moms have shared their stories on the Lincoln Promise Walk’s Facebook page — and are sharing their medical histories on the Preeclampsia Foundation website, part of a registry of women affected by the disorder that is used as a research tool.
They’ve learned the latest recommendations from — and for — medical professionals, risk factors, warning signs.
Reikofski and her husband have the results of genetic testing and are proceeding cautiously toward starting their own family.
She’s the voice of a 30-second public-service announcement running on Channels 10/11 — a slideshow of family photos and a new mom with her baby boy on his first day.
Bates-Rush produced the PSA and has gone from grief to anger in the years since Jeni died.
“I can’t believe that in 2018, in a developed country, that your friend is going to die from having a baby? That’s ridiculous.”
Last weekend, the women gathered at Holmes Lake for photos. Although they've formed separate teams for fundraising purposes, they all consider themselves part of a larger team: Because of Jeni.
“We are a team because of Jeni,” Reikofski said. “In my mind we are a family of friends; all of us have been affected.”
Nearly 100 walkers have signed up for the Lincoln Promise Walk, with pledges nearing $7,000.
And participants are welcome to show up at Holmes Lake next Saturday and register on the spot, Reikofski says.
In the meantime, they're passing out flyers and posting on Facebook. They want moms-to-be and their families to arm themselves with knowledge and advocate for themselves.
To pay attention to their bodies and ask questions. Even if the questions seem dumb. Even if they're afraid of looking dramatic.
“We don't want to scare people,” Jeni’s sister says. “We want to raise awareness.”
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