What Is Eclampsia? 'Downton Abbey' Pregnancy Disorder Goes Viral After Season Three Game Changer

A rare medical condition is now the talk of America thanks to its role in determining the fate of a character in “Downton Abbey.” In season three, eclampsia changed the cast of characters forever and the season will have to deal with the fallout from the resulting death.

Eclampsia is seizures in a pregnant woman. According to the United States Library of Medicine, eclampsia's cause is mysterious, though it may stem from blood vessel problems, a nervous system defect, poor diet or inheritance.

There are some symptoms that doctors can look for including headaches, high blood pressure or changes in vision. In the fifth episode of the third season of “Downton Abbey,” which aired on American televisions on Sunday, the Crawley’s family doctor, Dr. Clarkson, notices some alarming things about Sybil Crawley’s pregnancy. Although Clarkson has tended to Sybil, as well as Mary and Edith, since they were children, he is soon overruled by Sir Philip Tapsell, doctor to the royal family.  

Sir Philip had plenty of reason to question Clarkson’s fear of eclampsia. According to NLM, the risk for eclampsia increases for women over the age of 35 and it only occurs in one out of every 2,000 or 3,000 pregnancies. Because this episode of “Downton Abbey” is set during the 1920s, medical knowledge of eclampsia would have been scanty. The method of treatment, Caesarean section, also had plenty of risks and was only a few decades old as a medical procedure.

Eclampsia and preeclampsia, another pregnancy complication, are related. While Clarkson believed Sybil was suffering from toxemia, he was referring to preeclampsia, which is when a pregnant woman develops high blood pressure and protein in the urine. Clarkson indicated that he found albumin, or protein, in Sybil’s urine, a definite warning sign of preeclampsia.

Clarkson also notices that Sybil’s ankles were swollen, which is another sign of eclampsia. The NLM also notes that a first pregnancy is also a risk factor, which means that the doctor was right to diagnosis Sybil’s pregnancy complications as eclampsia.

The only treatment of eclampsia, and preeclampsia, is delivery of the baby. Unfortunately for Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham, Sir Philip and Robert Crawley’s, the Earl of Grantham, belief that it was not eclampsia led to the home delivery of Sybil’s baby instead of a trip to the hospital.

At first, Sybil and her baby, a daughter, appeared to be fine until seizures took over Sybil’s body. For “Downton Abbey,” it led to the biggest shakeup of its cast of characters. Fans soon took to Twitter and Facebook to express their grief over the loss of one of “Downton Abbey’s” favorite characters. As Sybil’s death from eclampsia and “Downton Abbey” went viral, so too did the rare medical condition that cost the youngest Crawley her life.

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