Eight years ago, Shelly Warner Bridgewater died of preeclampsia, precisely one week after giving birth to a baby girl.

She was 25 years old.

In the intervening years, her parents, John and Brenda Warner of Walcott, have embraced activism to honor their eldest daughter, working to educate, spread awareness and promote medical research of the condition that affects expectant mothers and can affect the child.

Over just the next few weeks, for example, the Warners will be the driving force behind Preeclampsia Awareness Night on Saturday, April 27, in conjunction with the Quad-Cities River Bandits baseball game at Modern Woodmen Park in Davenport and then the ninth annual Promise Walk for Preeclampsia, scheduled May 11, also at Modern Woodmen Park.

Preeclampsia — formerly called toxemia — occurs during pregnancy. Important signs of it are high blood pressure and excessive protein in the urine, among numerous other possible symptoms. Treatment can involve delivering the baby, prematurely if necessary, especially if the pregnancy is at 37 weeks or later.

Complications can occur that put the mother's health and life in jeopardy. In Shelly's case, she developed what is called HELLP syndrome, named by a doctor in 1982 for: Hemolysis, or the breakdown of red blood cells, EL, for elevated liver enzymes, and LP, for low (blood) platelet count.

Shelly died after her liver and other organs failed shortly after her daughter, Hailey Bridgewater, was born.

From West High to ISU  

Shelly and her sister Kim grew up on the family farm in Scott County.  Shelly was an active student, graduating in 1997 from Davenport West High School and in 2002 from Iowa State University.

In high school, Shelly was always on the go, Brenda Warner said, involved in tennis, band, the flag corps and as a cheerleader. Friendly and vivacious, she earned college degrees in elementary education and Spanish.

She was offered a job in Iowa Falls, where her first job was teaching Spanish at the high school level, but she also taught some beginning lessons to elementary students.

That's how she met second-grade teacher Brad Bridgewater, who  moved in the same circle of friends.

"She had a great personality and was the life of the party," he said.

Preeclampsia diagnosis 

Married to Brad in 2004, Shelly was expecting the couple's first child when she came home to Walcott at Christmas. She then began complaining to her parents about swollen hands and feet.

On her return to Iowa Falls, she went back to the doctor, who diagnosed the preeclampsia in early January. The baby was not due until Feb. 24. It was decided that if the baby was to be born prematurely, it could not happen in Iowa Falls because the hospital there did not have a neonatal unit. Shelly would have to be transferred to Iowa Methodist Medical Center in Des Moines for the special delivery.

She was admitted to Iowa Methodist early on a Thursday and gave birth to Hailey four days later.

"She was in a lot of pain during labor, but they thought it was normal," Brenda said.

After giving birth, Shelly was placed on her side in a dark room — standard procedure at the time. Nurses checked her vital signs and noticed her liver was bleeding. Shelly had developed HELLP syndrome.

Doctors suggested a liver transplant, but that meant a trip to University Hospitals in Iowa City. Shelly was taken by helicopter while Hailey followed in an ambulance.

"She didn't feel well," Brenda said, but her daughter remained coherent for a few days while doctors tried several methods to get her stabilized. She was finally placed in an induced coma with a breathing tube.

Toxins eventually took over her body, and although she was put at the top of the transplant list, that never came about. 

Shelly died Jan. 16, 2005.

Meanwhile, Hailey was in the neonatal intensive-care unit and thriving despite being born prematurely. She weighed 3 pounds, 7 ounces at birth and stayed in Iowa City for about a month before she was allowed to go home to Iowa Falls with her father. 

She got to meet her mother just once while Shelly was still coherent. A nurse brought the tiny baby to Shelly's side and a photo was taken.

The picture shows Shelly smiling at her little girl.

Brad takes over parenting

Brad Bridgewater still teaches second grade in Iowa Falls and is the assistant coach for the high school's football and basketball teams, the same jobs he held in 2005.

After his young wife died, Brad knew right away that he would raise Hailey.

With plenty of support from his family, Shelly's family and the Iowa Falls community, he took a month off from work when the baby came home.

A woman widely considered "a saint" in the Iowa Falls community offered to baby-sit Hailey during the day. Brad took over the child's care at night and his mother, Patty Bridgewater, came to town to care for Hailey on weekends, alternating with the Warners.

Fortunately, he'd had some previous experience with babies. When Brad grew up in Donnelson, Iowa, his mother owned a daycare at which he helped out sometimes.

"Having a child, well, that wasn't the first diaper I'd ever changed," he explained.

Hailey is now 8 years old and in the second grade. She has her father as a teacher once a week for science class.

Brad has remarried, to Michelle, who teaches kindergarten in Iowa Falls. The couple has a 3-year-old daughter and there is a baby on the way.

Brad believes that preeclampsia is a more widely recognized condition these days."You hear more and more about it" he said, adding that he thinks more attention is paid to the health of expectant mothers.

Activism decision

After the Warners lost Shelly in January 2005, the Quad-City area's first Promise Walk for Preeclampsia was held in Davenport on Mother's Day weekend.

That came about after preeclampsia activists saw a newspaper article on Shelly and the Warners were put in touch with officials at the Preeclampsia Foundation, now based in Melbourne, Fla.

John Warner remembers that learning about the foundation led to their discovery of the Promise Walk fundraisers. 

The first event attracted a good-sized crowd, and $3,000 was raised for the foundation. That first walk was emotionally tough, Brenda said. Brad participated with 5-month-old Hailey wearing a little bonnet for the occasion. 

There were 300 participants in the 2012 Promise Walk, and $25,000 was raised. All funds go to research, awareness and education."I do think we have raised awareness," John said. "If we can save one family from the experience we had, it will be worth it."

"The character that Shelly was, if I would have chosen to sit back and do nothing ... that would be a insult to her. Shelly has inspired me," John said.

The activism also helps in the grieving process, Brenda explained. "It gives more purpose to Shelly's life," she added. 

All of their efforts will be successful if there is early testing of expectant mothers for preeclampsia and a check-list for physicians to follow when the condition is diagnosed. A related issue is the large number of  babies born prematurely after their mothers develop preeclampsia. Premature infants have an increased chance of being born with lifelong disabilities.

"Something needs to change," Brenda said. "It just does."