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  • Writer's pictureAlan Peaceman

Even a World-Class Athlete Can Die During Pregnancy


Tori Bowie was a world-class track and field athlete, having won 3 Olympic medals in the 2016 Olympics, including the gold medal in the 100 meters. But on May 2nd of this year, Ms. Bowie was found dead in her Florida home at age 32. Despite being in excellent physical condition, the recently released autopsy report stated that she died of complications from childbirth, possibly eclampsia. Little other information is available regarding the events surrounding her death. Eclampsia is a condition unique to pregnancy in which a woman develops severe hypertension (high blood pressure), seizures and sometimes coma. This condition is a medical emergency that requires intensive medical care to save the life of the mother and the baby.


Preeclampsia is a condition where a woman experiences an elevation of her blood pressure in the last trimester of pregnancy, often accompanied by passing large amounts of protein in the urine. It is not uncommon, being found in 5-10% of pregnancies, and is often asymptomatic and identified in routine office visits. When it is mild, the pregnancy can often be carried to term. But in some women, the preeclampsia progresses to a more severe form which can be dangerous for both the mother and fetus. There is no cure for preeclampsia other than delivery, and this may be necessary even if the pregnancy is far from the due date.


Preeclampsia can also come on quickly and progress in severity in a few hours, as it may have in the case of Ms. Bowie. Without medical care, patients in this situation can lose consciousness if seizures develop. This can lead to further severe complications, including bleeding in the brain, liver rupture, kidney failure, breathing difficulties, and even death. The key to survival is early recognition of the situation, prompt medical attention to stabilize the patient, and delivery of the baby.


Sadly, tragic events such as this do occur from time to time. More light has been shed in the media in the last few years regarding the much higher risk of maternal mortality in African American women, and much of this increase in mortality has been due to complications of hypertension. This racial disparity likely arises from many factors, including genetics, lifestyle, and access to care, all of which are difficult to address for an entire population. Many states have expanded access to Medicaid, and this may help. A valuable first step is awareness by both pregnant women and their healthcare providers. Women should be educated to recognize unusual or troublesome symptoms they may experience and then report them to their providers. In turn, providers must respond appropriately to these concerns. Hopefully, Ms. Bowie’s sudden and unfortunate passing will help bring the type of awareness that will lead to earlier recognition and treatment of serious complications before they become life-threatening.


We may never know the full story as to why Tori Bowie died from her complications. What is clear is that despite her excellent physical condition and notoriety, she was still vulnerable to dying during pregnancy. We need to continue to fight for all women to have a healthy pregnancy without endangering their lives or the lives of their unborn children.

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