Share This Page

Was 'Downton Abbey' death preventable?

| Friday, Feb. 1, 2013, 9:05 p.m.

Most of the viewers of “Downton Abbey” who saw Lady Sybil die in childbirth Sunday night were left with a long list of questions accompanying their shock and grief.

What did she die of? Was the diagnosis clear? Could she have been saved? In a show with punctilious art direction, how realistic was this death?

Lady Sybil died of eclampsia, a condition of unknown cause that used to be called “toxemia of pregnancy.” (Dr. Clarkson, the family doc pushed aside in favor of silk-stocking-trade physician Sir Philip, used the term at one point.) It is most common in the late stage of first pregnancies. Sybil Branson, 24, was nearing the due date for her first child, so that part's right.

Eclampsia, strictly speaking, isn't present until the woman has a seizure. By that time, the patient, the doctors (and the baby, if not yet born) are in deep trouble. The job is to diagnose what's happening before then, when the condition is known as preeclampsia.

In Sybil's case, there were a lot of clues.

The hallmark of preeclampsia is elevated blood pressure. Taking the blood pressure with stethoscope and inflatable cuff was about the only test a doctor could perform on a woman delivering at home. Sybil's pressure appears to have been up.

Equally important, however, were the other signs and symptoms she showed. As the blood pressure rises, headache and nausea are common. As it gets worse, a woman often gets delirious; it can lead to seizures ­— eclampsia — stroke, coma and death.

Long before then, Sybil had “peripheral edema” - the fancy term for swelling of the legs.

Preeclampsia damages the cells lining veins and arteries; they leak fluid into the tissues. Because of gravity, the most common place to notice this is the ankles. Dr. Clarkson saw it early. Sir Philip dismissed the finding.

Preeclampsia also causes a protein called albumin to spill into the urine rather than stay in the blood. Dr. Clarkson suggests testing Sybil's urine, and he reports elevated protein.

The treatment of preeclampsia is delivery. If Lord Grantham had listened to the country doc and sent his daughter to the hospital for a Caesarean section, would she have lived? We'll never know.

David Brown is a staff writer for The Washington Post.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.