A blond woman in a white coat and blue stethoscope around her neck trains the soundpiece over the heart of a few-weeks-old baby with wide eyes and a black and white plaid shirt and little baby jeans on sitting upright on an examination table.

Doc Talk: Pregnancy at Altitude & What You Need to Know, an Interview with Dr. Javier Gutierrez, MD (OB/GYN)

A man with gray hair in blue hospital scrubs and a white surgical mask hanging tied from his neck smiles widely with bright teeth showing
Dr. Javier Gutierrez

Dr. Gutierrez is originally from Mexico City and attended medical school at Universidad La Salle Medical School. He completed his residency at the University of Miami School of Medicine, Jackson Memorial Hospital and has been Board Certified by the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology since 1986. He worked in Mexico City with his father who is also an OBGYN before moving to Summit County in 1998. He says that he dealt with pregnancy at altitude even in Mexico City as a young doctor but now has become even more experienced while practicing at St. Anthony Summit Hospital in Summit County, Colorado. In his career he has delivered more than 7,000 babies.

Gutierrez estimates that about 3% of his patients are visitors to Summit County. Most of these patients are not at full term in their pregnancy and present in the ER with signs of premature labor due to dehydration. Usually, these patients are stabilized and sent to Denver for definitive treatment given St. Anthony Summit Hospital only has a Level 1 nursery (basic newborn care).

The most common conditions that he sees occurring in pregnant women at altitude are pregnancy-induced hypertension (PIH), intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR), and small for gestational age (SGA). Because of this, he says that the main difference of observing pregnancy at altitude is more frequent ultrasounds to monitor the growth of the baby. Luckily, most pregnant women at altitude are very fit and healthy because of the active lifestyle that Summit County encourages. However, some women also have a difficult time restricting their activity level enough to maintain proper growth of the baby. The recommended maximum heart rate during pregnancy is 80% of your maximum heart rate, which can be hard to not exceed in an active pregnant female living at altitude.

Nevertheless, the risk of high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), high altitude cerebral edema (HACE), and sleep problems are about the same as in pregnant women not living at altitude. In general, pregnant women past 24 weeks have difficulty sleeping no matter where they live. In addition, if you know you are at high risk for developing HAPE or have a history of HAPE you are just as likely to develop HAPE during your pregnancy as you are not pregnant.

Sleeping with oxygen is recommended and has many benefits for all individuals living at altitude, pregnant women included. However, it likely wouldn’t decrease the number of SGA babies because of the activity level of most individuals as mentioned earlier. A woman’s body increases blood volume, red blood cell count, respiratory rate, and vasodilates blood vessels to accommodate for the growing fetus. This in turn allows the body to compensate well and usually maintain normal oxygen saturation levels at altitude.  But Dr. Gutierrez feels eventually it will be recommended for everyone to sleep with oxygen, most people just don’t want to.

Especially with dehydration, he has seen very high red blood cell concentrations. However, these individuals usually only need rehydration and do not suffer any complications. He has not seen a drastic increase in the number of blood clots in pregnant females at altitude even though they are likely at higher risk. But if a pregnant female who is dehydrated and recently traveled to altitude presents with shortness of breath, he definitely puts HAPE and pulmonary embolism (PE) higher on his list of possible diagnoses than he would not at sea level.

An important and simple recommendation is increasing their fluid intake. At altitude you have more insensible water loss and are likely more physically active, which in turn can lead to faster dehydration causing premature labor. Luckily this complication is easily managed with adequate fluid intake. In addition, if you know you are at high risk for developing HAPE it is recommended that you do not travel to altitude, especially later in your pregnancy.

The baby lives in a hypoxic environment in the womb anyway so there are no known advantages to living at altitude while being pregnant, other than the active and healthy lifestyle Summit County promotes.

One of the most challenging cases Dr. Gutierrez has treated was severe maternal respiratory distress during early third trimester due to HAPE. The most definitive treatment was to transport her to a lower altitude, however, they had to stabilize the mother enough to be able to transfer her and her baby. In addition, Summit County does not have a high level nursery to take care of a very premature baby even if they were able to deliver the baby safely to take stress off the mother’s body. He said it was a delicate balance trying to determine what was best and safest for both the mother and the baby.

Bailie Holst is a second-year Physician Assistant student at Red Rocks Community College in Arvada, CO. Bailie was born in Longmont, Colorado and spent her life in Northern Colorado until moving to Minneapolis, Minnesota for her undergraduate studies at the University of Minnesota. She also spent her life traveling throughout the country competing in gymnastics competitions and eventually earning a full-ride athletic scholarship for gymnastics to the University of Minnesota. She finished her gymnastics career and graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Physiology in 2017. Prior to PA school she worked as a medical assistant in a sports medicine and rehabilitation office in Colorado for two years. In her free time, Bailie now enjoys golfing, traveling, spending time with family, and playing with her brand-new puppy.

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