When Nichelle Obar learned she was pregnant with her second child last year, she never expected that her pregnancy, or her baby, would make history.
But when the 40-year-old food-and-beverage coordinator from Hawaii and her fiancé Christopher Constantino went to their 18-week ultrasound, they learned something was wrong. The heart was larger than it should have been, and there was evidence that fluid was starting to build up around the organ as well. Both were signs that the fetus was working extra hard to pump blood to its fast-growing body and that its heart was starting to fail.
Obar’s doctor knew what could be causing it. Obar and Constantino are both carriers of a genetic blood disorder called alpha thalassemia, which can lead to dangerously low levels of red blood cells. Red blood cells carry hemoglobin, which binds to oxygen and transports it from the lungs to feed other cells–so fewer red blood cells means low levels of oxygen in cells throughout the body. Neither parent is affected by the condition, but depending on how their genes combined, their children could be.