How Annie, Liana and Katie are turning their life-threatening childbirth experiences into advocacy and awareness for blood donation.
Most of us have never heard of amniotic fluid embolism (AFE). Neither had Annie, Katie and Liana, three women from the Minneapolis and St. Paul metro area. They met through the AFE Foundation because they all experienced an AFE during childbirth. Their stories are different, but they all credit blood with helping to save their lives. Together, they needed over 100 units of lifesaving blood products. To raise awareness about AFE, they are sharing their stories and hosting a blood drive to help ensure blood products are available for others who need lifesaving transfusions.
AFE is a rare and serious condition – occurring in about 1 in 40,000 births in the U.S. It’s sudden. It’s unexpected. It’s life-threatening. AFE causes birth complications that affect both mother and baby during labor or shortly after delivery. It’s thought to be the result of an allergic-like reaction to the amniotic fluid that enters the mother’s bloodstream. It can result in the mother going into respiratory failure, cardiac arrest, and DIC. Some women also experience strokes.
Meet these three strong, brave and remarkable women who are AFE survivors and who, not too long ago, were total strangers.
Meet Annie – On March 23, 2020, just 12 days after COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, Annie had an emergency cesarean section and went into cardiac arrest. A code blue was called, CPR and shocks were administered, but her heart continued to fail. She entered disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC), which causes blood to clot where it shouldn’t and then hemorrhage where clotting is necessary.
A massive blood transfusion was called for. Annie received about 25 units of blood products to replace the blood she lost.
“You just never think you’ll be the one in need. I had never donated blood before but made my first donation last September after I knew how important it was.”
Her son Henry was born without a pulse and quickly taken to the neonatal intensive care unit for treatment.
After over two weeks of unresponsiveness, Annie woke up and had paralysis on her right side and confusion about what had happened – she had no memory of going to the hospital to give birth and even thought she had miscarried.
An MRI revealed that Annie had suffered numerous strokes and bleeds. Following additional complications, set-backs and being isolated from her husband and family due to COVID-19 restrictions, the doctors said she would likely have long-term physical and cognitive disabilities and would require months of treatment in a rehab facility.
Annie met Henry for the first time in the rehab facility and six days later was able to go home. Henry doesn’t seem to have been impacted by the circumstances of his birth – his MRI was normal, and he is developing beautifully.
Although Annie has survived AFE physically unscathed and has returned to work recently, she says the “emotional wounds are deep and ones I’ll likely carry for the rest of my life. Something like this shouldn’t happen on the best day of your life.”
Meet Katie – In August 2017, at 41+ weeks pregnant, Katie went in for her scheduled induction – anxious to meet her baby daughter. Once her water broke, everything went dark. Katie went in and out of consciousness but remembers the chaos going on around her as they wheeled her into the operating room for an emergency cesarian section.
Three days later she woke up in the ICU and found out that she had an AFE followed by DIC, which required her to receive 50+ units of blood products.
“I’ve donated blood once or twice before – and I’m filled with tremendous gratitude on how many people had to donate for me and how much more need there is out there.”
Her newborn daughter had suffered complications too and was transferred to a local children’s hospital for treatment. A week later, Katie was finally able to meet and hold her precious girl. It was the most unbelievable moment — “one I’ll never forget,” she says. On day 10, her daughter was cleared to go home, and Katie was hospitalized for an additional 15 days.
Once home, the littlest tasks were difficult – going up and down stairs, taking a shower, or changing one diaper. After two weeks at home, Katie was back in the hospital with bi-lateral pulmonary embolisms and was in and out of the hospital for a couple months with various other complications.
Katie went on to have a subsequent pregnancy and complication free delivery with her second child in April 2020.
Meet Liana – In January 2019, right before her delivery, a very pregnant Liana recalls a feeling that something was wrong. Her husband tried to reassure her, saying that the humans have been having babies for millions of years and that all would be okay. She wrote off her feelings as the jitters for a first-time mother.
Liana was induced at 38 weeks and was excited to meet her baby. Her fear turned real when she experienced complications during delivery. Liana’s blood pressure plummeted followed by massive hemorrhaging, coding, seizing and a stroke. Doctors performed an emergency cesarean section and Liana required more than 10 units of blood products. Her daughter Lydia was born with no heart rate.
“Blood is the ultimate gift – it helped save my life!”
When Liana woke up in the ICU she could hardly move or speak. She tried, but nothing came out. She was told she had given birth and had a daughter named Lydia. “So many thoughts were racing through my mind. No matter how much I wanted to talk, I couldn’t. So, I just cried.”
Liana spent 17 additional days in the hospital going through speech and occupational therapy.
Although AFE caused significant and lasting health complications that affected her memory, speech and motor skills, it hasn’t stopped Liana from keeping a positive attitude and a sense of humor. With great determination and many hours of rehab she’s been able to resume her passion to do the things she loves.
“I’ve physically made a full recovery, but am mentally dealing with the trauma.”
Liana has donated blood in the past and plans on being a regular blood donor.
To help build awareness for the importance of blood donation and AFE, their first-ever “friends of AFE blood drive” will be held February 18, 2022, for their families and friends.
Story by Sue Thesenga and Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross. Photos courtesy Annie, Katie and Liana.