Her Survival Was a “Christmas Miracle,” but the Disaster Was Man-Made
Many of you will have read the story of the woman laboring on Christmas Eve who suddenly went into respiratory and cardiac arrest in front of her horrified husband. She recovered shortly after her son was delivered by emergency cesarean, and the baby, too, was successfully revived. As the MSNBC article tells the tale:
After their miraculous recovery, both mother and the baby, named Coltyn, appear healthy with no signs of problems, Martin [the obstetrician who responded to the Code Blue and performed the emergency cesarean] said. She said she cannot explain the mother’s cardiac arrest or the recovery. “We did a thorough evaluation and can’t find anything that explains why this happened,” she said. Mike Hermanstorfer credits “the hand of God.”
However, an ABC video interview with Tracy and Mike Hermanstorfer and Dr. Martin provides details that call into question the hospital’s failure to find an explanation. I have transcribed the relevant section.
Tracy: [Tracy was being induced for her third child because membranes ruptured.]The pains [with Pitocin] were a lot harder than I remembered. We decided to go ahead and do the epidural for the very first time. . . .
ABC: Mike, you were holding her hand as Tracy got the epidural. . . . When did you start to notice that there was a problem occurring?
Mike: Well, we had her sitting up when they were doing the epidural and afterwards she lay down and said that she was tired and that’s when the whole nightmare started.
ABC: What happened?
Mike: She started going numb and everything in her legs . . . and she laid down to close her eyes and take a little nap . . . and she wasn’t waking up.
ABC: When did you notice that her breathing was shallow or her color was blue?
Mike: Well, I felt her hand—I was holding her hand—and it started getting cold and I looked down at her fingertips and her fingertips were blue and one of the nurses noticed that the color in her face was completely gone. She was as gray as a ghost.
ABC: Code Blue was declared, a scary thing in any hospital. [Dr. Martin arrives in response.]
Dr. Martin: . . . When I ran into the room, the anesthesiologist had already started breathing for Tracy. There were preparations already being made to start a resuscitation should her heart stop. About 35 to 40 seconds after I got in the room, her heart did stop and we started making preparations to do an emergency cesarean delivery right there in the room in the event that we were not successful in bringing Tracy back. Unfortunately, in most of these situations, despite the best efforts of the team, Mom is often not able to be revived, so we anticipated that possibility and when it became clear that Tracy was not responding to all the work that the team was doing on her, we had to make that difficult decision to do the cesarean section, primarily in an effort to give Coltyn the best chance at a normal survival and also hoping that it would allow us to do a more effective resuscitation on Tracy, and fortunately, she cooperated and we got a heartbeat back immediately after delivering Coltyn.
So, according to Dr. Martin, Tracy is an example of how things can go suddenly and horribly wrong for no discernable reason in a healthy woman having a normal labor. All I can say is that Dr. Martin must have slept through the class on epidural complications. Tracy’s story is the classic sequence that follows what anesthesiologists term an “unexpectedly high blockade,” meaning the anesthesiologist injected the epidural anesthetic into the wrong space and it migrated upward, paralyzing breathing muscles and in some cases, stopping the heart. High blockade happens rarely, and even more rarely does it result in full respiratory and cardiac arrest—one database analysis of 11,000 obstetric epidural blocks reported a rate of 1 in 1400 women experiencing a high block and 1 in 5500 requiring intubation, and no woman experienced cardiac arrest. It does happen, though, and I am willing to bet that high blockade and its sequelae happened to Tracy.
The moral of the print version would be: have your baby in a hospital where you can be saved should this happen to you. The video interview, however, reveals a different picture. The real moral of the tale is that the safest and healthiest births will be achieved by avoiding medical intervention whenever possible. Induction of labor is by no means always necessary when membranes rupture and certainly not immediately. If Tracy had been allowed to start labor on her own, which, considering that this was not her first baby, she would likely have done within a few hours, she probably wouldn’t have wanted the epidural any more than she did for her first two children. Tracy almost certainly would have gone home the day after Christmas after another uneventful, unmedicated vaginal birth. Instead, she is recovering from surgery, and she and her husband have the emotional trauma of her and her son’s near miss experience to deal with. Along with the Hermanstorfers, we can thank God for the prompt actions of the hospital team, but the safe money says they were rescuing her from a disaster they themselves had caused.