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‘She was rapidly deteriorating’: Pregnancy and COVID-19

Portia Hayes talks with Taylor-Alice McWilliams, a newborn intensive care unit inpatient nurse,...
Portia Hayes talks with Taylor-Alice McWilliams, a newborn intensive care unit inpatient nurse, about her son, Jediah Johnson, in the Children's of Mississippi Neonatal ICU.(UMMC)
Published: Aug. 3, 2021 at 11:52 AM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - When COVID-19 descended on Portia Hayes’ Jackson home, its first prey were her two preschoolers and the children’s father.

Its next victims were Hayes and her unborn, barely viable baby boy.

After getting tested, it was discovered that Hayes had COVID pneumonia, and Hayes said “in two days it went from bad to worse.”

Hayes doesn’t remember much of her stay in UMMC’s Medical Intensive Care Unit , but what she does remember is the realization, as she struggled to separate vent-induced dreams from reality, that her baby was no longer in her womb.

“My mom said, ‘Your baby is a month old.’ I said, ‘What? I was out for a month?’”

“She was rapidly deteriorating,” said Dr. Rachael Morris, an associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Hayes hadn’t gotten the COVID-19 vaccine.

Hayes received “all the typical medications – aggressive steroids and antibiotics – but unfortunately continued to have an unstable course, and the fetus began showing signs of distress,” Morris said.

At 26 weeks and five days, Dr. Elizabeth Lutz, an associate professor in Obstetrics and Gynecology, made the call to deliver baby Jediah via an emergency C-section.

“I’m not sure how she survived the delivery,” Morris said.

Of about 300 pregnant moms infected with COVID-19 treated at the Medical Center since the pandemic’s beginning, seven have died. Several of the babies have been stillborn, Morris said. The majority of those mothers were moved to the OR for delivery, but in some cases, the mother is too critically ill to move, and the delivery must take place in the ICU.

“It is devastating to watch these mothers endure this morbidity and the critical nature of this disease,” Morris said. “To lose them to the same illness, over and over again, is an impossible burden.”

Born weighing about two and a half pounds, Jediah was whisked to the neonatal intensive care unit in the Kathy and Joe Sanderson Tower at Children’s of Mississippi, about a five-minute walk from the MICU.

Hayes’ struggle was far from complete.

“She continued to have a very rocky and unstable course,” Morris said. “She was in septic shock. She developed pericarditis, a known complication of COVID. She had acute kidney injury. She developed a blood clot. She had every complication you could possibly have from COVID.”

Harris recalled that Hayes almost died seven or eight times.

Hayes went to a regular hospital floor July 9, but not before seeing Jediah for the first time.

“Her baby was a month old and hadn’t met his mama yet, so that was the goal,” Harris said. The MICU and NICU teams coordinated to arrange a visit to the NICU, but it was complicated by Hayes’ weakened condition and the oxygen she required.

“I couldn’t believe he was here. He was so small and fragile,” Hayes said of her first glimpse at Jediah, whose weight had almost doubled by the end of July. “I was so scared to hold him.”

On July 19, Hayes transitioned to physical and occupational therapy at Methodist Rehabilitation Center.

Although Hayes’ prognosis is promising, pregnant moms coping with COVID-19 is a continuing concern for Morris and her team. Morris and Dr. J. Martin Tucker, chair of Obstetrics and Gynecology, feel so strongly about educating women on the COVID-19 vaccine’s safety that they made a video to underscore its importance.

“If patients could see what I see, they’d have no question as to whether they need the vaccine. The fear is in the wrong place. The fear needs to be fear of the virus, and what it can do to you.”

On July 30, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, or ACOG, and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, the two leading organizations representing specialists in obstetrics care, recommended that all pregnant women be vaccinated against COVID-19. Tucker serves as ACOG’s president.

Given what she knows now, would Hayes have gotten the vaccine? “Yeah,” she said. But, she still has qualms.

“I held off and didn’t get around to it,” Hayes said. “With it not being FDA approved, that was a problem to me. It scared me. And, you can have the vaccine and still get sick, and I’m seeing people having adverse reactions.”

“I have another patient, right now, at about the same gestational age, fighting for her life who is not vaccinated. We are doing everything we can, with large teams of people, and it might not be enough. I don’t get to control that,” Morris said.

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