AFE Survivor Michelle

September 29th, 2011, the day we welcomed our 2nd daughter Audrey into the world, should have been one of the best days of my life. It should have been a day full of visitors and laughter, flowers and pictures, and maybe even a little rest (though more than likely not). It should have been a day of wonderful memories.

And yet, because of Amniotic Fluid Embolism, September 29th will never be that day for me.

After being in labor the previous day day and all night, it looked like our sweet baby Audrey was finally going to be born a little after 10:30am. My husband Adam and I were so exhausted but incredibly excited to meet her and we were looking forward to spending that special time after the birth with our brand-new baby.

As soon as I began pushing, I felt a strange pressure in my chest and I started having trouble breathing. I told the nurse, who thought maybe it had to do with my eipidural, so she put me on my side and I was able to recover a little. I never felt 100% normal, but I had been up all night and was a woman in labor – how normal can one really feel? I continued to push as the OB arrived, and when it became clear that Audrey was coming, they brought in a mirror so I could see. I would later become so grateful for that mirror, because the only memory I have of Audrey’s actual birth is seeing her tiny, round head FULL of hair emerge. I was so surprised to see all of that hair…our first daughter was bald until she was two!

My memories moving forward are hazy and dream-like, but I also have many vivid flashes of awareness throughout the whole ordeal. I was lucky to never lose consciousness, but there were many times in the years that followed that I wished that I had, because the flashbacks continue to this day. This is what I do remember:

As soon as Audrey’s head came out, I couldn’t breathe. I fell back onto the bed, and this time the pressure in my chest was so terrible and I felt like I had to use all my muscles to keep breathing. I was suddenly surrounded by people. There was a doctor trying to find a vein in my arm to get another IV in…he couldn’t get a vein and Adam kept offering to help him (my husband is a paramedic and prides himself on his ability to “stick” even the most difficult of veins!). Someone put the oxygen ventilator bag over my face and started forcing oxygen into my lungs. I vividly remember the awful pain of the automatic blood pressure cuff squeezing my arm so tightly because it wasn’t getting a reading.

Somewhere early in all of this, my OB pulled Audrey the rest of the way out of my body and cut the cord herself. I think I remember hearing her first cry, but it is vague and almost like remembering a dream, so I will never be sure.

After some time, my breathing seemed to recover a little so they stopped the horrible oxygen bag and I think that they finally got in that IV. That’s when I started uncontrollably shivering and my teeth were chattering so much that I had to clench my jaw shut. The shivering was almost as scary as the difficulty breathing. I kept asking why I was shaking so much and no one could tell me. I also didn’t know it, but I was hemorrhaging. I quickly became aware, however, when the nurse started massaging my uterus vigorously from the outside, while the OB was massaging from the inside. While the pain was excruciating even through the epidural, I was more worried about the fact that I couldn’t stop shaking. I remember telling Adam, “You have got to help me calm down, please help me calm down.” I thought that I was shaking because I was upset.

Since most of these memories are a blur, I have a hard time knowing exactly what happened when. I know that to me, from the minute Audrey’s head emerged to when they were wheeling me into the OR seemed like a span of maybe 10-15 minutes. However, Adam tells me that they were working on me in the delivery room for more than an hour.

If I had to pick one memory to completely erase, I would choose the operating room. In the months that it took me to mentally come to terms with what happened, the operating room memory was always the thing that caused me the most anxiety. Even now as I write this, I see those bright circular lights shining down on me and feel my legs suspended in the air, feel myself tilted almost upside down while Dr. Davis and another OB tried to avoid having to give me a hysterectomy. The pain was horrible. I vomited at least once. I was still shaking and my jaw hurt so much from clenching my teeth. At some point they had started giving me blood, but I have no idea when.

I found out later that they had to insert a saline-filled catheter balloon into my uterus so that there was constant internal pressure in order to slow the bleeding. They would monitor me in the ICU to make sure it eventually stopped.

After the OR and before they took me to the ICU, I got to meet Audrey for the first time, very briefly. I barely remember it and I couldn’t hold her. Someone tried to put her on my chest but it hurt, so the nurse just held her by my head. It breaks my heart that I really don’t remember meeting my baby.

I was in the ICU for a little over 24 hours, when the bleeding finally slowed enough that they could remove the balloon. I finally got to hold Audrey 30 hours after she was born. I know newborns don’t smile, but I will always believe she smiled at me. We were together, exactly as we should be.

Anyone who survives a traumatic experience can attest to the range of emotions that you feel and deal with for months and even years following. It was made worse by the fact that nearly no one could really explain what had happened to me or why. For months I felt incredibly alone and confused, and I felt that no one could really understand how I felt. Then I found the AFE Foundation. Due to the AFE support group on social media, I was finally able to talk about my experience with women who knew exactly what I had been through. Our stories were always a little – or a lot – different (I am very lucky that my AFE was “mild”) but the support I received, and continue to receive, from the AFE Foundation is beyond compare. I am grateful to Miranda Klassen and her amazing board for the work they do, so that one day my beautiful daughters – if they choose to have children – can have safe, healthy deliveries full of the wonderful memories that were robbed from me by AFE.