Carla and Andrew Heywood were high-powered professionals more accustomed to working in healthcare than needing it.
She directed clinical trials for biotechnology companies. He worked as an account director for a life science research lab. From their first meeting at a medical conference, Andrew was drawn to Carla’s sharp intellect, sense of humor and kind heart, while Carla loved Andrew’s optimism. “He has a brilliant way of always finding the good in any situation and making sure that I'm feeding off of that incredible energy,” she said. The pair moved to Charlotte in 2015 and married the following year.
They believed a baby would multiply the joy they had found in each other. They tried several rounds of in vitro fertilization (IVF), which produced “one beautiful embryo,” Carla recalled. The couple excitedly planned for the procedure. She would become an expectant mother at last.
Then COVID-19 hit. The clinic needed to postpone the transfer date for a month, then two. Finally, the procedure was approved in late spring 2020. Carla’s pregnancy progressed well.
Then one December morning, she woke up and discovered her legs felt numb.
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That morning led her to Novant Health Spine Specialists - Randolph Road in Charlotte and its surgeons trained in complex spine surgery. The team worked intensely to save her baby and prevent Carla from losing her ability to walk forever.
Numbness creeping toward her chest
Seven months pregnant, Carla curled out of bed that morning, set her feet on the ground, and realized something was wrong. She had occasionally experienced some sharp back pains during pregnancy, but now her legs felt as if they’d been shot with Novocain. A day later, the numbness had crept to Carla’s belly, and her legs “just completely gave out,” she recalled.
She was referred to a neurologist with Novant Health Multiple Sclerosis Care - SouthPark. That development would have worried many couples, but Carla and Andrew kept their cool. Carla even brought her laptop to the neurology appointment to get some work done in the waiting area.
The neurologist determined the problem wasn’t in Carla’s brain. An MRI of her spine revealed a vascular lesion called a hemangioma (hee man jee OH mah), essentially a large collection of blood vessels. That in itself is not an unusual occurrence. Hemangiomas of the spine usually do not cause any symptoms.
But pregnancy hormones had stimulated Carla’s hemangioma to grow so large that it was compressing her spinal cord. The pressure caused Carla’s difficulties with walking, including balance, numbness and weakness. Left unchecked, the hemangioma could permanently paralyze her. It needed to be removed immediately. If only she didn’t need an urgent cesarean section, too.
One patient, two urgent surgeries
The medical team came up with a plan. First, an interventional radiologist would insert medical-grade glue into the hemangioma in a procedure called an embolization. It would reduce the amount of bleeding during surgery.
Next, Carla’s ob-gyn would deliver the baby. The situation wasn’t ideal because the baby was about 28 weeks along. Still, this would be the safest approach to prevent any potential fetal distress and complications during Carla’s back surgery.
The day after the C-section, a neurological surgeon would perform what’s known as a vertebral corpectomy and fusion. He would remove the section of vertebrae which held the hemangioma and insert titanium screws and rods to stabilize the area long-term.
The doctors shared the plan with the couple. Even with their sunny natures, it was a lot for Carla and Andrew to process. They hadn’t been expecting a baby for two months. Andrew hadn’t even assembled the crib yet. Carla would endure two surgeries in two days. But all she could think about was their child. “I was so worried about the baby,” she said, “I didn't care about myself.”
Plenty of people in Andrew’s position might have quietly fallen apart, with the prospect of a wife in the intensive care unit and a newborn in the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU. He found comfort in the physicians’ ability to communicate exactly what was happening and their confidence in the plan. Andrew kept his tone positive and “provided support whenever I could because I had two patients who needed me.”
Carla’s hemangioma removal took about three hours.
Elodie Mae Heywood let out a healthy yell after her birth.
The family she always wanted
Elodie Mae Heywood entered the world at 5 pounds, 4 ounces. Stone had cautioned that Elodie might not cry upon birth - like the familiar scene from a thousand TV shows - but the baby let out a healthy yell immediately. She was soon hustled to the NICU.
The following day, the neurological surgeon completed Carla’s hemangioma removal in about three hours. Carla doesn’t remember much of either day because of the anesthesia and pain medication. She was so disoriented following back surgery, she asked Andrew, “Have I been in a car accident?” The pain from the C-section “felt like a paper cut” compared to the back surgery, she said. Andrew spent the next three days shuttling back and forth between Elodie in the NICU and Carla in the ICU, sharing photos of their baby with his wife. She couldn’t wait to spend time with Elodie.
Carla’s mom moved in to help during Carla’s recovery. Carla had to give up her dream of breastfeeding or even holding Elodie for any extended period in those early weeks. It took a full year before Carla felt fully back to normal. But she regained the use of her legs and now has the family she always wanted.