When Shaimaica Ferguson’s new baby Amani Early gets a little older, she’s in for quite a story about the day she was born.
The tale begins not with Ferguson’s labor pains but with chest pains. Ferguson, who lives in Newton, North Carolina, was watching TV at home with her mother one evening and stood up to take a deep breath and suddenly realized, “Oh gosh, I’m having a heart attack.”
Ferguson called out for her mother to dial 911 and paramedics rushed her to her local hospital in Catawba County, northwest of Charlotte. She was then transferred to Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center in Winston-Salem, more than an hour away.
In one way, the timing of her heart attack couldn’t have been worse: She was 34 weeks pregnant.
In another, it was perfect: Forsyth Medical Center had just started using a procedure that could help save the life of both mother and baby.
What is ECMO?
Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, known as ECMO, is a treatment for patients with a wide variety of heart or respiratory conditions that do not respond to intensive care usually used. With ECMO, blood from the patient is run through an artificial lung where oxygen is added and carbon dioxide is removed. The blood is then returned back to the patient.
Essentially, the treatment can give doctors an advantage because it provides the heart and lungs a rest as high-risk work is being done on the patient. The hope is that the body will be ready to take back over the action on its own.
Forsyth Medical Center is unique in that most nonacademic hospitals don’t offer ECMO on-site along with having the ability to handle the whole course of treatment. The technology behind ECMO isn’t new, but it’s becoming more common at top hospitals as heart-lung machines are used in new ways.
The twists and turns of Ferguson’s journey
Ferguson’s heart condition was “spontaneous left anterior descending coronary artery dissection”—a condition that occurs when a potentially fatal tear forms in a blood vessel in the heart, said Novant Health heart surgeon Dr. Raymond Lee, who operated on Ferguson. “That’s rare in and of itself,” Lee said. “And for it to happen to someone who is pregnant is exceedingly rare.”
In fact, Lee said he’s since called around to colleagues around the country and so far none of them have encountered the same situation.
“You have to do what you think is right to try to save her,” Lee said on the reasoning for using ECMO for the treatment. “In that situation, the first thing you try to do is save Mom. If you save Mom, you save Baby.”
Ferguson was going into shock already by the time she arrived at Forsyth Medical Center. And as her condition deteriorated she had to be placed on a ventilator to assist with her breathing.
“Her heart almost gave out, then baby gave out,” Lee said. “They had to do a C-section on the bed in the ICU. The baby did OK, then we rushed mom down to the operating room. That’s where the decision was very tricky: she had heart failure, pulmonary edema, active bleeding…” A wide-ranging team of specialists and nurses were tending to her situation.
While Ferguson has a very calm presence normally, at the time, she said, there were some incredibly frightening moments, especially when realizing what her baby must have been going through.
“When I finally woke up from everything, I grabbed my stomach. I had a breathing tube down my throat and couldn’t really talk, but I was awake,” said Ferguson. “The last thing I had thought of whenever I went out was, I can’t breathe, my baby can’t breathe. I had a big belly, I was pregnant, and when I woke up my belly was flat and there was nothing there. I thought, I lost my baby.”
Relief washed over her as boyfriend Thomas Early explained that their baby was in the NICU. But Ferguson wasn’t yet out of the woods.
Doctors explained to Early and Ferguson that she had just a 50-50 chance of survival with traditional treatment. The best hope was ECMO, Lee said, but there were no guarantees. It would just be a matter if, once she was off it, would her heart beat again on its own? They chose ECMO.
While Ferguson was on the ECMO machine with her life still hanging in the balance, Amani was brought in for skin-to-skin contact with her mother.
The picture at the top of this article was taken by Novant Health staff while Ferguson was on ECMO.
“It’s very powerful, that image,” said Lee, who himself has a wife Ferguson’s age and two daughters. “I look at it sometimes and get choked up myself.”
Looking back, Ferguson said, “I didn’t expect to have that heart attack at 36 and have an emergency C-section and then have all of these other things that happened. It was nerve-wracking. It was frightening. You don’t expect it.”
Ferguson’s condition was later traced to heart problems that ran deep in her father’s side of the family. Her late brother and father both had heart conditions.
While Ferguson will have to continue to be monitored, she now has a chance to have a long, healthy life, Lee said. And Amani now has two big sisters herself and a big, loving family.
Both Ferguson and Early beam when talking about their new daughter.
“She’s awesome,” Ferguson said. “She’s going to be a character. Just being a month old you can already tell, she’s going to be very sweet and funny but she’s going to be a serious and don’t-mess-with-me type girl. I can already tell she’s going to be very strong-willed.”
The couple laughed about that last part, and Ferguson said, “I
guess she did get that from me.”