Recovering after 85 days of hospitalization

ORLANDO, Fla. – Paola Gambini arrived by ambulance at Orlando Health Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies on July 29 by ambulance, with a near-term pregnancy and a COVID-19 diagnosis, gasping for breath.

“I remember the EMTs telling us, ‘You called at the right time,’ because they immediately gave me oxygen,” she said.

From July 1 to September, about 260 COVID-19-positive pregnant patients were hospitalized in Winnie Palmer, said Dr. Lori Boardman, Assistant Vice President and Chief Quality Officer.

AdventHealth’s South Central Florida division also saw a spike in COVID-19 patients during the summer’s delta wave. It admitted 113 pregnant women with complications from COVID-19 from July 1 to November 11, more than half the number hospitalized during the entire pandemic, said Dr Kathryn Berryman, who specializes in maternal-fetal studies. medicine.

Nationwide, from January 2020 to November 15, 2021, more than 145,000 pregnant Americans tested positive for COVID-19, and more than 24,000 were hospitalized, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of November 15, 229 pregnant people with COVID-19 were reported dead.

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Pregnant and recently pregnant people are at risk because they have weaker immune systems than the average person, Boardman said.

Growing, though limited, evidence finds the vaccine’s benefits outweigh its risks to mothers and their babies, according to studies shared by the CDC on its website. In contrast, COVID-19 increases the risk of serious consequences and preterm birth compared to pregnant people without COVID-19, according to an analysis of 77 studies published in September 2020 in the BMJ, a medical research journal. Babies are unlikely to get COVID-19 from their parents, the CDC said.

But despite the evidence, fewer than four in 10 pregnant people ages 18-49 had been fully vaccinated during or before pregnancy, according to CDC data, as of Nov. 13.

“If I had gone back in time and known what I know now, I would definitely have been vaccinated,” Gambini said. “I don’t want other pregnant women to think, ‘I’m a superhero, I’m taking these vitamins… it’ll be fine, COVID won’t get me’ because that’s exactly what I was thinking, and it’s not true .”

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Fighting COVID-19

In the beginning it was just a fever. But about a week after Gambini’s diagnosis, she couldn’t catch her breath and her fiancé, Michael Hazen, called 911. Her lungs were filled with fluid.

Doctors performed an emergency cesarean section so they could better administer life-saving treatment to the 32-year-old. A girl was born prematurely, before week 37 of pregnancy. They called her Lilliana.

Gambini held Lilliana for a brief moment before her fiancé took her, and Gambini was transferred to Orlando Health Orlando Regional Medical Center. There a respirator breathed for her; when that wasn’t enough, doctors used an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine to pump her blood outside her body and oxygenate it there before putting it back in. The staff told her fiancé at multiple points that she might not make it.

“I’m blessed to have left in one piece… The nurses would tell me… you’re one of the lucky ones,” she said.

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She held her daughter once when she was born, and once when her medical team arranged a visit for her birthday. Other than that visit, they only interacted via FaceTime.

“I’ve just been counting down the days,” she said. “I remember them saying to me, ‘You’ll be home for Thanksgiving,’ and I remember looking at Michael, and I was like, ‘I’m going to get it for Halloween, and I’m going to watch my baby get dressed. And I did it.”

She came home after 85 days. She dressed up Lilliana as a pumpkin.

Gambini has been home with her baby for about a month now. She gets oxygen and struggles physically after being in bed for so long; she lost about 80 pounds and her muscles atrophy. Doctors had to give her a partial hysterectomy in the hospital to stop internal bleeding.

“I planned to have more babies. … I’ve always wanted to be a mother. So for me to wake up and they tell me, ‘we need to get your uterus out’, that was the hardest thing for me to do.” to hear,” she said. “She’s my rainbow baby, my one and only.”

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However, she is getting better and her goal is to run out of oxygen before Christmas. She said she wants other people who’ve spent time in the hospital to know that recovery is possible — but she also hopes other moms and moms-to-be don’t end up there.

Fighting disinformation

A major barrier to preventing pregnant women from contracting COVID-19 is misinformation about vaccines, Boardman and Berryman said. They are urging doctors to continue talking to unvaccinated patients.

“We don’t see an increase in birth defects or anything like that as a result of comparing vaccinated women with unvaccinated women,” Boardman said. “I still think some of those concerns just persist despite us talking about what we do and don’t know.”

A survey published in November by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 17% of Americans believe that pregnant women should not receive the COVID-19 vaccine, and 22% are unsure.

State Representative Angela “Angie” Nixon, D-Jacksonville, blames politicians for spreading falsehoods about COVID-19.

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Nixon caught COVID-19 herself while pregnant. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, pregnant black and Hispanic people have the lowest vaccination coverage against COVID-19 and are also at the highest risk of complications during pregnancy.

“I know what it was like to fear for your life. Black women are four times more likely to have pregnancy problems, and when combined with getting COVID, it’s only going to get worse,” she said. “It’s just too bad they’re politicizing this.”

DeSantis signed legislation Thursday allowing employees of private companies to opt out of vaccine mandates if they are pregnant or plan to become pregnant. The legislation also imposes several other restrictions on vaccine mandates.

Nixon said this legislation is “ridiculous” because it falsely implies that vaccination harms pregnant people.

“It was a real slap in the face, especially for pregnant people,” Nixon said. “They spread falsehood.”

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In addition, a page on the Florida Department of Health website diverges from the CDC on this point.

It has a page on high-risk populations that states that pregnant people are “known to be at risk for serious viral illness,” but “to date, data on COVID-19 has not shown an increased risk.” However, it links to a CDC statement that states it is a “fact” that pregnant or recently pregnant people with COVID-19 are more likely to become seriously ill than non-pregnant people.

The Florida Department of Health did not respond to a request for comment about why it phrases the risk differently than the CDC.

As for whether it’s okay for pregnant people to be wary now that Florida’s summer wave has abated, Boardman reminded everyone that the delta wave also started after a period of low positivity numbers. She said COVID-19 vaccines and boosters are likely to become vital during pregnancy, as flu shots are now.

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“(Don’t be lulled to sleep with a false sense of security, and realize that this is going to be part of the world we live in, to take those precautions to prevent what happens to these mothers,” Boardman said.

Berryman agreed that while the number of COVID-19 cases is low right now, the pandemic will inevitably continue a trend of up, then valley, then up again, and pregnant women will be particularly vulnerable without vaccination. .

“I have not yet found a pregnant patient who regretted being vaccinated,” Berryman said. “They generally said… ‘I’m so glad I have it.’ I only have patients who regret not getting it.”

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