As Karla Perez lay brain dead in the hospital, her grieving parents stretched their hands toward her growing stomach. The outline of their unborn grandchild’s feet pressed against their daughter’s skin.
Baby Angel was still kicking.
Perez was 22 weeks pregnant when she collapsed at her Waterloo, Nebraska, home in February. An ambulance rushed her to the hospital: She had suffered a catastrophic brain bleed.
Blood rushed into her brain tissue and the space around it. Her brain swelled. Doctors at Methodist Hospital in Omaha could not surgically or medically alleviate the pressure on her brain, and Perez was later declared brain dead.
The child inside her was alive but would not survive delivery, doctors concluded. Perez’s family and doctors decided to keep Perez on life support so the fetus could continue to develop.
There have been just 33 similar cases reported in medical literature worldwide since 1982, according to a spokeswoman for the hospital system. Of those, the baby survived in 15 cases.
More than 100 people were involved in Perez’s around-the-clock care, said Dr. Todd Lovgren, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at Methodist Women’s Hospital, where Perez was transferred. For 54 days, the medical team monitored Perez to watched for signs of infection, a blood clot or cardiac arrest and adjusted her medication when necessary.
All the while, her unborn son continued to grow. Perez’s family often caught sight of his tiny feet pushing against her stomach.
“It was a very gut-wrenching but beautiful contrast, to see his mother there ... hooked up to life support and to see this other little life kicking and moving,” Lovgren said.
Perez remained stable until April 4, when her condition started to deteriorate, putting her at risk for heart attack or heart failure. That would put her baby at risk, too.
Angel was delivered via C-section just before noon that day. At 30 weeks, 3 days, he weighed just under 3 pounds but came out screaming.
“It was the sweetest cry I’d heard in a long time,” Lovgren said.
Angel is developing as well as a premature baby is expected to, though there are so few similar cases that the long-term effects of his birth are unknown, Lovgren said.
“I’ve seen plenty of 32-week-old babies, and I know how well they can do,” he said. “I hope and pray every day that he does as well.”
Angel is in the NICU now and will remain at the hospital for about another month before he leaves with his grandparents.
The baby, now just under a month old, sleeps next to a blanket that he’s too small to be swaddled in — it also laid near his mom while she was in the hospital.
“It has her scent,” to comfort him, Lovgren said.
When Angel is older, he’ll be able to hear her heartbeat, too, with the press of a paw. The team captured the sound on a recording device inside a stuffed bear, so he will always have a reminder of his mother.