BAR HARBOR — Alisa Nye was told that her body shut down following child birth.
At Mount Desert Island hospital July 31 of last year, Nye flat-lined for six minutes before coming back and flat-lining again. The staff in the obstetrics unit took turns administering chest compressions. They also used a defibrillator while Nye breathed through a breathing tube.
“Hospital staff didn’t skip a beat,” Nye said. “They were incredible.” Six months after the experience, a perfectly healthy Nye cradled her healthy baby, Lumen, as she told the harrowing tale.
After giving birth, Nye began showing symptoms of a rare and serious complication called amniotic fluid embolism (AFE). The AFE Foundation describes it as “an unpreventable, unpredictable and often fatal complication of pregnancy.”
When amniotic fluid (fluid surrounding the fetus) enters the mother’s blood stream, it is usually harmless. However, in rare cases the mixing of fluids can cause an allergic-like reaction in the mother. This is AFE, a disease about which little is known. According to the AFE Foundation, only one state currently mandates AFE education for all health care professionals, and that is Connecticut.
According to Nye, a nurse on duty who had worked at the hospital for more than 40 years recognized the symptoms, having seen one other AFE case in the 70s or 80s.
Hospital staff immediately took turns administering lifesaving procedures, and arranged for a LifeFlight helicopter ambulance to take Nye to Eastern Maine Medical Center (EMMC) accompanied by her husband, Davis Taylor.
Meanwhile, Lumen had been born healthy and stayed behind at MDI Hospital while Nye left on LifeFlight, with crews working on her constantly.
EMMC did not have a breathing machine, so Nye was transported by plane to Mass General Hospital. “I arrived at Mass General to a roomful of people ready to help me,” Nye said, the greatest danger over.
Still, doctors did not know yet if there was brain damage from the incident until they removed the tube and Nye spoke.
Nye said her first thought when she woke up in Mass General was that she had to write thank-you cards to the staff at MDI Hospital. Though Mass General staff told her that thank-you cards were not expected, Nye persisted with the idea. “I feel grateful that I’m here,” she said.
Nye and Taylor stayed in a hospital room at Mass General and Lumen was brought down by friends a few days later.
“People at Mass General were super impressed with MDI,” Nye remembered. “I was in the most critical condition at MDI. They did everything perfectly.”
After returning home with her family to MDI, Nye arranged with head obstetrics nurse Ellen DaCorte to put together a thank-you event for the MDI Hospital team.
Nye said there were people at the event who she did not recognize. One caregiver at the event told her, “No one was ever thrown a thank-you event before.”
“That made me really sad to think about,” Nye said. “As a caregiver, sometimes you never know how that patient is doing when they leave. You don’t get closure.”
Nye recognized that her case was particularly hard on the hospital’s staff.
“It was traumatic for them too,” she said. “It’s hard to see a patient go off in a helicopter, that’s not supposed to happen. [But they] didn’t freak out.
“That’s why I want them to be recognized. I can’t imagine not thanking them; that’s the very least I can do.”
Nye called her AFE diagnosis a “zebra case,” a term used in the medical field to describe the difficulty of diagnosing rare diseases. “You hear the clapping of hooves,” Nye explained. “Your first thought: It’s a horse. But it could be a zebra.”