Carmen David says people always mention the birth of a child is: “The happiest day of my life!”
Some births are like that, and some are different. The birth of Carmen’s first child was one of the happiest days of her life. The birth of Carmen’s second daughter was also filled with joy, but little did Carmen know the next day would be the most traumatic day of her life.
22 hours after giving birth to her second baby girl, Carmen experienced a life-threatening aortic dissection and was fighting for her life.
Carmen’s aorta had a tear occur in the main blood vessel that carries blood from her heart to her entire body. It was labeled Type B-Complicated, meaning the organs and extremities of her body were affected and not getting a flow of life-sustaining blood.
Carmen needed emergency surgery…NOW!
But in the medical confusion that followed, it took a third hospital transfer to save Carmen’s life. Carmen considers herself lucky that this ordeal happened after giving birth, so her daughter’s health wasn’t affected.
Carmen was in the Labor & Delivery ward, nursing her newborn child, when she felt a severe onset of ripping pain down her spine, from her neck to her tailbone; it was migratory pain before turning to waves of pain across her entire abdomen and before hitting her in the chest area and radiating straight through to her back.
Carmen gasped…it took her breath away as she laid her newborn baby between her legs to call the nurse.
“I need someone in here now, something is very wrong”, Carmen frantically told the nurse
Carmen was young, healthy and active, no pre-eclampsia, and had no risk factors. The delivery was vaginal with an epidural; everything went smoothly.
She felt fine until “it” happened.
Carmen remembers the nurse saying she was going to monitor her for an hour and Carmen said, “You can’t monitor me for an hour…get my doctor now; something is very wrong!”
Her anesthesiologist came in and was asking Carmen about her symptoms, to which Carmen replied, “I feel like I’m having a heart attack or something”; her anesthesiologist’s response was, “You’re a little young for that.”
The anesthesiologist’s response still haunts Carmen to this day.
Carmen felt there wasn’t enough urgency to find the source of her pain given the final diagnosis of an Aortic Dissection; this could have had led to tragic results.
As Carmen’s breathing became weak, her speech also became slow and quiet. A chest x-ray and EKG were normal, so they thought maybe something happened with the epidural, so 3 hours later, she was sent for a CT scan.
The radiologist found the aortic dissection…something the radiologist was not even looking for…this suddenly became a life-threatening medical event.
After the diagnosis, Carmen remembers asking her OBGYN, “Is this like life and death?” and having the scary thought of it being the last time she would see her loved ones.
Asking her OBGYN, “Is this the last time I will see my husband and my children?” was chilling, as her OBGYN couldn’t even speak as she seemed shocked by the diagnosis.
The chaos in the hospital staff’s search to find a doctor who could “fix” her will forever be engraved in Carmen’s mind.
Carmen’s family surrounded her before a Care-flight took her from Texas Harris Methodist HEB to Texas Harris Methodist in Fort Worth. A doctor at Texas Harris Methodist tried to manage her trauma with medications, but she continued to deteriorate.
If it weren’t for Carmen’s husband insisting she was not getting better and demanding a second medical opinion, Carmen might have died that day.
Carmen was finally transferred to a third hospital, UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, where her family was told: “If she doesn’t have this surgery, she will die, but she may not make it through surgery”.
Carmen finally underwent surgery 36 hours after the onset of pain.
The doctors placed three stents: one thoracic and two in her left iliac artery. Afterward, Carmen still complained of abdominal pain, so the doctors went in again and placed the 4th stent in the thoracic area.
In the end, the doctors explained Carmen had multiple tears and the dissection extended the length of her aorta.
Carmen still has an abdominal tear that her doctors medically monitor; they also keep a close eye on her renal arteries for any complications or change. They couldn’t place a stent in this area as it would be risky and block blood flow to her kidneys (because the true path of the aorta fed one kidney, and the false pockets now fed the other kidney).
Carmen stayed in the Surgical Intensive Care Unit (SICU) for 11 days, 8 of which she did not get up/walk, eat or get to see her newborn baby or her older daughter (other than via a television screen).
Carmen was in much pain, was physically uncomfortable, highly emotional, and traumatized. Her physical recovery took about six months; the emotional healing is getting better but will be ongoing.
This is now a chronic illness so emotional management is part of Carmen’s medical treatment plan.
Carmen will be on medications and monitored for life. She will have imaging and checkups every six months to be sure her condition is stable, or if complications/issues arise, they can preemptively treat.
Carmen has good days and bad days. Fortunately, she only has one physically bothersome side effect/complication with her legs/right foot (pain in tailbone to thighs randomly causes her to be weak resulting in her knees buckling and right foot numbness; these are residual effects from lack of blood flow caused by the aortic dissection).
The side effects of the treatment and medications have improved and given the severity of Carmen’s medical emergency…things could be tremendously worse.
Carmen was told numerous times she was lucky to be alive, not to have had complete kidney failure (because she somehow rebounded from stage IV malignant kidney failure), and she was fortunate to have her right leg (due to lack of blood flow), since her right common iliac collapsed from the start of this ordeal.
Aortic dissection can happen to young or old, predisposed, or even out of left field, like what happened to Carmen.
Carmen found the John Ritter Foundation and teamed up with them because she knows how crucial it is to get funds for physicians and scientists to do research to prevent premature death due to aortic dissection.
Carmen’s passion is now about raising awareness and getting the word out about pregnancy being its own risk factor.
She understands the diligence and perseverance needed to educate the doctors and clinicians of the world on this rare life-threatening medical phenomenon.
Carmen wants to educate people on what to look for in symptoms. She wants people to be insistent on how they are treated and learn to advocate for themselves. She wants to spread the importance of genetic testing and imaging to help prevent premature deaths from this silent killer.
Carmen states that “if one life is saved by her efforts to educate and empower others, it will all have been worth it.”
In this podcast, we share Carmen’s story of pain, strength, family, and recovery…and even a little about life insurance.
Here is a link to the VGLI life insurance article we mentioned in the podcast.