Friday, March 27, 2015

In Support of Amniotic Fluid Embolism (AFE) Awareness Day OR My Death Story Revisited

Sobering picture of me taken 
by my sister when I was in a coma. 
It took my family months before 
they felt I could handle seeing the image. 
I still am shocked to think this was actually me.
In support of Amniotic Fluid Embolism (AFE) awareness day, this is my AFE story...

I was going through the most stressful time of my life when I had my AFE experience. Entrenched in a very public battle for tenure at my university, I did not even know I was pregnant until I was four months along. I ultimately won my tenure, but I found that the cost was too high because I lost two lives in the process, my own and that of my unborn child. Under the stresses of a two-year tenure battle, days after turning in my successful tenure appeal, my body crashed and I miscarried. I had been nearly six months pregnant when I lost my child at home. I was rushed to the hospital where I hemorrhaged nearly all my blood supply, requiring 14 units of transfusion and went into cardiac arrest. The team of doctors and nurses worked tirelessly to resuscitate me. Although protocol only called for 30 minutes of resuscitation, the lead doctor, an innovative, passionate, and brilliant South Asian woman, announced she would break protocol by continuing to perform CPR and asked who would join her. The whole team yelled in unison, “Yes.” 

They aggressively tried to revive me, telling each other that I was a mother of very young children, then one and three. The team worked on resuscitating me for 30 minutes, then another hour before finally finding a faint pulse. I was clinically dead for a total of 90 minutes before that point – I had nearly no oxygen to my brain during that period. Still, I was not out of the woods. With most of my organs not working, I fell into a coma. I was kept alive only by machines. My prognosis was grim, with a chance of survival marginal at best. Family and friends traveled from everywhere to be by what they thought was my deathbed. Doctors predicted that even if I did survive, I would not be whole, and it would take at least a year of inpatient care for me to learn to partially talk and walk again. Despite the dire predictions, my husband Brian, who never left my side, remained vigilant and hopeful that I would recover.

In the days following my near death, I would come close to dying again and again. On day one my kidneys failed and I was put on dialysis. The doctor predicted I would be on dialysis for the rest of my life, but in the second miracle of my recovery, I regained the use of my kidneys on day two. I was still in grave condition however, as the embolism that had almost killed me also threatened my body with numerous blood clots. The doctors had little hope for my survival and recovery. They repeatedly made dire predictions and tried to prepare my partner for the possibility of me living the remainder of my life in a convalescent home. On day three, I underwent emergency surgery to decrease the likelihood of dying from blood clots. On day four, I remained unresponsive, but my chances of survival improved greatly, with doctors predicting I would return to 60 percent capacity at best.

Miraculously I survived. On day five, I woke up from the coma and my true road to recovery began. Although rehabilitation should have taken months or years, I was able to talk and walk after one week. Hospital physicians and staff dubbed me the “hospital miracle,” a “modern medical wonder.” They regularly visited me with teary eyes while I was in recovery. They said they had never seen a case like mine and that I was “one in a million.” They confessed they and their families prayed for me. My own family and friends also looked at me like I was a ghost. Having seen me completely unconscious with tubes everywhere, they could not stop crying and hugging me, shocked that I was even remotely responsive. All this attention was overwhelming because I was not aware of their experiences in the “living world” as I was busy dying.

In fact, when I was in a coma, I knew I was dead. I knew every day that if I did not return to the living soon, it would be more difficult to even try. Although I knew I was already in the other world, I willed myself to keep fighting. My thoughts had nothing to do with tenure or anything related to work. My only thought was for my children. I imagined them as adults sitting together, viewing old photo images of themselves as toddlers beside their adoring mother. I could not allow myself to die and leave my children without a mother to protect and guide them through their lives. I had one wish and that was to hold my children again, to simply enjoy being in their presence. So, I fought against all odds to be back with the living, to be with them. Now, every moment I spend with my children is like a dream come true.

I have posted an earlier version of my story on Monkey Lounge. Needless to say, AFE was a defining moment in my life. Since then I have started a movement to help other women of color academics who have to endure stresses that can lead to all sorts of ailments and even death. You can find out more about the movement here at Fight the Tower. I have also written in great detail about it in The Journal for Social Justice. Moreover, I continue research in the area of women of color and academia with focus on Asian American women and am currently working on an anthology on the same topic.

Work, albeit tremendously reduced, has helped me to cope. But, I have yet to fully understand what happened to me. Mostly, I have not properly grieved for my son. Others who have gone through similar lost say it is a lifetime of letting go and never letting go. I view it as a continued journey. I am fortunate for my family, friends, and colleagues that have reached out and sustained their support through it all.

Dr. Death

For more information about Amniotic Fluid Embolism (AFE), go here.