Doctors and family were baffled when Stephanie Arnold started having scary premonitions about her C-section. But she saved her own life.
BY STEPHANIE ARNOLD AS TOLD TO ASHER FOGLEPUBLISHED: SEP 15, 2015
On May 30, 2013, as doctors rolled me into the operating room for my emergency C-section, I knew beyond a doubt that I was going to die — and I was right. I died on the operating table. But I didn’t know I would live to tell about it, or that I would remember all the details.
It all started at our 20-week ultrasound that January. After seven rounds of IVF, I was expecting our second child and had had an easy pregnancy so far. But when the radiologist told us I had placenta previa, I turned to my husband and said, “I have no idea what that is, but I have a bad feeling.” Now, my husband Jonathan, who has a PhD in economics and was an Air Force pilot, is more logical, not one to think the worst. He just told me: “We’ll deal with a crisis in a crisis. For now, you’re being crazy.”
And maybe I was being crazy, but that February, when I was taking my daughter to a class, we walked by a dry fountain, and I reminisced about how nice it is when it’s on. Suddenly, I had a vision of the fountain flowing with blood. I dizzily clutched the stroller and knew something was wrong.
This became a daily occurrence. I would be in the grocery store and imagine how I was going to die in labor. I had detailed, specific visions: The baby would be fine, but my organs would combine, and I was going to hemorrhage, need a hysterectomy, and die. (Placenta previa affects about 1 in every 200 pregnancies. And in some worst cases, the placenta can join to the uterus and cause massive bleeding.)
In the past, I’ve had a strong sense of intuition, but I’d never have claimed to see the future. This was the first time I’d had an overwhelming sense of foreboding. And it was strong. I didn’t feel insane — but everybody else thought I was. We saw as many doctors as possible, but after many tests, my fears still weren’t confirmed.
So I told everyone I met, hoping that somebody had the same experience I had had and could tell me who to talk to. I posted on Facebook asking if anybody had my blood type. I started writing goodbye letters to my parents, my siblings, Jonathan, my stepdaughter Valentina, and daughter Adina. I even mailed some. I bought nothing for the baby or his room. I didn’t take pictures of my pregnant stomach. I was so sure I was going to pass away that I just detached and disconnected.
Because of my previa, I was scheduled to get a C-section at 37 weeks. To help ease my anxiety about the procedure, my gynecologist set me up for an anesthesia consultation. And that’s when I met Dr. Grace Lim. After she patiently walked me through the surgical plan, I decided to tell her about my premonitions, so I could ask what would happen in those situations. Unbeknownst to me, she flagged my file and noted that there should be extra blood and a crash cart in the room at the time of my delivery. Her planning is what saved my life.
One week before I was scheduled to have the C-section, my husband was in New York for a big conference. I was grounded in Chicago. When I started bleeding all over the kitchen floor, I called him to say the baby was coming now. I rushed to the hospital with our daughter, Adina, and the nanny, and he hightailed it to the airport.
While the doctors prepared me for surgery, I traded Skype messages with Jonathan, believing we might never speak again: “I just want you to know you are the most important person in my life and you’re an incredible father. Your children will always know it. Please take care of everybody and love your son. No matter what happens, you’ve made me the happiest woman in the whole world.” I begged the surgeons to hold off until his arrival, but the time was now. I had to shut down my computer before he could reply.
So I put on the bravest, happiest face I could as I hugged my 2-year-old daughter. I didn’t want her last memory of her mother to be crying. I smiled and said, “You’re going to meet your brother Jacob soon and I love you.”
When they wheeled me out into the operating room, I wept because I knew I wouldn’t see her again. Then I told the doctor what I had been saying for months: “There’s something wrong and I’m not going to make it through this surgery.” The last thing I remember is them putting soap on my belly to get ready for the C-section.
Jacob was delivered, and within seconds, I went into a seizure and flat-lined. I was dead for 37 seconds.
Later, they told me it was an amniotic fluid embolism (AFE), which happens in about 1 in 40,000 pregnancies. When amniotic cells get into a mother’s bloodstream and you are allergic, you go into anaphylactic shock. First, you go into cardiac arrest. If you’re lucky enough to be one of the 40% to survive that phase of an AFE, the second phase starts. That’s called DIC — disseminated intravascular coagulation. I started to hemorrhage and was given 60 units of blood. (Typically a C-section only has 6 units but Dr. Lim had ordered extra.)
According to my hospital, I am the first of the 20 cases they’ve ever had to survive without any neurological damage. The hospital will tell you it’s because they were prepared. But I prepared them.
[SIZE=6]What I Remember About “Dying”[/SIZE]
After six days, I woke from a medically induced coma in the ICU. They had put me under because of all the damage to my organs: My lungs and bladder had collapsed, my heart went into cardiac arrest, and the blood was not staying in. Even hours after I got there, I was still hemorrhaging — so they performed a hysterectomy. My final prediction had come true. When they performed the pathology, they found what I had feared would happen: My uterus and the placenta had bonded after all, but in a microscopic connection that never would have showed on an MRI. That is how the amniotic cells got into my blood stream.
As I woke, I remember looking down at my body, swollen from fluid after the kidney failure. I looked more pregnant than I did when I walked into the hospital. Crass as it sounds, I looked at my husband and first thing I said was, “Am I still f***ing pregnant?” When he told me I gave birth six days before, it blew my mind.
The first time I saw my son, he was almost a week old. It took me awhile to not look at Jacob like he caused this or to want to hold him, even if I could have. I had ports in my chest and my neck and I was swollen and could barely put two words together. In that moment, I couldn’t be his mother. I believe children can tell if you’re afraid or nervous. I did not want him to reject me because I had this inherent fear of him. I wanted to get over that before I held him or changed his diaper. Fortunately, Jonathan would take off his shirt and put Jacob on his skin, making sure he knew that he was loved. Looking back, it’s heartbreaking.
My road to recovery was long: a month in the hospital, weeks of dialysis, cleaning my massive sutures, pain from broken ribs and scars, and endless tests and medications. At home, I had a nurse come to stay at my house each night to monitor my vitals. Nights were the worst because I was constantly thought, What if I have a surprise heart attack? What if my organs fail again?
It was a hard adjustment. Finally, I went to several therapists to help with my stress. But when I’d ask how was it I predicted everything before it happened, no one had an answer for me. So eight months later, I tried regression therapy, which uses hypnosis to take you back to the moments of trauma. It’s done a lot with victims of sexual abuse or catastrophes. I’d never been hypnotized. I videotaped my regression therapy sessions because I wanted to make sure no one made me do anything I didn’t want to do. Also, if I learned something while I was hypnotized, I wanted to make sure I remembered it.
The therapist managed to get me to a state of semi-consciousness, similar to meditation. But every time I went close to the operating room during a session, I started hyperventilating and she had to bring me out. After trauma, she explained, memories are stored like a movie strip. The cells in the body remember pain. Good anesthesia will compartmentalize it, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist somewhere.
The therapist eventually suggested that I try to go back to the operating room as an observer. And that’s when, finally, I saw everything that had happened to me. It was like I was floating above my body. When I went back to those moments in therapy, you can see me on the video convulsing, going through seizure, flat lining, screaming. I recount exactly where the doctors were standing, who hit the button for the code. There are details like how many times CPR was done and that the first crash cart didn’t work, that a resident, not my own doctor, delivered the baby. Just one thing after another that there was no way I could have learned — plus, none of that would have been in the medical records.
I took the tapes to my anesthesiologist and to my gynecologist and asked for their thoughts. My doctors were baffled. There’s no way I could know those details — which were all correct — in the condition I was in. My eyes were taped. They wondered if maybe I could hear something while my brain was shutting down. But there was still no way to know were people were standing or who was doing CPR because I was dead.
I believe everybody has this gift, I was just given quiet time to actually see it. There’s enough documentation on my case to show that not everything is explained by black and white science. I firmly believe that there is another dimension of life out there. By no means am I saying I’m a medium. But since then I’ve had messages for people from my husband’s deceased father, my best friend’s brother, even people I didn’t know.
And my premonitions haven’t stopped. This summer, I had a vision we’d lose Jacob at the county fair. I didn’t speak up, and then when he disappeared and was found later by police, I was mad at myself because I could have just asked my husband to keep an eye out.
If you sense something, say something. Call it mother’s instinct, intuition, your body trying to tip you off or a spiritual force — it’s coming from somewhere, and you should not doubt it. I spoke up two years ago and it saved my life. I could have been wrong or accepted what everyone said, and I wouldn’t be here.