The day Shelly Cawley gave birth to her first child should have been one of the best of her life. Instead, it seemed as if it could be her last, as the new mom fell into a coma after a blood clot moved to her lungs. In an effort to revive her, however, her medical team tried a long shot.
In 2015 Shelly and her husband Jeremy were living in Concord, North Carolina. She was studying to become a nurse; he was a YMCA director. However, a little less than a year prior to that, the couple had learned that they were to both take on one of life’s most important jobs: being a parent.
And while the couple had not been planning to conceive at that time, they still excitedly threw themselves into preparation when they learned that Shelly was pregnant. Both attended weekly birthing classes, for instance, in order to get Shelly ready for her delivery.
But although the first-time mom was eager for as natural a birth as possible, her ideal delivery was not to be. That’s because she developed complications at eight months after doctors discovered a blood clot in her leg.
Recalling her thoughts and feelings at the time, Shelly told The Washington Post in 2015, “Having a child with the person you love is such a big deal. I was looking forward to getting to experience that… Then all of [a] sudden, that plan was taken away from me.”
In order to control the clot, then, doctors placed Shelly on blood thinners. But the expectant mom had little time to adapt to this state of affairs, as in September 2014 her waters broke. As a result, she and Jeremy rushed to the Carolinas Medical Center-NorthEast, where the couple expected that they would soon welcome their child.
However, after the pair had arrived at the hospital, Shelly’s labor failed to progress. That’s when medical professionals gave her a diagnosis of preeclampsia, which is typically marked out by hypertension. She was also suffering from a dangerous liver condition known as HELLP syndrome – thought to be a particularly life-threatening preeclampsia variant.
So, with Shelly’s life hanging in the balance, doctors had to act quickly. Consequently, they transferred her to the operating room to carry out an emergency cesarean section. It was at this point, though, that the mom-to-be began to worry.
Later, Shelly revealed to The Washington Post, “I was telling the doctors that I was scared I wasn’t going to wake up. To this day, I don’t know why I had that feeling. I guess it was some sort of sense I had that something was going to go wrong – a premonition – because they had treated everything throughout my pregnancy just fine.”
However, at this point there wasn’t much anyone could to do abate Shelly’s concerns; her daughter had to be delivered, after all. And, fortunately, Rylan was born safely on September 5, 2014. She weighed 7 pounds and 11 ounces and was deemed to be perfectly healthy.
As Jeremy took hold of little Rylan, though, a medical team whisked the new mom away. At that point, her husband had no idea of how dire her situation was. “They just told me that Shelly was going to be in recovery, and it would be a little bit before she reunited with us,” he explained.
In reality, fluid was steadily entering Shelly’s lungs, preventing her from breathing independently. Doctors subsequently found out that the blood clot from Shelly’s leg had traveled to her respiratory system; it appeared that Rylan’s presence had been the only thing keeping it from moving.
In its new location, though, the clot had led to a potentially fatal pulmonary embolism. Consequently, Shelly’s blood pressure had plummeted, while her heart rate was worryingly high. And as she ended up in a coma, it was feared that the mother might not survive her ordeal.
So, in an effort to save Shelly’s life, her medical team chose to put her on a ventilator. That breathing machine was so powerful, in fact, that the bed shook every time that it pumped air into Shelly’s lungs. Despite the artificial assistance, however, she still didn’t come round.
There was one last-ditch idea yet to be tried out, though: skin-to-skin contact with Rylan. And it was worth a shot, so Rylan was placed onto her mom’s chest and prompted to cry. Hopefully, Shelly would then hear her daughter’s calls and start her fight towards recovery.
Nobody knew if skin-to-skin contact would work for Shelly; even if it didn’t, though, at least Rylan would have had some interaction with her mom. “We didn’t know how [Shelly] was going to make it and she had had no interaction with her child,” nurse Ashley Manus explained to The Washington Post. “If that was going to be it for her, we wanted to be able to tell the baby, ‘Your mom held you.’”
However, as Rylan started to cry, doctors witnessed a noticeable change in Shelly’s vital signs. And given this apparent promise, Jeremy worked hard to strengthen the connection between mom and child over the next few days. Then, just over a week after Shelly had slipped into her coma, she woke up. And, for the first time, she got to see her baby.
Describing that moment, Shelly recalled, “It was a weird feeling – like I was between a dream and reality. But I do remember as clear as day looking at her face, how beautiful she was. I don’t think I knew at the time I had been asleep for a week. But it was my first time meeting my daughter. I was so overwhelmed.”
Then, over a year after her ordeal, student nurse Shelly went to work at the Carolinas Medical Center-NorthEast – the very same facility in which she had been so ill. There, she realized that her near-death experience had given her a new perspective on both her work and her life.
In 2016 she told People, “It hits me a lot. I see patients come in the emergency department, some of them critical and on the edge of life and death, and I know that was me.” She added, however, “You have to take a step back and pray for them and for their family and then live the best life you can.”