SAN ANTONIO – What started as a presumed “mild case” of COVID-19 quickly escalated to a month-long battle for survival for one San Antonio woman and her unborn child.
Ashley Hernandez, a U.S. Marine Corps spouse and mother of five, was 28 weeks pregnant when she tested positive for COVID-19 in June of last year, according to Brooke Army Medical Center officials.
She felt tired and wasn’t too worried about her condition until she began having trouble catching her breath. That’s when her husband, retired U.S. Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Carlos Hernandez, packed up their family of five kids and they all headed to BAMC’s emergency room, according to officials.
“When I went in the room to check on her (Ashley), I instantly knew something was wrong,” her husband told health officials. “Her breathing was labored, and she could hardly get a full sentence out because she seemed out of breath with each word.”
When the family arrived at BAMC, Carlos took his wife into the ER and promised to return after unloading the van. However, when he came back, she was already in the doctors’ care.
“I placed her in the wheelchair (and) took her into the ER, but I had to go get the kids and move the van, so I told her, ‘I’ll be right back,’” he said. “Those were the last words I said to her, and they haunted me for weeks because at several points I thought God might be calling her home. "
Ashley’s oxygen levels declined, and, eventually, she was taken to the intensive care unit and was intubated, according to BAMC officials.
Her condition seemed to improve for a short time. That is until U.S. Air Force Col. Phillip Mason received an urgent call -- Ashley’s health was worsening.
“Ashley was deteriorating quickly,” said Mason, medical director of the BAMC Adult Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation Program. “For some people, COVID-19 is a very rapidly progressing disease.”
Ashley’s husband, Carlos, made the decision with her health team to put her on Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation, also known as ECMO.
“Ashley was on the brink of cardiac arrest without intervention,” Mason said. “We needed to stabilize her to allow for a better delivery and the best outcome for both patient and baby.”
ECMO is typically used after other lifesaving intervention options are not proving effective. According to BAMC, ECMO “removes blood from central vessels, oxygenates it, and delivers it back into the bloodstream.”
In other words, it “replaces the natural functions of the heart and lungs while treatments and natural healing of the affected organs take place,” BAMC said in a release.
ECMO has been used in severe cases of flu and other pulmonary diseases. However, recently, it has also proven to be effective in saving the lives of some COVID-19 patients with respiratory failure, health officials said.
“In Ashley’s case, we were running out of options, and were concerned for her baby,” Mason said. “ECMO was the best course of action for her.”
After Ashley was placed on ECMO, NICU teams performed a C-section and they were able to deliver her son.
Aside from needing to be placed on a ventilator for his 29-week-old lungs, health officials said he was otherwise healthy.
BAMC officials said Ashley was also the hospital’s first patient to give birth while on ECMO.
She said she has no memory of the delivery, but that she was brought back to reality when her health team began giving her updates on her son’s height, weight, hand and foot prints.
Ashley said she kept battling for her health in hopes she could soon get well enough to hold her son for the first time. She was in a 30-day isolation but was still able to see her baby via video chat for the time being.
BAMC officials said Ashley couldn’t meet her son for several weeks, at least until July 17. Although she was still on ECMO and was fighting exhaustion, Ashley sat in a room with a gown and a mask, and held her son.
“He felt very heavy and very small,” she said. “But I was so relieved to hold him.”
Ashley spent 30 days total on ECMO, and she was mostly awake during her treatment. But aside from her physical health struggles, she said it was very trying to be away from her child after he was born, which ultimately made her fight even harder to recover.
After the pair was reunited for the first time, her condition began to improve. On July 26, Ashley was removed from ECMO and returned home just a few weeks later.
Just a few more weeks later, her son, Kyzon, was also able to return home. He’s happy, healthy, and “doing great,” his mother said.
Ashley has since received a clean bill of health, and she said it’s all thanks to God and her health team at BAMC.
“I’m very grateful that God saw fit that I needed to still be here for some reason,” she said. “I’m also extremely grateful to BAMC for the compassionate care.”