Press "Enter" to skip to content

Pregnant with COVID, she survived a nightmare

Amy Yamaguchi met her daughter when the infant was five months old.

That’s because at the time of the C-section birth, Yamaguchi was in a coma and suffering from COVID-19.

And that’s just part of the story.

The Seal Beach resident soon would become the first COVID-19 patient at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles to undergo a double lung transplant. She also was one of the hospital’s first COVID patients to be placed on a life support machine often described by experts as a “Hail Mary.”

Danny Levin with wife, Amy Yamaguchi and daughter, Maren, 1, of Seal Beach, on January 5, 2022. In December 2020, Yamaguchi was 36 weeks pregnant when she was diagnosed with Covid-19 and Maren was delivered by C-section, though she wouldn’t meet her for another five months. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Yamaguchi suffered a series of mini-strokes. And she had to relearn how to walk. At one point, her feet were put into casts so she could again push flat against the ground.

In August, after some eight months in hospitals and a rehab center, Yamaguchi went home.

Since then, every week has brought a new milestone. And as she has settled into life with husband Danny Levin and their daughter, Maren Marie, Yamaguchi has developed a strong appreciation for things that are easy to take for granted.

“Just to be home is a joy. Just sitting at the table with the family,” she said. “Now, we have an extra member. It’s been nice to get to be a mom.”

“We’re settling back into what life should be.”

When COVID-19 hit

On Dec. 1, 2020, the day she tested positive for COVID-19, Yamaguchi was nearly 36 weeks pregnant. She and her husband had been careful to wear face masks and follow safety measures, but at the time there was not yet a vaccine and the pandemic was cranking into what would become a deadly winter surge.

For several days, Levin monitored Yamaguchi, tracking her increasingly dire symptoms. When her oxygen levels dropped dangerously low, he took her to Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley.

Because of health protocols in effect at the time, Levin and Yamaguchi couldn’t visit face-to-face. Two days after she was admitted, before her emergency delivery, they texted and chatted on their cells.

“We were telling each other we loved one another and said we would see each other soon, with the whole family,” Levin said.

Then… silence.

“That was the last time I spoke with Amy until February.”

The C-section delivery brought a healthy baby – and marked the beginning of Yamaguchi’s coma.

Doctors thought that the surgery would help Yamaguchi heal faster by freeing space for her lungs. It didn’t. Soon, Maren was sent home with her father and Yamaguchi was airlifted to Cedars-Sinai.

The future looked potentially dark.

“Who’s this guy?”

About mid-January, while on life support at Cedars-Sinai, Yamaguchi began coming out of her coma.

She was strapped to a hospital bed that could be made vertical as a way to help her regain strength. Although she was still on a ventilator, she managed to speak around it. Food was delivered via a tube, first through her nose and later through her stomach.

In March, with the help of a favorite nurse, Yamaguchi arranged to get her husband an anniversary gift from the hospital gift shop. It was a T-shirt, emblazoned with the hospital name, made of cotton, the traditional material for a third anniversary.

“She’s fighting for her life, on life support, and she still gets me an anniversary gift,” Levin says.

While Yamaguchi’s “sassy personality” was coming back, physical problems remained. A blood clot formed in her arm for one. And her lungs still weren’t working.

Doctors had placed her on a machine known as ECMO, extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, which pumps a patient’s blood out of their body, through an artificial lung, and back in.

At the time, the length of her treatment was rare for the hospital’s COVID patients. Patients placed on ECMO are usually treated, at most, a couple of weeks; Yamaguchi was on ECMO for 119 days.

Still, her lungs didn’t improve.

Dominic Emerson, her lead physician at Cedars-Sinai, described her lungs as fibrotic, meaning they were unable to expand the way normal lungs do.

“A normal lung should feel like a marshmallow. These felt like a piece of shoe leather,” said Emerson, associate surgical director of Heart Transplant and Mechanical Circulatory Support in the Smidt Heart Institute.

In April, Yamaguchi became the hospital’s first COVID patient to undergo a lung transplant. Nationally, Emerson said, more than 200 COVID patients have received lung transplants.

Why COVID hit Yamaguchi as hard as it did is unknown.

“She was a totally healthy, normal, 35-year-old active woman,” Emerson said. “That’s why it’s important for people to get vaccinated. You may think that because you’re young you will be safe. But, unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot of people who are young and got really sick and died from Covid.”

Yamaguchi’s pregnancy may have been a factor, “but we don’t know,” Emerson said. According to the Centers for Disease Control, pregnant women “are more likely to become severely ill from COVID-19 compared to people who are not pregnant.”

Doctors dubbed her recovery as remarkable, a testament to the powers of technology and the evolving ways health tech is being used to save lives during the pandemic.

During the transplant surgery, Yamaguchi suffered mini-strokes. Those, in turn, affected her memory.

When she got out of surgery, Yamaguchi said she asked her mother a question:

“Who’s this guy who hangs out with the nurses?’” She said, ‘Amy, that’s your husband.’”

“I said, ‘I’m married?’”

Her mom then asked her daughter if she knew her age.  Yamaguchi, 35 at the time, said she was 22.

“I was a little off.”

Yamaguchi soon learned that not only was she married, she also had a baby.

Still, while some memories came back others did not.

“I don’t remember being pregnant with Maren,” Yamaguchi said. “Some stuff is getting better, as I look at videos and pictures, but I don’t remember the tummy.”

Meeting her baby

After the April surgery, Yamaguchi went off ECMO. But she remained on a ventilator, which was still needed to pump oxygen into her body.

Over the next two months she slowly improved.

Even little things became mini-celebrations.

“She reached up and scratched her nose, and she did it without thinking,” Levin said. “I remember being so happy about that.”

In May, a few days before Mother’s Day, Yamaguchi saw Maren for the first time.

Yamaguchi was in a wheelchair, in the hospital plaza, and still using an oxygen tank and a ventilator.

And she was nervous. She’d missed the initial mother-infant bonding. She worried over how her daughter would react.

“I felt like I was going on a date. Is she going to like me?”

“But then I got to meet her and everything fell into place,” Yamaguchi said. “It sounds cliché, but it was like love at first sight.”

After that, Sundays became baby day for Yamaguchi. The rest of the week was filled with therapy – physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy. But Sundays were set aside for “Maren therapy.”

“It was the best therapy,” Yamaguchi said.

On June 1, doctors removed the tube in her windpipe that had helped her breathe. Later that month, she was transferred to a rehabilitation center, where she walked for the first time since the coma: eight steps on the first day.

On Aug. 3, Yamaguchi went home.

Danny Levin with wife, Amy Yamaguchi and daughter, Maren, 1, of Seal Beach, on January 5, 2022. In December 2020, Yamaguchi was 36 weeks pregnant when she was diagnosed with Covid-19 and Maren was delivered by C-section, though she wouldn’t meet her for another five months. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Since then she’s continued therapy and continued making strides. She went from using a walker and wheelchair to a cane to walking on her own. Picking up Maren, by herself, was a huge deal.

Wednesday, Jan. 5, marked yet another milestone: “Today was the first day I’ve gotten her out of her crib and changed her.”

“I’m doing well,” she added. “Making big improvements.”

The couple goes back and forth between their home in Seal Beach and her parents’ home in Garden Grove. Levin, 35, works online as a teacher for a charter school. And Yamaguchi, a former customer service representative for hemophilia treatment centers, is focusing her energies on her health and on being a mother.

Aware of the rapid, easy spread of the Omicron variant, the couple rarely ventures out. And when they do they wear face masks. Both are vaccinated.

“We haven’t really gone anywhere,” Yamaguchi said. Instead, she’s enjoying time with her daughter and family.

“I have to give myself that grace and forgiveness that life didn’t go as we planned. Now, I have a lot of time with her.”

Last month, the couple celebrated Maren’s first birthday. The party was very small. The theme was Alice in Wonderland.

Source: Orange County Register

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: