The last thing that Melissa Barvels remembers about her second pregnancy is telling her husband she was going to the hospital for pneumonia. When Melissa woke up again, it was more than a month later and she was the mother of a tiny baby boy who had been delivered while she was in a coma.
While it was a shock to discover that she had missed the first weeks of her son's life, the bigger surprise might be the reason why. The illness that had landed Melissa in the hospital and brought her to the brink of death wasn't pneumonia after all. It was “just” the flu.
As she writes in Babble, Melissa had decided against getting a flu shot while she was pregnant with her second child. At the time, she says she didn't think that the flu was a serious concern and just “didn't bother.” She tells Independent Journal Review:
“To be honest I didn't really think about it. My doctor didn't mention it at all. In previous years I never thought it was necessary because I didn't know you can get that sick from having the flu. I just thought if you get the flu, worst case is you end up in bed a few days and maybe lose a few pounds! Never could I imagine the flu could be so dangerous.”
At 25 weeks, the pregnant mom suddenly became very ill. Initially, a nurse suggested she try to wait out the illness. When her condition hadn't improved after several days and she had lost six pounds, Melissa was sent directly to the hospital.
On December 23, 2013, Melissa was admitted to her local hospital on Staten Island and told she had pneumonia. That's when she sent the message to her husband, Scott, who promised to come meet her.
She remembers hoping to be home in time to spend Christmas with Scott and their five-year-old son, but it's the last thing she remembers.
The next thing she knew, doctors were asking her what month it was. Melissa answered, “January.” It was February 5th, 2014.
Melissa had spent 45 days in a coma. Medical staff asked if she was aware that her baby had been born already.
“I honestly have no idea how I knew it, or for how long. I just knew,” she writes.
Her son Scotty was delivered while she was hovering between life and death. Most everything Melissa knows about what happened has been pieced together from doctors and her husband's account of those terrifying days.
After being admitted to the hospital for pneumonia, Melissa went into acute respiratory distress syndrome, a condition that is usually fatal. Fortunately, Melissa was transferred to New York Presbyterian Columbia Hospital and put on a machine called an ECMO (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation). The ECMO allowed her lungs to heal and saved her life.
It was at that point that doctors discovered the real cause of Melissa's mysterious and near-fatal illness. The pregnant mom was suffering from the H1N1 swine flu—a potentially deadly strain that has proven resistant to the FluMist vaccine.
Scotty had been born on January 8th—almost a month before Melissa woke up. Melissa's husband remained adamant: though his wife was in a coma, she needed to be the first one to hold her son.
Only a few hours after waking, she met her baby for the first time. As Melissa writes:
“That memory is still so strong: A huge team of doctors, nurses, and spectators that had cared for us for two months wheeled in the incubator, and there was this tiny little human inside, just barely 4 lbs. I could hardly move, but they placed him in my arms.”
As she struggled to understand what had happened, Melissa realized how much she missed during her son's first weeks. Her husband, a firefighter, had filled out the birth certificate alone, choosing their son's name based on just a few early conversations during the pregnancy.
And while Melissa thinks it's fitting that Scott is named after his father, she says that she's still coming to terms with those lost days.
As she tells Independent Journal Review:
“After two-and-a-half years I still think of that time constantly. It haunts me daily that I missed his birth and the first month of his life. I don't think I'll ever truly get over losing that time of my life. Forty-five days is really such a long time. When I woke up it was so hard to even take care of myself let alone this tiny little baby. It took a long time to process everything that happened. I still ask questions about that time.”
The trauma stuck with Melissa when she found herself pregnant again with baby number three. She says she wasn't frightened of getting sick again because she got her flu shot. However, she couldn't help but think about what she had missed with Scotty. As she tells Independent Journal Review:
“I wasn't frightened, but more focused on the moments I missed being pregnant with Scotty. And constantly comparing that time. For example I would think at 30 weeks pregnant, 'Wow Scotty was already 2 weeks old.' I was able to enjoy my pregnancy but always have the thought of missing out on so much before.”
Years later, Melissa still bears the physical and emotional scars of her illness. However she hopes that others can learn from her example. The point, she says, is not to scare others into getting the flu shot, but to let them know that the flu can be much more serious than many people realize.
“I didn't know you could end up in a coma fighting for your life,” she tells Independent Journal Review. “Maybe if I had, I would've got my flu shot and saved my family so much heartache.”