Dustin Walker waited in the obstetrics unit at University Hospital in San Antonio on February 15, 2012. The surgeons had told him his new baby would arrive within 20 minutes. But Dustin knew his wife Gina’s surgery was expected to take several hours. Three hours turned into four. Then more. “That’s when I started to get worried,” says Dustin, 31, of Ashville, Ohio.
The joyous occasion of his daughter’s birth was coupled with the horror of a one in seven chance that Gina, 31, already a mother of two and stepmother of two, would not survive the delivery because of a life-threatening condition called placenta percreta.
In a healthy pregnancy, the placenta, the lifeline that delivers nutrients to the baby, spontaneously detaches from the uterus after delivery. With placenta percreta, the placenta attaches so deeply into the uterine wall that the body can’t naturally or safely expel it. In Gina’s case, the placenta had extended straight through the uterus and attached to her bladder and pelvic wall. The only solution was a full hysterectomy.
Finally, Gina’s ob-gyn, Jason A. Parker, MD, of the University of Texas Health Sciences Center, emerged to update Dustin. Their baby, Addison, was born quickly and was deemed healthy, although she weighed just four pounds, 14 ounces. But when Dr. Parker widened the incision to start the rest of Gina’s surgery, he was greeted with anatomy unlike any he had ever seen. In a normal pregnancy, the vessels that deliver blood to the placenta are about the width of a pencil. Gina’s were as wide as fingers and reached deep into the pelvis.
“On a scale of one to ten, one being perfectly healthy and ten being dead, how is my wife?” Dustin asked. “The surgeon basically told me that she was a nine.”
The operating room was packed with obstetrical surgeons, trauma surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, and a urology team. Trying to remove the uterus and placenta without damaging other organs was a Herculean task. When the placenta invades the body outside the uterus, it can behave almost like a tumor, producing new blood vessels, which raises the risk of bleeding complications. And despite all the preparation, Gina’s blood loss was epic. The average blood transfusion is three pints. A victim of a bad car accident can require as many as 100. Gina wound up needing 540.
Eight hours later, surgeons had finally stemmed the bleeding, and Dustin was allowed to see his wife. “I would not have recognized her had they not actually walked me into the room,” Dustin says. Gina was slim—five-foot-seven and 120 pounds pre-pregnancy—but because of all the blood and fluids pumped into her, the woman lying on the hospital bed no longer fit that description. “Her shoulders were as wide as the bed, and her face measured exactly 12 inches ear to ear. It was a sight you could never imagine,” Dustin says.
Two days later, Gina underwent more surgery to stop residual bleeding. Again, Dustin waited. But the doctors were smiling after the four-hour procedure. She would be OK, although there were still many unknowns. Blood loss like Gina’s can cause brain damage, a heart attack, or a stroke. Gina’s kidneys would likely be affected. Only time would tell if her bladder would regain full function.
Gina drifted in and out of consciousness for a week. Hooked up to a breathing machine, she could not speak, but occasionally she could mouth “I love you” to Dustin. She would ultimately spend a month in the hospital. Aside from stomach pain, “the most agonizing part was not being able to be with my newborn girl,” Gina says. Although Dustin could bring the baby to the hospital, Gina had developed a postoperative infection and wasn’t allowed to hold her.
When she returned home, Gina continued to recover. Ten months later, she needed additional surgery to reconstruct her abdominal wall and help her organs settle properly, but the only residual effect is vision loss in one eye. “This has renewed my faith,” Gina says. “We asked for prayers, and those prayers were heard.” Gina and Dustin recently started Hope for Accreta, a foundation to support patients with certain placenta health issues through events such as an annual blood drive.
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