KANSAS CITY, Mo. - A mother and baby are alive today thanks to a two emergency lifesaving surgeries.
Beth O’Connor was diagnosed with Marfan Syndrome in fall of 2013, seven months into her pregnancy with her third child, Mary Elizabeth.
She had the tests done after a pediatrician recommended they test her older daughter, Catherine.
“Catherine had some of the external characteristics that we look for with Marfans,” Dr. Natasha Burgert said. “She was growing and developing well, but she had a tall, lanky body type that is characteristic for Marfans, which made us look a little deeper.”
Marfan Syndrome is a disorder that affects the body’s connective tissue. It can lead to problems with the major blood vessels, like the aorta.
The O’Connor’s discovered Catherine had Marfan Syndrome. In addition to a positive result for Marfans, O’Connor also found out her aorta was already enlarged.
The doctors scheduled a C-section for December 9, 2013. But Mary Elizabeth would come into the world two days early.
On December 7, after making sure her son got on the bus, O’Connor collapsed in a parking lot. There was no snow or ice so she shook it off.
“Got back in the car after I verified that he was on the bus and had a pain in my chest that then radiated across my entire stomach,” she said.
O’Connor called her husband who immediately took her to Saint Luke’s Hospital on the Plaza. With her unborn child as her number one priority, O’Connor asked her husband to drive to Labor and Delivery. She wanted to ensure her daughter was safe.
After her husband described to the doctors what was happening, they immediately wheeled her to the emergency room.
“The triage nurse there, she came and visited me later and said, ‘You came in, I just didn't know what to do,’” said O’Connor. “She said, ‘I started calling everyone. I called the OB, the cardiac surgeons.’”
Dr. Sanjeev Aggarwal was the surgeon on-call. Once he learned O’Connor had Marfan Syndrome, he suspected her aorta may have dissected, meaning the lining had come apart in the vessel, a sometimes fatal event.
“At the time, there were two lives in the balance, both that of Beth O'Connor and her unborn child,” Dr. Aggarwal said.
They moved O’Connor straight into the operating room where there were more than 20 hospital workers working on her. An obstetrician team was there to deliver the baby. A neo-natal team was ready to take care of the baby immediately after birth.
Dr. Aggarwal and his team were standing by, in case O’Connor’s aorta burst, which he said could have happened at any moment.
“This was somewhat precarious in that she really could have become unstable at any point,” Dr. Aggarwal said. “And her becoming unstable not only jeopardizes her, but also jeopardizes the child.”
Fortunately, Mary Elizabeth was delivered via C-section safely within the first few minutes of the operation. O’Connor’s aorta stayed intact. Immediately after, Dr. Aggarwal began the complicated 13-hour procedure to repair the aorta and save O’Connor’s heart.
“It involves stopping the heart, it involves cooling the body down to a very low temperature,” Aggarwal said. "In many cases, having the stop the circulation to allow us to work on the major vessels leading up to the brain.”
Dr. Aggarwal said repairing an acute dissection in the aorta is one of the largest operations you can perform on the human body.
The fact that O’Connor had that surgery in addition to a C-section made it a very challenging and unique case.
“I actually arrested while I was on the surgical table,” O’Connor said. “I was dead.”
But doctors revived her, and O’Connor left the hospital with her new baby after ten days.
Dr. Aggarwal credits a medical team who worked incredibly well together, to ensure the safety of mother and baby.
He also credits the O’Connors for staying on top of their health and getting tested for Marfan Syndrome. He said knowing O’Connor’s diagnosis meant they could react immediately in a time when minutes count.
O’Connor, on the other hand, thanks Dr. Burgert, her daughter’s pediatrician, who made the first suggestions for Marfans testing.
“This is just being in the right place at the right time,” Burgert said.
“We've said, “Dr. Natasha, you saved my life,” O’Connor said. “And she says she was just in the right place at the right time, but we are very grateful to her.”
Dr. Burgert hopes this will serve as a reminder to everyone to go in for wellness checkups regularly.
“You may think everything is going beautifully but something could be lurking,” Burgert said. “So their success is just because they take great care of their kids and they come in here regularly and we were able to follow them.”
Mary Elizabeth is now seven months old, and Dr. Burgert said she is very healthy and growing fast. The O’Connors recently had her tested for Marfan Syndrome and the tests came back negative.
To learn more about Marfan Syndrome, visit The Marfan Foundation .