One Houstonian's journey overcoming health challenges and a high-risk pregnancy
Kayla and her fiancé, Alexander, were looking forward to getting married. They had everything planned for their small ceremony with close friends and family. But in August 2020, the couple postponed their wedding during the COVID-19 pandemic. Without warning, Kayla became extremely sick.
After a previous bariatric surgery performed in Dallas, Kayla developed muscular neuropathy, a disease that affects the body’s motor nerves. She lost her ability to walk and could barely grasp things with her hands. Her mom and fiancé helped her with things like taking a bath, putting her clothes on and eating.
Despite her difficulties, Kayla focused on getting stronger. She was more determined than ever to walk down the aisle on her wedding day. In February 2021, she began receiving therapy at TIRR Memorial Hermann Outpatient Rehabilitation-Kirby Glen Center in Houston.
“My physical and occupational therapists were wonderful,” says Kayla. “They genuinely cared about me and wanted to see me walk and regain my independence. They encouraged me and were patient with me. When I first came to TIRR Memorial Hermann, I was in a wheelchair. I could barely lift my legs and I couldn’t move my arms or grip things. After receiving physical therapy and occupational therapy two to three times a week for six months, I made incredible progress with my mobility. I transferred from a wheelchair to a walker, and I was able to get into a regular car instead of a mobility van. TIRR Memorial Hermann gave me hope that I would walk again.”
A year after postponing their wedding, Kayla and Alexander tied the knot on August 28, 2021. And just as she had imagined, Kayla walked down the aisle with her father on her wedding day. “It was the best feeling in the world to do something I worked so hard to accomplish,” says Kayla. “I used a walker for support and my dad walked down beside me pushing a wheelchair just in case I got tired. It turns out I didn’t need a wheelchair. I was happy I could walk again. My wedding day was a happy day in my life.”
Then, four months after their wedding, the newlyweds were thrilled to find out they were expecting. Kayla recalls the day she got the surprising news. She and her husband found out at the same time.
“At first, I thought I had another urinary tract infection (UTI),” says Kayla. “I wasn’t feeling that great. My primary care provider (PCP) asked me if there was a possibility that I might be pregnant. I said that’s impossible because I am on antibiotics for my UTI. My PCP tested me again for UTI and a pregnancy test. A few minutes later, she told me my UTI test came back clear. I asked her, ‘Then why am I sick?’ She said, ‘Your pregnancy test came back positive.’ Immediately, my husband and I looked at each other. We were excited, happy and surprised. I cried when I found out that I was six weeks pregnant.”
Kayla began seeing Dr. Michal Bartal, an assistant professor in the department of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston. Dr. Bartal is a maternal-fetal medicine specialist with UT Physicians and is affiliated with The Women’s Center at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital in the Texas Medical Center.
Kayla’s pregnancy was considered high-risk because she had several pre-existing medical conditions, including gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, and lupus, an inflammatory autoimmune disorder. Since she had gastric sleeve surgery, that also elevated her risk.
“Studies show women who have undergone surgical weight-loss procedures like this are at a higher risk of developing complications during pregnancy, and their babies are more likely to be born prematurely,” says Dr. Bartal. “Considering these risk factors, Kayla had weekly appointments with me and the nurse practitioner to monitor her pregnancy more closely and to ensure her baby was growing and developing normally.”
“My pregnancy was a little chaotic,” says Kayla. “I was told standard screening for gestational diabetes is challenging in pregnant women after bariatric surgery. So I had to prick my finger every day to test my blood sugar for about two weeks. After testing my glucose I found out I had gestational diabetes. My doctor put me on insulin to control my blood sugar. My blood pressure also was fluctuating. I ended up going to the emergency room nearly 25 times during my pregnancy for immediate help with my blood pressure. Then, when I was 24 weeks along, I had my first lupus flare-up. Despite these pregnancy complications, I was relieved to know that my baby was doing well. Her ultrasounds were normal, and she was hitting her milestones.”
Most of Kayla’s emergency visits took place at the obstetric emergency room at The Women’s Center at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital. The obstetric ER is equipped to support pregnant patients experiencing an obstetric emergency, including situations like Kayla was experiencing. It is also ready to help with other issues such as obstetric trauma; emergency deliveries; post-partum issues like hemorrhaging, eclampsia, seizure, uterine rupture; and other pregnancy-related situations.
When Kayla was 31 weeks pregnant, she experienced excruciating rib pain and her blood pressure kept rising again. She was rushed to the hospital. It turned out Kayla was showing signs of preeclampsia, a serious medical condition characterized by high blood pressure. If left untreated, preeclampsia can endanger the health of the mom and unborn baby.
Kayla was admitted to The Women’s Center at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital. As a Level IV maternal facility, it provides comprehensive care for both mom and baby, including high-risk obstetrical and neonatal care within the same facility.
When Kayla woke up the next morning, her maternal-fetal medicine doctors told her that it would be best to deliver her daughter as soon as possible due to the severity of her preeclampsia.
After 20 hours in labor and a few pushes later, Kayla and Alexander welcomed their beautiful daughter, Elisabeth Rebecca, on April 10, 2022. She weighed 3 pounds and 14 ounces. Since she was born a few weeks premature, Elisabeth spent three weeks in the Level IV neonatal intensive care unit at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital.
“It was the most amazing experience in the world to finally lay eyes on my baby, hug her, and cradle her in my arms,” says Kayla. “My heart melted when I heard her cry for the first time. Once I knew everything was okay, I rested my head on the bed, and I told myself – you did it! My husband and I are so in love with her. She has stolen our hearts.”
Today, baby Elisabeth is doing well. She loves to eat and make funny faces, and she pretty much runs the household. During her regular checkups with her Children’s Memorial Hermann-affiliated pediatrician, Dr. Joyce Egbe, Elisabeth is hitting her milestones.
Kayla is settling into her new role as mom and counts her blessings every day. She can’t thank the TIRR Memorial Hermann therapy team enough for giving her the strength to push forward and her nurses and UTHealth Houston doctors affiliated with Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital for taking excellent care of her and her newborn baby through the ups and downs.
“They were so compassionate toward me,” says Kayla. “They made me feel comfortable and they were always there whenever I needed them, no matter what time of day. While everyone was encouraging, there was one particular nurse who was super encouraging. She told me, ‘Don’t let your walker stop you from taking care of your child and loving your child.’ Initially, I felt like I couldn’t change my baby’s diaper since I was still struggling a little with muscle weakness in my hands, but the nurse told me, ‘If you can move your hand, you can do it.’ She sat there and went through the motions with me, and I have video of me changing my baby’s diaper. I will forever be so thankful for her.”
While Kayla continues with physical therapy at TIRR Memorial Hermann, she has some encouraging words for other mothers who are facing physical challenges. “Your baby gives you that strength to fight and to never give up," she says. "As you learn how to do things all over again, you will forever be your baby’s superhero.”Learn more about the Women’s Center at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital here.