For many women, pregnancy is a journey filled with excitement, anticipation, and sometimes unexpected surprises. For other women, the journey can be fraught with challenges and complications. This was the case for Jessica Harris-Wiltz, 38, when she became pregnant in 2019. Little did she know that her pregnancy would take place during the global COVID-19 pandemic and lead to a life-threatening situation for her and her baby during an already high-risk pregnancy.
The Wiltz family, including Jessica’s husband, Joseph, and her son, Braylen, 12, were ready to expand their loving family. She had been trying fertility treatments and already suffered four miscarriages, three of those within the same year. When she found out she was pregnant with Emory, she was ecstatic.
“It was a dream come true,” she said.
And fortunately, she didn't experience any major complications during the pregnancy, except for a large cyst. “I had to have it removed while I was 19 weeks pregnant due to its size, but thankfully, there were no issues or complications afterward.” Dr. Esohe Faith Ohuoba, an OB-GYN affiliated with Memorial Hermann Northeast Hospital, performed the surgery successfully, and Jessica was released the next day.
At the end of February 2020, the world took a dark turn with the pandemic. In March, the public school where she worked as a counselor was forced to close its doors and shifted to remote work. During this time, she began regularly seeing Dr. Angela Earhart, a maternal fetal medicine physician affiliated with Memorial Hermann, alongside her OB-GYN, since she had asthma. While her asthma was normally under control before she became pregnant, her breathing became severely labored as her pregnancy progressed.
Offering a high-risk doctor was just one of the women’s services available at Memorial Hermann Northeast Hospital. Jessica loved that the program provides prenatal care, labor and delivery, postpartum care, breastfeeding support, and neonatal intensive care for infants who require specialized medical attention. The hospital has a team of experienced obstetricians, gynecologists, and pediatricians, and offers advanced technology and facilities to ensure optimal care for both routine and high-risk pregnancies, which was something Jessica says she was thankful for when baby Emory arrived.
“Comprehensive and compassionate women’s care is at the heart of our philosophy at Memorial Hermann Northeast Hospital. As OB-GYNs, we strive to provide patient-centered care that addresses the unique physical, emotional, and social aspects of women's health. Whether it's routine care or high-risk pregnancies, our multidisciplinary team of experts collaborates to provide the best possible care tailored to each patient's individual needs,” said Dr. Ohuoba.
On June 22, Jessica had an appointment with Dr. Ohuoba because she was having trouble breathing. She was 34 weeks pregnant and starting to feel unwell. “I had trouble breathing, and I had a temperature of 102 degrees. Due to the fever, my OB suspected pneumonia. However, I went to the emergency room at Memorial Hermann Northeast Hospital and found out that I had COVID-19 instead.”
Jessica was evaluated and cleared to return home to monitor her symptoms. Two days later, after taking a shower, it took a turn for the worse. She was barely able to speak or breathe. Her husband knew immediately something wasn’t right.
“I got to Memorial Hermann Northeast Hospital where they told me I had 50 percent oxygen. I was in critical condition and needed plasma treatment. I needed an emergency C-section to save me and Emory. My husband could not be present during the delivery due to COVID-19 restrictions. I do not remember much after being wheeled into the operating room, except for holding the nurse's hand tightly. She kept saying I’d be ok. They put me out, and I didn’t wake up for another 30-plus days.”
Baby Emory was born on June 29, 2020, and wasn’t breathing the first two minutes after birth. She was moved to the NICU at Memorial Hermann Northeast Hospital for care. During Emory’s time in the NICU, Jessica’s mom would go to be with the new baby, while her husband and son were forced to stay away due to having tested positive for COVID-19 also.
It was after her C-section that Jessica’s journey took a turn and she was immediately transferred to the ICU. After just a few hours in the ICU, the care team at Northeast coordinated to have Jessica moved to Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center via Memorial Hermann Life Flight®.
“I was diagnosed with COVID-19 pneumonia, and the complications had resulted in sepsis. I was put on a ventilator and given convalescent plasma therapy, which used blood from people who've recovered from COVID-19 to help me recover.”
For more than month, Jessica was in a medically induced coma. Her family had lost hope that she would come out of it. Later, her son admitted how scared he was thinking that his mom was going to die. “It was so hard to hear from your child,” said Jessica.
Her husband, Joseph, broke down crying when the doctors told him she was finally waking up after more than 30 days.
“The first few days were hazy. I was on a ventilator and on a ton of medication. I remember the first couple of days coming out of it, lying there, I couldn’t move much. I remember video calling my family – just staring at the screen. I didn’t realize I had my baby. I didn’t recognize the photos when they showed her to me,” said Jessica.
By the time Jessica woke up from her coma, Emory was already home with her family. But before she could see her daughter for the first time in person, Jessica needed to recover. And it was a long road ahead.
“I began realizing my lack of muscle function. When I got my cell phone back, I couldn’t even hold it. It fell right out of my hand. I had difficulty moving and had to go through physical therapy to regain my strength. I had to re-learn how to sit up and hold things,” she said. “Then, on July 29 – the day after my husband’s birthday, I was able to facetime my husband and my baby. My voice was raspy, but it started to get better.”
Jessica was released from hospital on August 8 and was treated as an inpatient for two weeks at TIRR Memorial Hermann. Continually recognized as one of America's Best Rehabilitation Hospitals by U.S. News & World Report, TIRR Memorial Hermann is a national leader in medical rehabilitation and research.
“I would do basic rehab to learn how to stand and brush my teeth again. Before TIRR, I had wrist drop on my left hand and couldn’t even stand. I couldn’t move my fingers up and down on left hand. But in just two weeks, I was able to walk with a walker. My left wrist was getting better. I was able to mobilize it more. I learned to stand and walk again, going up stairs and picking things up,” she said.
COVID-19 restrictions prevented Jessica's family from accompanying her during physical therapy at TIRR, leaving her to complete the sessions on her own.
On August 22, almost two months after Emory’s birth, Jessica was finally able to go home and see and touch her newborn baby girl and family.
“It was an emotional roller coaster for me because I was dealing with a lot going home for the first time. I felt like I didn’t know what to do with her. It was hard for me. For my first child, we had the bond established immediately. It was very different and very emotional because I didn’t feel a connection at first to my daughter. I couldn’t hold her. I couldn’t walk with her. I couldn’t change her diaper. I couldn’t assist in doing much at all,” she said.
Thankfully, Jessica was surrounded by a strong support system. Her mother and father and her husband’s mother came by to help with everything from taking care of Emory and the household to driving Jessica to her outpatient physical therapy appointments at TIRR Memorial Hermann-The Woodlands.
It has been a slow and arduous journey, but now, nearly three years later, Jessica is still going through physical therapy for a few lingering issues, and Emory is thriving.
“Emory is feisty. She loves coloring and playing with playdoh everywhere. She has a little kitchen set she plays with. One of her favorite things to do is run into her brother’s room and tell on him,” says Jessica. They’ll soon be holding a unicorn-themed birthday party to celebrate Emory’s third birthday.
Jessica says they’re here today thanks to the dedicated and supportive staff of Memorial Hermann, particularly the women’s services at Memorial Hermann Northeast Hospital, who provided a team equipped to handle her high-risk pregnancy.
“My OB was incredible. She was literally a blessing. I prayed for someone who would be patient and understanding with my situation. She listened to me and reassured me. I’ve never had that level of medical care and treatment.”
“I had some great nursing staff taking care of me from beginning to end. One nurse, named Dora, was so sweet and caring. She would come in and stay a while and talk with me. When you’re a COVID patient, the nurses weren’t allowed to spend much time in the room.
I was very lonely. I couldn’t have anyone there. Dora would stay the whole time with me. And the occupational therapists at TIRR don’t get enough credit for what they do. I wouldn’t have gotten better as fast as I did if I didn’t have a great team like that there with me.”