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Mother reunites with team that saved her life

Carolinas Medical Center

Nursing student Shelly Cawley returned to class in August, but first she paid a visit to the people she credits for saving her life at Carolinas Medical Center (CMC). Returning to the medical intensive care unit for a reunion, she cried as she told the group, “I have such clear memories of your kindness. I want to provide that same kindness to others.”

Shelly almost died last year, Sept. 5, when she developed complications after giving birth to a baby girl at Carolinas HealthCare System NorthEast. To keep Shelly from slipping further into a coma, the team tried everything until finally they were inspired to place baby Rylan on her mom’s chest.

The baby’s crying seemed to rouse Shelly at least long enough for her to be transferred to CMC with a portable breathing machine providing what’s called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO). ECMO relies on a pump to circulate oxygenated blood through an artificial lung and back into the bloodstream.

Michael Haley, MD, and Ruth Colon, RN, traveled to NorthEast for the procedure, called a transport. “The transport alone carries risks for someone in such critical condition,” says Haley. “I tell families that there is a 10 percent risk of death just from the procedure to switch patients onto ECMO. She was already so sick, the risk was high.”

Shelly made it to CMC and was even more determined to live after hearing her baby cry. “I can’t wait until she gets older and I can tell her she saved my life,” says Shelly as her little girl played and danced among the staff gathered for the emotional reunion on Aug. 12.

“I owe you all so much,” she said through tears. “The fact I’m able to be here, to be here for her first birthday and every milestone along the way, I’m grateful. I was just so impressed with the positive, caring attitude.”

As Shelly made her way around the room greeting staff members, each one told what they did to care for her, most beginning with “You probably don’t remember, but ….”

“Usually we don’t get to see the end result,” said Angela Januszkiewicz, RN. “It’s so nice to have you here.”

“Seeing you standing here is why we went to nursing school and joined the ECMO team,” said Ian Piepgrass, RN.

Shelly will graduate from nursing school in less than 100 days. She always thought she wanted to work in the neonatal intensive care unit, but this group may have changed her mind.

“I’ve never been more determined to graduate and to go on making a difference like the staff here made a difference to me,” she says. “Maybe, eventually, I’ll end up working in the ECMO unit.”

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