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Family shares COVID lesson after lifesaving surgery

After she barely survived COVID-19 this summer, a new mother is sharing her story to inspire other expecting parents to get vaccinated.

LOVELAND, Colo. — The time was right for high school sweethearts Sarah and Andrew Mays. 2021 would be the year they would try to have a baby.

“We had bought our dream home, got our perfect little dog, and we decided next step was to try and have a family,” Sarah said.

Sarah got pregnant quickly. In February, the couple found out baby Mays would be arriving by Halloween.

“It happened really fast and we were excited to tell our family,” Sarah said. “We couldn’t wait to share the news."

Pregnancy can be scary. There are so many changes, and so many decisions to make. The Mays were also navigating pregnancy during a pandemic. They had so far avoided COVID-19, and around the time they were newly pregnant, vaccines were starting to become available to the general public.

Credit: Mays Family
Sarah Mays found out she was pregnant in February 2021.

But they were nervous. There was a lot they didn’t know about the vaccine. 

“We’re not 'anti-vaxxers' in any way,” Sarah said. “We were just so unsure about getting pregnant, and getting the vaccine, and what that could do with it being our first baby.”

“[Everyone] had an opinion, you know. Not as many facts were coming out at that time,” Andrew said.

Sarah and her husband were making this decision early in the vaccine rollout for the general public, and before some of the stronger recommendations were issued by the CDC and OBGYN groups later in the year.

The couple said they were also getting conflicting information from some friends and family. 

“I just wanted to do the right thing,” Sarah said. “I had been practicing changing my diet and just being as healthy of a person as possible. The last thing I wanted to do was do something like the vaccine and not know the outcome.”

Today, COVID-19 vaccines are strongly recommended for pregnant women, who are at higher risk of serious illness if they contract the virus. The CDC says the vaccine is safe for women who are pregnant, trying to become pregnant, or breastfeeding, and there is no evidence of an increased risk of miscarriage for women who have gotten vaccinated.

Ultimately, the Mays decided against vaccination. Sarah said they wanted to wait until after the baby was born to get their shots.

But COVID found them first.

Andrew got sick first, but Sarah got more seriously ill.

At seven months pregnant, she was admitted to the hospital and placed on a ventilator.

But even that wasn’t enough.

Running out of options to save Sarah’s life, doctors at UCHealth University of Colorado decided to try a rare double surgery: ECMO and a Cesarean section.

“I hate to use the term last-ditch effort, but really that’s where we were at. This was the last thing we could do to try and save her and her baby,” said Dr. Cristina Wood, a high-risk obstetrical anesthesiologist and part of the team that performed the dual operation on Sarah and her baby.

Wood describes ECMO as similar to a cardiac bypass. Doctors placed large tubes into Sarah’s neck, connected to a machine that would oxygenate her blood. That was followed by a C-section to deliver her baby girl at only 29 weeks – very premature.

Doctors said those back-to-back surgeries are very rare.

“Incredibly rare. First time we have actually done it at University of Colorado,” Wood said. “And we’ve cared for a significant number of COVID patients and pregnant COVID patients.”

The Mays’ daughter, Kabrini, was born on Aug. 18. Sarah got to meet her daughter for the first time five days later. Mom was able to leave the hospital a few days later and continue her recovery at home. Kabrini, while strong, needed another surgery. She remained hospitalized a little longer before going home to Loveland in October.

Credit: Cyrus McCrimmon
UCHealth patient Sarah Mays and her husband Andrew with their new daughter Kabrini at their home in the Big Thompson Canyon.

“I am thankful to be alive. I am thankful to have my family, for us to be healthy,” Sarah said. “I’m just more and more grateful to know that this is what I dreamt of and it's here.”

The couple is also sharing their story in hopes that other people, especially expecting parents, will learn from their experience. They want to inspire people to get their COVID vaccines, and hopefully avoid the same difficult journey they endured.

“Looking back, if I would have heard a story like mine, I really, really would have jumped right in [to get the shot],” Sarah said. “And with no hesitation."

“In hindsight, everything is 2020,” Andrew said. “But we’re lucky [the vaccine] is available, and now the studies show that pregnant women would benefit and definitely help them [avoid] what happened to us.”

This Thanksgiving, the Mays are grateful.

“I’m just thankful I can be here with my family and share this with the world,” Sarah said. “And hopefully help many to come with making their decision a little bit easier.”

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