Cain defies the odds: How ECMO saved our son’s life after meconium aspiration
The moment Vanessa laid eyes on her baby through the fetal ultrasound, she realized the extreme depth of a mother’s love. Witnessing her little one moving on the big screen for the first time was a life-changing experience for her. She initially thought her baby would resemble a small bean at 12 weeks’ gestation, but the reality was far more profound than she had expected.
“When my boyfriend and I discovered we were expecting a baby, it came as a total surprise to us,” said Vanessa. “We were shocked. Honestly, I wasn’t quite ready to be a mom. But seeing our baby growing in my womb was an amazing feeling. I had a baby in me that I never knew.”
Throughout Vanessa’s pregnancy, everything went smoothly without any complications. She didn’t experience morning sickness whatsoever, only intense cravings for hot and spicy food.
“Jalapeno bombers were my favorite,” she reminisced.
During every ultrasound appointment at her OB-GYN’s office, the couple’s baby boy, who they decided to name Cain, showed healthy growth and development. He was right on schedule.
Both Vanessa and her baby remained healthy throughout the entire pregnancy, and there were no major concerns, aside from the growing anticipation of Cain’s arrival.
“I was 40 weeks pregnant, and I was ready for him to come out,” said Vanessa. “I would tell Cain, ‘Mommy needs you to come out now, because mommy is tired and wants to see you.’”
When Vanessa arrived at the hospital for her scheduled induction, she was 3 centimeters dilated. After being at 6 centimeters for two days and experiencing fluctuations in her blood pressure during labor, her doctors decided it was time for an emergency C-section.
On January 27, 2023 at CHRISTUS Santa Rosa Hospital – Westover Hills, Vanessa and Casai welcomed their son, Cain Martinez, who weighed a healthy 8 pounds. They couldn’t wait to hold him. But soon after he was born, there was an uneasy feeling in the room.
“When they got my baby out, I didn’t hear his loud cry,” said Vanessa. “His cry was very faint which was very unusual. At that point, I just knew something was wrong with our baby. After they sewed me up, I was told Cain needed to be transferred to CHRISTUS Children’s.”
Cain had meconium-stained amniotic fluid and was in respiratory distress. Meconium is a baby’s first stool, which is supposed to be passed soon after birth. In some cases, such as Cain’s, the baby passes it before birth and into the amniotic fluid. This caused him to develop meconium aspirated syndrome (MAS).
MAS occurs when a newborn breathes in or aspirates meconium into their lungs. The presence of meconium in the lungs can cause serious issues. Meconium is thick and sticky, and when it enters the airways, it can block them and restrict the inflow of oxygen and removal of carbon dioxide. It can also irritate the lung tissue and cause inflammation, leading to respiratory distress, breathing difficulties and a significantly decreased oxygen supply to the baby’s body.
“That’s why my baby wasn’t crying,” said Vanessa. “He couldn’t breathe. The nurses tried to suction out as much of the meconium in his lungs as possible, but he needed to go to a NICU that had a higher level of care. We got to see and touch our baby before he left. He was beautiful.”
A life-saving intervention
Upon Cain’s arrival to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at CHRISTUS Children’s, the medical team swiftly conducted airway suctioning to eliminate a significant portion of the meconium in his lungs. However, since this intervention did not yield the desired improvement in Cain’s breathing, the decision was made to initiate ECMO support. Cain remained connected to the ECMO machine for seven days to allow his heart and lungs ample time to rest and heal.
ECMO stands for Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation. It is a life-saving medical procedure used for patients with severe respiratory distress or cardiac failure. ECMO provides temporary mechanical support to the heart and/or lungs by bypassing the patient’s own circulatory system, using this external device to oxygenate the blood and remove carbon dioxide from the body.
“Sometimes patients have severe breathing problems that need more support than what a breathing machine (respirator or ventilator) can provide,” said Dr. Maria Pierce, a board-certified Perinatal-Neonatal Medicine physician at CHRISTUS Children’s. “ECMO serves to replace the body’s need to breathe with an artificial lung (oxygenator) and if needed, function of the heart. This support helped Cain’s lungs recover relatively quickly.”
“After he got off ECMO, the nurses gradually reduced his oxygen levels, which allowed him to gradually transition to breathing on his own,” said Vanessa. “Initially, a breathing tube was placed in his mouth to assist with his respiration. Cain’s progress was remarkable, reaching a point where the breathing tube could be relocated to his nose instead. He was getting better.”
Initially, Cain also required tube feeding because all of his energy was being used to breathe. Cain’s steady recovery was evident as both his general health and feeding abilities continued to show gradual improvement while in the NICU.
“During Cain’s one-month NICU stay, all of his doctors and nurses were sweet,” said Vanessa. “Dr. Motta helped me understand everything that was going on. She was our primary doctor in the NICU who was making all the calls for Cain even when they put him on ECMO support.” Dr. Cheryl Motta is medical director of the NICU at CHRISTUS Children’s.
At 2 weeks of age, Vanessa was able to hold Cain for the first time. She says the best part of all was cradling her newborn son in her arms. “He was connected to so many wires,” said Vanessa. “The nurses had me sit in the chair. They put him in my arms and I started bawling.”
On March 1, 2023, Cain was finally ready to go home. “It was an exciting day,” said Vanessa.
Today, 2-month-old Cain is doing well. His lungs are healthy and strong, and he loves to eat. “He keeps growing and getting chunkier,” said Vanessa. “He is a happy baby. He loves to talk and every time he wakes up, he is in such a great mood. We are blessed to have wonderful doctors and nurses who took great care of him. Now I get to love on him after all he has been through.”
To learn more about our Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at CHRISTUS Children’s Hospital, visit: https://www.christushealth.org/get-care/services-specialties/womens-services/neonatal-intensive-care .