- Kayleigh Summers says she screamed “something is wrong with my heart” before collapsing during labor.
- Summers’ condition, amniotic fluid embolism, is rare, but traumatic births are as common as 1 in 3.
- She’s gone viral on TikTok for raising awareness of AFE and encouraging patients to listen to their guts.
Throughout Kayleigh Summers’ pregnancy three years ago, she was “obsessed” with hemorrhaging during childbirth. The 31-year-old social worker in Philadelphia would “talk anyone’s ear off” about her fear, texting her best friend and journaling about it too, she told Insider.
Summers even decided to switch hospitals at the last minute so she could deliver somewhere with a neonatal intensive care unit, despite having a perfectly healthy pregnancy.
And, while she doesn’t remember it, her intuition kicked in again as she was getting ready to push: She screamed “something is wrong with my heart!” before going into cardiopulmonary arrest, ultimately needing 143 units of blood transfused. Each unit is about a pint.
Summers has since gone viral on TikTok for sharing her experience with a rare complication called amniotic fluid embolism (AFE), saying “no one saw it coming except me.” She hopes her voice won’t scare laboring people but rather encourage them to trust their guts, and prompt clinicians to study up on AFE.
“It’s just really hard to survive something,” she told Insider, “and then watch people die every other month and not be able to do anything about it.”
Summers was unconscious for days, and put on life support
Summers doesn’t remember entering the hospital, delivering her baby, or even meeting him five days later. But soon after clinicians told her what had happened: She’d passed out in the middle of labor, triggering a code blue emergency and the delivery of her son within six minutes via emergency c-section.
“He didn’t have anything really wrong with him, and he didn’t have oxygen for six minutes, so that’s amazing,” Summers said.
She was diagnosed with AFE, which happens when a laboring person has an allergic-like response to the amniotic fluid entering her system. It affects about 100 of the 4 million people who give birth in the US each year. Summers underwent a massive blood transfusion, a hysterectomy, and was put on life support.
While covered in blood, her obstetrician told her husband: “We’re doing everything we can to save her life.”
That included trying “every medication under the sun” before implanting an Impella, billed as “the world’s smallest heart pump,” which allowed her heart to regain enough strength to be extubated. “I don’t like to use the word miracle, but at that point, it worked.”
The device was later removed, and Summers is now healthy, but continues to work through the experience — including that she can’t conceive any more children naturally — in therapy.
1 in 3 moms say their birth was traumatic
Summers is advocating for more research around AFE and more clinician awareness of the issue through her TikTok and work with the AFE Foundation.
So far, she thinks it’s working. She’s heard from ICU nurses who watched her TikTok, decided to brush up on the condition, and saved a mom and baby who suffered from it just weeks later. “I will scare as many people, unfortunately, as I need to if it saves one person.”
Summers also wants to prompt discussions around “near misses” like hers. The US has the highest rates of maternal mortality of any developed country, and for every pregnancy- or childbirth-related fatality, there are 70 patients who almost die, NPR reported.
Some research also suggests 1 in 3 moms say their birth was traumatic.
“You can be really grateful that you lived through this, and still be really angry and sad that this happened to you,” she said. “That was a really important lesson for me to learn … like it was both the best and worst day of my life when my son was born.”