3 On Your Side Investigates: Fighting For Life

The COVID-19 Delta variant has been especially lethal for pregnant women according to doctors
Published: Sep. 23, 2021 at 6:52 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Mississippi is now leading the nation per capita in the number of COVID-related deaths. One group hit especially hard has been pregnant women and their babies. In a Special 3 On Your Side Investigation we talk with a leading doctor in the state who is working to save the lives of pregnant women who become desperately ill from the Delta variant and far too many are “Fighting for Life” for themselves and their unborn babies.

Dr. Morris says the Delta variant of COVID has been brutal and deadly for pregnant women.
Dr. Morris says the Delta variant of COVID has been brutal and deadly for pregnant women.(WLBT)

Dr. Rachel Morris, Associate Professor of Maternal Fetal Medicine at the University of Mississippi Medical Center said, ”it’s leaving newborns without mothers, and husbands widowed and babies fighting for their own lives and it didn’t have to be that way.”

Many doctors have admitted they are surprised and somewhat baffled by the toll COVID-19 has taken on pregnant women and unborn babies, especially the Delta variant.

Dr. Rachel Morris, specializes in Maternal and Fetal Medicine at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. She says the deaths from the Delta Variant have caused an obstetric surge.

“We have had over 10 mothers in ICU in three weeks and unfortunately our death toll is rising significantly too. We’ve had...4 deaths in three weeks from COVID-19. All of our mothers have been unvaccinated,” Dr. Morris said.

Since our interview, Dr. Morris says there have now been 12 deaths at UMMC, five since August 1.

According to information from the State Department of Health as of last week, 72 unborn babies have died since the pandemic. 15 pregnant women. At UMMC, 372 pregnant women have been admitted to the hospital due to COVID. Of the women who died, none were vaccinated and only one was partially vaccinated. Doctors tell us they have also seen double the rate of stillbirths in Mississippi due to COVID.

Dr. Morris says watching a mother struggle for each breath for herself and her unborn baby has presented special challenges.

Dr. Morris said, “almost 90 percent of our mothers who have been admitted over the last three weeks have required a breathing machine. We’ve done more bedside C-sections than I have ever done in the last 13 years since I’ve been here in Mississippi. These mothers are so sick they can’t even make it to the operating room. But delivering early is a last ditch effort to save the mother’s life or after the mother’s heart has stopped beating...in the effort to save the baby’s life, the baby cannot tolerate how critically ill the mother is.”

Dr. Morris and her team in this simulation show how the Morris Pillow works to get pregnant...
Dr. Morris and her team in this simulation show how the Morris Pillow works to get pregnant women on their bellies.(UMMC)

This is what Dr. Morris has designed. It is called the Morris Pillow. This is the first time this video has been shared with the public. It is a simulation of how Dr. Morris and her team have helped desperately ill pregnant women. She says COVID has forced doctors to become creative, to think outside the box and to make on the spot decisions to keep their patients alive.

“What we are seeing is a rapid deterioration. Delta has been very different for us. These mothers are presenting from home, they’re maxing out on either the supplemental oxygen, nasal cannula, or the face mask within 24 hours of being in the hospital. They’re requiring breathing tubes and breathing machines within 2 days of arrival. We’re turning them on their bellies, that’s called proning, to help them breathe because even the ventilator, the machines cannot support them enough to help them support the pregnancy,” said Dr. Morris.

The ages of the women who become so seriously and dangerously ill varies. Most of them are young, between 23 and 40 years old with a median age of 30 according to the State Department of Health.

“I know of one infant that was born in the last 3 weeks that tested positive whose mother was critically ill but the rest are doing as well as can be expected,” Dr. Morris said.

Dr. Alyssa Killebrew, a Madison Psychologist, knows too well what many expectant mothers are going through. COVID claimed the life of her unborn baby Sarah Elizabeth last November.

Dr. Killebrew said, “when I contracted COVID I was unvaccinated because the vaccine had not come out yet. And I just think about it so often, you know my little girl actually saved my life. I lost my child but she gave me life. I contracted a clot. My body just does not like COVID and so I got a clot and it just so happened to be lodged in the placenta and not in my heart or in my lungs.”

Dr. Killebrew is now fully vaccinated and expecting another baby. She is taking every precaution to keep herself and her son safe.

“I got to see him yesterday and I watched him yawn on the screen which was just magical for me. But I‘m back in the same situation, you know, where there is a pandemic and Delta is more deadly than the previous variant,” said Dr. Killebrew.

This is the advice she offers to mothers who are on the fence or frightened by the vaccination and the unknowns.

“COVID was for me so much worse after I gave birth. I ended up going back into the ER because I couldn’t breathe. It felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest. I would just recommend to get vaccinated. Protect that baby, do everything you can to protect yourself too,” Dr. Killebrew said.

Dr. Morris says after what she has seen over the last few months there is no doubt pregnant women should get vaccinated.

Dr. Morris said, “this unnecessary death toll has got to stop. People keep thinking it’s not going to happen to them and it does.”

SEK helps people of all ages who have experienced grief, trauma and tragedy.
SEK helps people of all ages who have experienced grief, trauma and tragedy.(Dr. Alyssa Killebrew)

We also have an update from Dr. Killebrew: she and her husband opened a camp over the summer named for their daughter Sarah Elizabeth called SEK (seek) that has already provided services for 24 people of all ages who have experienced grief, trauma and tragedy. She says this is their way of making sure they carry on her legacy and provide help for others, especially as more families lose loved ones to COVID-19.

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