Two hours after giving birth to twins in northwest Indiana, Stacy Martinez was being loaded onto a helicopter to be rushed to University of Chicago Hospital.
A nurse told the patient's friend Saturday to say her goodbyes because Martinez's life hung in the balance.
But what happened next gives the new mother and her family a heightened sense of gratitude this Thanksgiving.
"I hope we can pay everyone back — the doctors, the nurses, our friends," Martinez said from her hospital room Wednesday. "We have so much to be thankful for."
After delivering her healthy daughters, the 25-year-old immediately started convulsing because of an amniotic fluid embolism, which occurs in about 1 in 21,000 U.S. births, the flight crew said. Many patients die within the first hour after the abrupt onset of symptoms, and those who do make it often suffer brain damage, clinicians said.
However, Martinez defied the odds, thanks to quick thinking by staff at Franciscan St. Anthony Health in Crown Point, who recognized her condition and resuscitated her after a cardiac arrest and quickly called an experienced flight team.
"This was extremely rare and extremely deadly," said St. Anthony's Kathy Podorsek, an obstetrics nurse for 25 years, who had never seen this situation.
"This was a case where seconds — not minutes — count," said Jannie White, one of the flight nurses.
While Martinez was being airlifted, her husband, an Army medic who had recently returned from overseas, was in San Antonio, frantically trying to get home to his wife, their new babies and two other young children.
"I've seen stuff in combat, and this was the worst thing I've ever had to go through," said Jason Martinez, 33, who had previous deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. "We wouldn't have gotten through this without our faith ... and without the help of so many good people."
At the top of dad's gratitude list is St. Anthony's, where the emergency room staff recognized they had a life-and-death situation on their hands. They resuscitated Martinez, inserted a breathing tube and called University of Chicago Aeromedical Network, which provides helicopter transport of critically ill patients within 200 miles of the campus.
Typically a patient with an amniotic fluid embolism "bleeds out," said Dr. Alexei Wagner, the chief flight physician.
Because the flight crew suspected an embolism, members came prepared with the necessary blood products, giving her two units of fresh frozen plasma and four units of red blood cells, to improve clotting and stop the bleeding.
Within 30 minutes of receiving the call from St. Anthony's, the medical crew had landed, retrieved the patient and was headed back to Hyde Park. But before the twin-engine Dauphin 2 was airborne, White had one more task: She had to talk candidly with the patient's friend, Leigh Burke, who accompanied Stacy Martinez to St. Anthony's.
"Stacy was so unstable ... I knew there was a high likelihood that she wouldn't survive," White said.
Meanwhile, Jason Martinez was on a flight of his own Saturday, from San Antonio to Midway Airport, coming to terms with the fact that his healthy wife was in peril.
He acknowledged it had been a tough pregnancy, which is not unusual with multiples, but she had no other risk factors. Aside from his wife being "really big," there was no hint of the impending danger until he fielded the call from Crown Point.
"I'm an Army medic ... so when I heard the word embolism I was a complete wreck," said Martinez, who wore sunglasses on the flight to Chicago to conceal his red-rimmed eyes. But he couldn't hide his nerves and inexplicably found himself pouring out his story to his seatmates, which included a retired nurse. They promised to pray for the couple, which provided some comfort to the anxious passenger.
Upon landing he rushed to the hospital, punching numbers into his cellphone. To anyone who was by her bedside, his message was always the same: "Just hold her hand and tell her I'm coming and to hold on."
And Stacy Martinez did just that. "Once I gave it to God, he just took over," she said.
To everyone's amazement, she moved out of intensive care Tuesday, with no memory of the drama or even giving birth. In the immediate aftermath and still woozy from all the medications, she had no short-term memory, including not knowing the day of the week, but her husband says she's back to her old self, with sense of humor intact. She was discharged late Wednesday afternoon.
Sue Marston, another flight nurse, stopped by her room and was delighted to see the patient doing so well.
"When you get that call, that's when all your training kicks in," Marston said. "If I let myself think that this was a 25-year-old mother who just had twins, I couldn't do my job ... but the next day is when it really hits you."
Both parents are eager to be reunited with their new daughters, Mila Marie and Scarlett Rose, and 3-year-old Jacob and 18-month-old Lilliana, all of whom are staying with friends in Cedar Lake, Ind., while their mom recuperates. The healthy newborns weighed in at 7 pounds,11 ounces and 7 pounds, 4 ounces, respectively.
"They're absolutely perfect," said Kelsey Keilman, a friend who is watching the babies.
With four kids age 3 or younger, Jason Martinez hopes the Army will give him a "compassion reassignment" to a desk job. But there will be time to deal with red tape and paperwork after the holiday, he said.
On Thursday they intend to make the rounds of their "incredible support network" — and maybe enjoy some pumpkin pie, Stacy Martinez's favorite.
"We're just so grateful to everyone," she said. "All we really want to do is say thank you."