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Waking Up to a Medical Miracle

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Times Staff Writer

On a quiet weekday night in February, at least 10 doctors and nurses crowded into a room in the intensive care unit of a hospital in the San Fernando Valley to witness a medical rarity.

A woman was giving birth while in a deep coma.

The baby boy was so small, one doctor recalls, that he seemed to fall out of the womb. Charlie was 15 weeks early, weighing in at just 1 pound, 10 ounces. Doctors didn’t think either he or his mother had much chance of surviving.

Charlie and his mother, Amanda Thomas of Palmdale, proved the doctors wrong. The baby, now a robust 6 pounds, rode out of Providence St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Burbank on his mother’s lap Tuesday -- coincidentally the exact due date predicted by doctors when Thomas first learned she was pregnant.

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“It’s a miracle,” said Dr. Paul Hinkes, wearing a tie decorated with storks as he stood in front of television cameras at the hospital Tuesday afternoon. “This is a miracle baby, pure and simple.”

The fact that Charlie and his mother survived is also a testament to modern medicine, said doctors involved in the case. As recently as a few years ago, Charlie almost certainly would not have lived.

“I was almost not here and so was Charlie,” Thomas said, crying. “I almost died.”

Their story began on Valentine’s Day. Nearly six months’ pregnant, Thomas threw a birthday party for her first son, George V, who was turning 2. She hadn’t been feeling well and was short of breath. She thought she had the flu.

A few days later, she said, her husband, George IV, took her to an urgent care center in Santa Clarita, where she was referred to the emergency room at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills.

“They said I had viral pneumonia,” said Thomas, 26, a dental receptionist. “They gave me oxygen and that’s all I remember.”

The viral pneumonia soon developed into acute respiratory distress syndrome, a rare complication for someone of Thomas’ age and good health. Shortly after being admitted to the hospital, she suffered kidney failure. Fluid began building around her heart and lungs.

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After three days, doctors decided to induce a coma to stabilize Thomas’ condition, using drugs that would not harm the baby. The treatment is similar to putting a leg in a cast to promote healing. Doctors wanted Thomas to rest her lungs; a ventilator would do the breathing for her.

Still, she was in extremely critical condition. “They told my husband that it was either me or the baby,” Thomas said Tuesday. “One of us wasn’t going to make it.”

The pregnancy was a problem. Thomas’ condition was so grave she could not tolerate a caesarean section, said Dr. Martin Cooper, an obstetrician at Holy Cross. Nonetheless, a team of doctors and nurses began preparing for a C-section; if either one died, perhaps the other could be saved.

Late on the afternoon of Feb. 26, a nurse noticed that Thomas was having contractions. Her body was preparing to give spontaneous birth.

Doctors and nurses began crowding into Thomas’ room. A team from the neonatal intensive care unit at Providence St. Joseph’s was called in to care for the baby because that hospital was better equipped than Holy Cross for such a case.

“There were four OB guys in the room,” recalls Cooper. “No one had ever seen this before.”

George Thomas IV said he got a call about 7 p.m. “They said, ‘Are you sitting down? You’re about to become a father.’ ”

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At the hospital, George stood in the room while Amanda gave birth. He was happy to be a father again, but was worried that his wife would bleed to death and that Charlie was so small.

“I sat down and did a lot of crying, believe it or not, and a lot of praying,” he said.

Charlie was taken about 20 miles away to Providence St. Joseph’s, while his mother remained in a coma at Holy Cross. George Thomas IV spent the next month shuttling back and forth between the two hospitals.

The baby and the mother had good and bad days. The baby would gain 3 ounces, then lose one. Charlie, like his mother, was on a respirator to help him breathe. A plastic tube was used to give Charlie nourishment.

“He was so small you could hold him in the palm of your hand,” said George Thomas III, Charlie’s paternal grandfather. “You could see right through him. Every bone, even the leg muscles. His skin was so thin.”

In late March, the doctors began easing off Amanda’s medication. She was doing better now that was she no longer pregnant. Then, a month after she gave birth, she woke up.

“One of the nurses asked me how long I had been there,” said Amanda. “I said, ‘Four days.’ She said, ‘No, it’s been five weeks.’ ”

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She was amazed. The family showed her photos of Charlie, who was still at Providence St. Joseph’s. Amanda remembers thinking the baby was smaller than the remote control she used to raise and lower her hospital bed.

She was eventually weaned from the respirator -- no easy task -- and went through therapy so she could learn to walk again.

In early April, she was allowed to go see Charlie. He was hooked up to all sorts of machines, but he was making progress.

“I felt guilty because I thought it was my fault for getting sick,” Thomas recalled. “I was really emotional. I was glad at the same time that he was doing OK. The doctors were saying that he was doing as well as could be expected.”

The more that Thomas thought about it, the more she began to believe that her body somehow decided to let the baby go, realizing it was the only way that either would ever be healthy.

While doctors are calling Charlie’s progress remarkable, his case is not without precedent. Doctors recalled at least one case, in which a woman who was clinically dead from a gunshot wound gave birth to a live baby by C-section.

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And although a full-term pregnancy lasts 40 weeks, the majority of babies born as young as 24 weeks can survive because of advances in technology and monitoring, said Dr. Nancy Edwards, a neonatologist at Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles.

“They survive, but not always intact,” she said, explaining that they are more prone to blindness, deafness or cerebral palsy.

Charlie’s prognosis, doctors say, is good; all signs point to good health, although he will be on antibiotics for a time.

George and Amanda Thomas both said they remain deeply thankful to the staffs of both hospitals. Now, they are looking forward to Father’s Day on Sunday.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do yet,” said Amanda. “We’ve just been waiting for Charlie to come home.”

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