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Amniotic Fluid Embolism: When The Mother Has Severe Allergy To Amniotic Fluid

Medically reviewed by Ann Guevarra MD, OB-GYN Diplomate, POGS · Obstetrics and Gynecology

Written by Lorraine Bunag, R.N. · Updated Jul 29, 2022

    Amniotic Fluid Embolism: When The Mother Has Severe Allergy To Amniotic Fluid

    Kayleigh Summers, 31, recently went viral on TikTok after sharing her near-death ordeal while giving birth to her now 2-year-old son, Callahan. She experienced what doctors refer to as amniotic fluid embolism (AFE), and like many pregnancy-related complications, it can happen to any soon-to-be mother. What is AFE, and is there a way to prevent it? Find out here.

    Disclaimer: the experience of Kayleigh Summers does not necessarily apply to all pregnant women with AFE. Signs, symptoms, and management may vary between patients with AFE.

    It Started with a Hunch that She Wasn’t Well

    In the viral TikTok video, Kayleigh explained how everything went downhill during her labor and delivery.

    At 10 centimeters of cervical dilation, she felt ill. Worried, Kayleigh told the nurse about it, but the nurse explained it’s normal to feel that way when you’re in labor. But deep down, Kayleigh knew what she was feeling wasn’t normal, so she screamed that something was wrong with her heart.

    As the nurse turned to say her vitals looked good, Kayleigh collapsed and went into cardiac arrest.

    Amniotic Fluid Embolism, as Experienced by Kayleigh

    The events that followed were nothing short of frightening. She had to receive CPR twice for a total of 12 minutes. In fact, the medical team was performing CPR while delivering Callahan via emergency C-section.

    Kayleigh bled out, received a total of 143 units of blood, and had to undergo a hysterectomy. And because her heart and lungs were not performing well, they had to hook her up to an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine to keep her blood oxygenated. She also needed Impella, a temporary heart pump, to give her heart time to recover.

    In the days after Callahan’s delivery, Kayleigh required oxygen and a ventilator to survive. The good news is, she recovered and is now a healthy mother to 2-year-old Callahan.

    amniotic fluid embolism

    What is Amniotic Fluid Embolism?

    With Kayleigh’s experience, more people got curious about AFE.

    Embolism happens when an object, like air, blood clot, or other foreign matter, becomes stuck in the blood vessel and causes an interruption in blood flow.

    Interestingly, amniotic fluid embolism is unlike the other embolisms we are familiar with.

    You see, the amniotic fluid is soluble in blood, so it is unlikely to become stuck in the vessels. Additionally, fetal materials are usually so small they wouldn’t cause any blockage.

    Instead, AFE occurs when the amniotic fluid and other fetal materials, like cells and hair, escape into the maternal bloodstream, causing cardiovascular collapse and endangering the lives of both mother and child.

    What Causes The Heart to Shut Down in AFE?

    Many mothers have amniotic fluid and fetal material in their circulation during labor or delivery, but they do not experience cardiovascular collapse.  

    So, what exactly causes the heart to shut down in amniotic fluid embolism?

    Experts believe it’s due to a severe allergic reaction to the amniotic fluid and fetal cells. However, they do not yet understand why some women develop this extreme reaction while others don’t.

    The severe reaction often leads to an inflammatory response that damages the blood vessels and organs, particularly the heart and lungs.

    It might also result in disseminated intravascular coagulation, a serious blood-clotting disorder that may trigger a host of other problems including bleeding, low blood pressure, and shortness of breath.

    Can You Prevent AFE?

    Unfortunately, there’s no way to prevent amniotic fluid embolism. Experts have identified some risk factors (advanced maternal age, multifetal pregnancy, etc.), but the evidence is inconsistent.

    Moreover, AFE usually doesn’t present with “warning signs.” Reports say the first sign may be sudden cardiac arrest.

    Still, patients like Kayleigh experienced a sense of impending doom: like something is wrong with their heart.

    The good news is, with prompt and appropriate supportive care, some patients may survive this rare but life-threatening condition.

    Key Takeaways

    Amniotic fluid embolism is a rare and life-threatening complication of pregnancy. It occurs when the amniotic fluid and fetal material escape into the maternal bloodstream, triggering a severe immune response that results in cardiovascular collapse.

    AFE typically happens shortly before, during, or after labor and delivery. In many cases, it doesn’t present with warning signs. But others may feel a sense of doom followed by sudden cardiac arrest.

    Learn more about Giving Birth here


    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Medically reviewed by

    Ann Guevarra MD, OB-GYN Diplomate, POGS

    Obstetrics and Gynecology

    Written by Lorraine Bunag, R.N. · Updated Jul 29, 2022

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