“If a stranger asked how my pregnancy was going, I’d tell them that I was going to die.” (Photo: Stephanie Arnold)
Imagine having premonitions that you were going to die at a very specific moment in the near future. That’s exactly what happened to Stephanie Arnold when she was pregnant with her second child. After finding out she had a placenta previa (meaning her placenta was growing on top of her cervix), she began experiencing intense visions of dying during childbirth. Throughout her pregnancy, doctors told her she had nothing to worry about, but during her emergency C-section in May 2013, Stephanie flatlined for 37 seconds. With the help of a regression therapist, she was able to understand more about what happened to her, as well as start the healing process. This harrowing experience is the subject of her newly published memoir, 37 Seconds: Dying Revealed Heaven’s Help.
The Moment I Knew Something Was Wrong
Up until 20 weeks, my second pregnancy was perfect. I had no problems, no nausea. I thought to myself: This is easy. At the 20-week ultrasound, though, I was diagnosed with a placenta previa, which means the placenta was growing on top of my cervix. The doctor told me it wasn’t a big issue, but I just didn’t have a good feeling about it. There was something resonating with me that this wasn’t going to end well. The doctor explained to me what a previa was—it’s a condition where the placenta partially or fully blocks the uterus, interfering with delivery—and then had to leave the room to take a phone call. As soon as he walked out, it felt like a wave had come over me.
When I got home from my doctor’s appointment, I looked on the Internet and learned that a previa could turn into an accreta, which means that the placenta will marry itself too deeply into the uterus, sometimes resulting in the need for a hysterectomy. What happens is there’s too much blood and doctors aren’t able to pull the placenta apart from the uterus. You can hemorrhage, and in the worst-case scenario, you could actually die. When I read that, I had the same sort of visceral reaction I had when I met my husband (I knew he was going to be my husband as soon as I met him). But this time I said, “This is going to happen to me.” I just knew I was going to die.
The Morbid Visions Started Coming Fast and Furious
I was taking my daughter to school in New York City, and I was walking across a park—there was a fountain, but it was turned off because it was February. I walked past the fountain, and all of a sudden I had a vision of the fountain going from water to blood—there was blood leaking out of everywhere. My hands got cold, and I had to catch myself off-balance. Luckily, my daughter was in her stroller. I told myself to shake it off.
“I just knew I was going to die.”
But the next day, I was walking in the bakery aisle of the grocery store, buying the ingredients for the challah bread I make every Friday night, when all of a sudden I had a vision of me being buried, having dirt thrown on my casket, and my husband reciting prayers. These were the kinds of things that were happening to me—multiple times a day. I was feeling it in my fingers and in my toes, and it was too loud to ignore. You know how when you have a dream that stays with you and you just feel that there’s something about it, like there’s a heaviness weighing on you? That’s what this was like.
I’ve always had a keen sense of intuition. I think we all have it, but we just tend to ignore it. When I was younger, for example, I hugged my uncle, and I knew it was the last time I would see him. Two days later, he died. Once, I felt my heart ache, and at that moment, I asked my father, “Have you spoken to grandma lately?” That was pretty much exactly when she had a heart attack. Why I said grandma and why I felt pain, I don’t know. I used to chalk it up to coincidence, but after everything that’s happened to me, I will never doubt it again.
No One Believed What I Had to Say
After the 20-week ultrasound, I spoke to doctors, and I had consultations with specialists. If a stranger asked how my pregnancy was going, I’d tell them that I was going to die. At this point, my husband, Jonathan, thought I was crazy. Nobody would listen to me. I even started writing and sending out goodbye letters to those I was close with.
I met with a gynecological oncologist, who deals with reproductive organ cancer. He gave me an MRI and said that if there was an accreta, I could schedule a hysterectomy for the time of delivery. The MRI came back negative for an accreta, and the doctor and my husband told me I should feel better. I actually felt worse—at least if there was something to point to, I could have some plan of action. I could schedule the hysterectomy; I could save my life.
“I even started writing and sending out goodbye letters to those I was close with.”
I also had a consultation with an anesthesiologist, and she said she had never heard a patient speaking this way before—someone who had sought out specialists like this in order to protect herself and see what was wrong. She flagged my file (which means there would be extra blood monitors and a crash cart in the room when I gave birth), completely unbeknownst to me—she had a gut feeling, too.
The Day I Dreaded Finally Arrived
I ended up needing an emergency C-section. I was making my daughter breakfast, and then I bled all over the floor. I drove myself to the hospital, which wasn’t the smartest move—but I’d had many premonitions, and dying in a car accident wasn’t one of them. At the time, I split my time between Chicago and New York City. I was in Chicago, but Jonathan was in New York. I texted him to tell him that I was going into the operating room—I said, “Whatever happens, I just want you to know that you’ve made me the happiest woman in the world, and please tell our children who I am, who I was, and how much love I have for them.” Then I kissed my daughter a million times and I tried to compose myself because I didn’t want her last memory of me to be me in hysterics.
On the way to the operating room, I told the doctor that I thought there was something wrong. I knew the baby was fine, but there was something wrong with me. I told her I needed to be put under general anesthesia. She told me I was just nervous since Jonathan wasn’t there. That was my last-ditch effort to get someone to listen to me. The next thing I knew, I woke up six days later out of a coma.
(Photo courtesy of Stephanie Arnold)
My Premonition Came True: I Died
Turns out, my son, Jacob, had been delivered, the placenta was delivered perfectly normal, and then I went into cardiac arrest and flatlined—I was dead for 37 seconds. The doctors realized what was happening within seconds—it was an amniotic fluid embolism (AFE). It’s a very rare occurence, one in 40,000. When amniotic cells get into the mother’s bloodstream, if you happen to be allergic to it, you’ll go into anaphylactic shock—and in most cases, you will die. It’s completely unpreventable, it’s completely unpredictable, and it’s usually fatal. In the first phase of AFE, you go into cardiac arrest, your lungs collapse, it’s like Armageddon on your body. You’re lucky to get back up.
“I went into cardiac arrest and flatlined—I was dead for 37 seconds.”
Then, the second phase of AFE starts: You start hemorrhaging because your body stops being able to clot blood, and you bleed from everywhere. Your body normally has 20 units of blood; I was given 60 units of blood products—red blood cells, platelets—just for doctors to try and stay on top of it. My husband finally got to the hospital, and I was in the ICU. Seven hours later, I was still hemorrhaging, and doctors determined I needed a hysterectomy. Now everything I had said started making sense to Jonathan. They also did a pathology on my uterus, and sure enough, an accreta was starting to form. While the MRI I had earlier in my pregnancy came back negative for an accreta, doctors discovered that one had actually begun to form sometime later on in my pregnancy. The placenta had actually left a hole in my uterus, which is how the amniotic cells got into my bloodstream.
I was in a medically induced coma for six days, and when I came to, I didn’t know what had happened. My belly was still swollen, and I asked Jonathan if I was still pregnant. I broke down when he told me I had given birth six days ago. I hadn’t seen my child. I was happy that he was okay, and I wanted to see my daughter, but it was all too much to handle. I needed to be on kidney dialysis for weeks, and I had multiple surgeries, in addition to the hysterectomy.
(Photo: Stephanie Arnold)
How I Began to Heal
I got out of the hospital about a month later, and while I was physically on the road to recovery, psychologically, I was all messed up. I ended up enlisting the help of a regression therapist, who used hypnotherapy on me to take me back into those traumatic moments. I actually relived and saw everything that happened in the operating room: I was intubated, I was dead, and I had no heartbeat. The first crash cart didn’t work, but the second one did. My own doctor didn’t deliver my son; the resident delivered him.
I videotaped all my sessions with the therapist and showed it to my doctors. I thought maybe I was just recalling some episode of Grey’s Anatomy; maybe this was a stored memory of something I had seen before somewhere. But it had all happened. They told me they didn’t know how I knew any of this. Hearing is one of the last things to go as a person dies, but to actually see something happening while your eyes are taped shut and you’re intubated and to know what’s going on around you—my doctors didn’t have a medical explanation for that.
That’s when I started thinking about writing my book, 37 Seconds: Dying Revealed Heaven’s Help. Everything that happened to me was so well-documented—if anyone is doubtful, they can go ask any countless number of people, they can go back through Facebook posts, the letters I sent with date stamps on them, the videotapes of my regression therapy sessions.
“I was in a medically induced coma for six days, and when I came to, I didn’t know what had happened.”
It’s taken a while to own this as my story. I could tell it in the third person for a while, but it was very traumatic in the beginning. Then I realized that the more people I talked to about it—and I’m still very emotional about it—the more people who can take it back to their friends and family and share moments when they tapped into their own intuition. It may not be on the same scale, but they still have those times in their lives where they had premonitions. I always say to people, “If you sense something, say something.” What’s the worst that could happen? You’re wrong? I would’ve loved to have been wrong.
I joke around with my husband now. He says he’ll never doubt my intuitation again, which is a precarious place for him to be in. I’ll say something to him like, “A car’s going to hit you, you need to go this way.” Or he’ll tell me that it’s my turn to walk the dog, and I’ll say, “I died.” When he asks me if I’m going to use that excuse from now on, I’m like, “Yep, absolutely.” To his credit, he came to every doctor’s appointment with me. To his credit, when everything I thought would happen came true, he backs me up—even though he doesn’t understand it.
I’m happy to be on the other side of this. I still have the scars and everything to live with, but I wear them prouder than I did six months ago or eight months ago. That’s because going through this has made me understand just how precious life really is.
Stephanie Arnold is the author of 37 Seconds: Dying Revealed Heaven’s Help. She is an Emmy-nominated and Telly Award-winning television producer who spent years working in local news and directing and producing various shows before shifting her focus to telling her own story. She lives with her husband and children in Chicago.
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By Stephanie Arnold as told to Christina Heiser