Mom Awakens From Coma After She Hears Her Baby Crying

Rachel Bertsche

Shelly Cawley with husband Jeremy and daughter Rylan a year after her crying baby helped wake her from a coma. (Photo: Facebook/Shelly Ann Cawley)

A year after her newborn daughter helped wake her from a coma, a North Carolina mom is celebrating how far they both have come.

Last September, Shelly Cawley went into labor and had to undergo an emergency C-section. “I clearly remember lying on the stretcher to take me back to the operating room, and I was crying. I was telling the doctors I was scared that I wasn’t going to wake up from my surgery,” she told WCNC.

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Shelly’s fear almost came true. Though doctors delivered a healthy baby girl, a blood clot broke loose during Shelly’s surgery and sent the new mom into a coma. Hours later, she still hadn’t woken up. “The doctors had done all they could, and it was clear they absolutely thought they were losing her at this point,” Jeremy Cawley, Shelly’s husband, told People.

But a nurse at Carolinas HealthCare System NorthEast, where Shelly was being treated, had one final idea. “We’re a big proponent of skin-to-skin [contact]. We believe it has great benefits for the mom and the baby, and we just thought it can’t hurt, might as well give it a try,” nurse Ashley Manus told People. “I was hoping somewhere deep down Shelly was still there and could feel her baby, hear her baby, and her mother’s instincts would come out and she would realize, ‘This is where I need to be.’”

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Shelly Cawley in a coma, top, after undergoing an emergency C-section. Above, with her now 1-year-old daughter, Rylan. (Photo: Facebook/Shelly Ann Cawley)

When Manus and another nurse first put baby Rylan on her unconscious mother’s chest, the newborn was so at home she fell asleep. But with some prodding, Jeremy and the nurses were able to wake her, hoping the baby’s cry would be the sound that got through to Shelly. “We tickled her, we even pinched her. It took 10 minutes, and then she let out a wail,” Jeremy told People.

Just as Manus had hoped, the sound of her crying baby was just what Shelly needed to hear. “They say they saw a spike in my vitals when she did cry,” Shelly told Fox 46. “They think that me hearing her subconsciously gave my body and my subconscious a reason to fight — that I still needed to be there for my baby.”

Shelly’s fight wasn’t over, but the sound of her baby’s voice started her recovery. “It was the crying that got Shelly going again, got her fighting again,” Jeremy told People. “I got my wife back.”

A week later, Shelly came out of her coma completely and was, ultimately, fine. Today and she and Rylan are healthy and happy. Last week, the Cawley family celebrated Rylan’s first birthday, and Shelly posted a “then and now” photo to Facebook, celebrating how far she and her daughter have come. “As the night comes to a close, I reflect on my day and how different it was than at the same time a year ago. What a difference a year makes! Last year I was fighting for my life, and this year I have a 1 year old who is thriving, and I am back in nursing school doing what I love,” she wrote. “Can’t wait to discover what God has planned for my life, and to just enjoy the ride on the way there!”

Gil Weiss, MD, an assistant professor of clinical medicine at Northwestern University and an ob-gyn in Chicago, says that while Shelly’s recovery is indeed incredible, it’s not entirely surprising. “The big thing we know about skin-to-skin contact, what some people call ‘kangaroo care,’ is the benefits to the baby. It’s supposed to regulate heart rate, stabilize blood pressure. They say babies who do skin-to-skin right away will cry less,” he tells Yahoo Parenting. “But we don’t know much about the effects on the mom, and I would assume there have to be some benefits. Is it dopamine? I’m sure there’s a release of neurotransmitters. Or maybe it’s that this is what nine months of pregnancy and long hours of labor have produced — this is your prize.”

Weiss says studies have shown that comatose patients’ brains do react to certain familiar sounds. “There is evidence of an auditory response in coma patients,” he explains. But since Shelly hadn’t ever met her baby before, the sound of her cry was actually unfamiliar. “Throughout thousands of years, this is the way babies were taken care of by mom — mothers held their babies close. There may be some primal reflex deep in the brain that we don’t know about or a part of the brain that responds even without higher level function.”

But ultimately, Weiss says, science may never be able to explain exactly what happened in Shelly’s case, and that’s OK. “We always want to come up with a reason for things, especially in obstetrics. But this system [of motherhood] has been perfected over thousands of years,” he says. “There’s a system in place that works beautifully, and I think sometimes we don’t give it enough respect. There is a bond between mom and baby that we can’t always explain scientifically. That’s the beauty of the mother-child connection.”

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