A Mother's Gift: Remembering Karla Perez, Honoring the Life and Legacy She Left Behind
Published: July 13, 2020
Spunky. It’s just one word that describes Karla Perez, a 22-year-old mother and daughter who made national headlines and inspired thousands with her story.
“She could barely walk, but she sure danced,” Methodist OB/GYN Tifany Somer-Shely, MD, said of her patient who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. “And I never ever heard her complain. Not once.”
Karla brought joy to those who knew her, and because she lives on in so many ways, she still brings heartache to those who loved her.
“It’s crazy,” Methodist maternal-fetal medicine specialist Todd Lovgren, MD, said. “I feel like I was such a huge part of Karla’s life. But I never got the chance to hear her voice.”
Karla’s case was “frontier medicine” according to her doctors. But they all agree: It’s not her case she’ll be most remembered for.
Familiar faces and unyielding dedication
Karla’s family described her as happy, eager to help and willing to brighten everyone’s day. Simply put, she was a light.
She had a fondness for children. She worked in a day-care center and had hopes of being a pediatric nurse. Her 2-year-old daughter, Genesis, was her world. And she knew that if she and her partner, Juan, were to be blessed with a son, his name would be Angel.
And it was.
But on Feb. 8, 2015, Karla – who was 22 weeks pregnant with her baby boy – suffered a stroke. She was rushed by ambulance to Methodist Women's Hospital and eventually transferred to Methodist Hospital's Intensive Care Unit.
“The CT scan showed a catastrophic brain bleed and herniation,” Dr. Somer-Shely said. “I don’t even know if overwhelming is a strong enough word. But I immediately felt this overwhelming sense of loss.”
Dr. Somer-Shely knew her patient’s case was far outside her scope of practice, for Karla had suffered clinical brain death. But having been her physician for years – having witnessed the birth of Genesis and having seen Karla overcome some of her biggest health challenges – Dr. Somer-Shely wasn’t going anywhere. She knew she had to be there for the family.
“I made myself available,” said Dr. Somer-Shely, who also has sat at the bedside of a daughter in the ICU. “Because that’s what any family dealing with trauma wants and needs initially – a familiar face. To visit with. To ask questions. Just someone to be there.”
Dr. Lovgren quickly became another familiar face.
“There were so many people who got involved so quickly, I was worried that we wouldn’t have a well-organized approach to her care,” he said. “It became very clear to me that we needed someone to serve as the point person for her care. That’s where I became involved.”
And per the wishes of Karla’s parents – Berta and Modesto Jimenéz – getting involved meant keeping Angel alive. With his mother on life support, this would certainly be no easy feat.
“I had never managed a case like this,” Dr. Lovgren said. “Nobody I reached out to for direction had managed a case like this. So I was constantly reading. If I wasn’t taking care of her or my other patients, I was buried in literature. I had a duty to Karla. And I felt like if I took even a minute off, that was time I could have spent improving Angel’s chances.”
Creating memories with personalized care
Dr. Somer-Shely explained Karla’s case as a roller coaster.
“Even in a single day,” she said. “You could have labs that were terrible, and a couple hours later they’d be OK. You’d think they were going to have to deliver Angel, and then they wouldn’t. There were days I worried about losing both of them. But then other days I’d have confidence.”
That was hard, she said, but certainly not harder than constantly walking in to see Juan leaning over Karla’s bedside.
“My heart went out to him. Every day he’d be there, holding her hand and whispering, ‘Come back to me.’ The family, too. They would pray and say the rosary in hopes that Karla would come back. I knew they didn’t understand the seriousness of the situation. They couldn’t.”
And she couldn’t blame them.
“As a parent – medical professional or not – when that’s your child, when you’re on the other side of the bed, it’s a very different experience. And we, as providers, need to own that and address that.”
Dr. Somer-Shely knew she had to do something.
She and Methodist’s spiritual care services team came up with the idea of creating “heartbeat bears” – for Angel and Genesis to always remember the sound of their mother’s love for them. Dr. Lovgren helped record Karla’s heartbeat and handed it off to be inserted into bears at Build-A-Bear® Workshop so that they’d be audible whenever the paws were pressed. Dr. Somer-Shely also made imprints of Karla’s lips and hands and put them into “kissing books” so Genesis and Angel could remember their mother’s touch.
It wasn’t medical care, Dr. Somer-Shely admitted. It was personalized care.
Overcoming unforeseen challenges together
While the goal was to get Angel to 24 weeks, Karla’s care team of over 60 individuals got him to 30.
And on April 4, Angel became the world’s 16th baby to be born alive after life support during pregnancy.
Relatively healthy, he was still transferred to the Methodist Women's Hospital Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) for a little over nine weeks. He needed time to grow and mature.
Seeing such a miracle come full circle was powerful for everyone involved. But it remains the most heart-wrenching day of Dr. Lovgren’s career.
“Letting go,” he said while trying to silence a sudden sob. “That was the hardest part. I didn’t see it coming. It hit me like a bus. I did a pretty good job of managing my emotions throughout the whole process. But all of the sudden, I remember sitting down with the Nebraska Organ Recovery team, giving my report on what I had been doing, how I did it, what I recommended for next steps, and they just stopped me. They told me, ‘We’ve got this. You’ve done your job.’ And it was like this door was just … shut. Having been her caretaker for eight weeks, it was just – it broke my heart that it was over.”
Methodist NICU neonatologist Brady Kerr, MD, says he had “the easy job.” But he, too, admits struggling with insurmountable pressure.
“Everything was gift-wrapped for me, so to speak,” Dr. Kerr said. “Dr. Lovgren handed me a pretty healthy 30-weeker, and a 30-week preterm baby should do well. There was so much invested in him. I was just terrified of screwing it up.”
But Dr. Kerr, Dr. Lovgren, Dr. Somer-Shely and the rest of those involved got through their challenges together.
“We were family before, but we certainly became a stronger one,” Dr. Somer-Shely said. “It was so amazing to see that as stressful as the situation often was, it never got the best of us. None of us got short with each other. We grieved together. We turned toward each other rather than away from each other. And together, we watched this impossible thing become possible.”
“That may have been the most beautiful part of this whole experience,” Dr. Lovgren said. “Not just the teamwork, but the coming together to do something so much bigger than ourselves. It was the epitome of our tagline: The Meaning of Care. I got to see exactly what a health system should be.”
Remembering Karla, hope for Angel
It’s not the fact that she was kept alive for eight weeks. It’s not the number of publications her name has appeared in. It’s the gifts she’s given, including donations of her heart, liver and kidneys. And it’s perhaps her greatest gift of all – a happy, healthy 5-year-old, who loves swimming, playing outside and his big sister, Genesis – that’ll keep her memory alive.
Per Juan’s wishes, Angel is being raised by his loving grandparents.
“I hope his family teaches him every day about his mother,” Dr. Somer-Shely said.
“Because being a mother starts well before a baby is born,” Dr. Kerr said.
“I hope he knows his mother,” Dr. Lovgren said. “I hope that in all the things we did for him, he feels the love and attachment we all had for her, too.”