Comatose mother gives birth and then awakens
By Callista Gould
Editor’s note. This story, the latest in our year-long “Roe at 40” series, appeared in the July 9, 1991, edition of National Right to Life News. Callista told an endearing story of a near-miraculous turnabout and a family’s deep devotion to one another. As such the story fits the criteria for this series perfectly: a great story in itself which speaks as loudly today as it did 22 years ago.
At 3 1/2 months, the baby is getting pudgy, close to 11 pounds, and her father says she’s really filling out fast. And Keith Chaltry has more reason than a typical father and husband to be proud. Despite the grim prognoses of the doctors, his wife and new baby daughter have beaten enormous odds.
Thirty-year-old Debbie Chaltry was in a coma when she gave birth in March. But not only did the baby, Debbie Leann, come through unscathed, two months later her mom regained consciousness.
She is not yet able to speak, or even hold the baby without assistance. But Debbie Chaltry watches her baby, smiles, and sometimes cries when her husband, Keith, holds their baby daughter close to her and wraps Debbie’s arms around their child.
Debbie and Keith Chaltry, of Mountlake Terrace, Washington, had been childhood sweethearts. They were married and had lived contentedly with their first daughter, four-year-old Cristy and a baby on the way, until their lives were suddenly disrupted last January in a nightmarish scenario.
Debbie, then six months pregnant, suffered a massive brain hemorrhage. The pain was incredible. Debbie calmly said, “Take me Lord, I am yours. I know that it is my time to go.” Her husband screamed, “No, it isn’t,” as he called the paramedics.
After eight hours of surgery, she slipped into a coma. Her prognosis was bleak. As for her baby, up to that point there had been only four documented cases of comatose women delivering babies who survived.
However, two months later, in March, Debbie gave birth to a four-pound, 15-ounce baby girl at Seattle’s Swedish Hospital. Debbie remained in her comatose state.
“In terms of her regaining neurological function, it is not impossible, but it is not very likely,” Neurosurgeon Dr. john Gibson told the Everett Herald at the time of the baby’s birth. Keith was not going to give up, though.
He brought the girls to the hospital on regular visits and he held Debbie’s hand and just kept talking to her. According to the Herald, at a fussy moment, the baby was placed on her mother’s chest. Debbie Leann immediately stopped whimpering and lay perfectly still for 20 minutes as if she were listening to her mother’s heart. Keith says that family members began to notice improvements in Debbie’s conditions before the doctors.
She was transferred to the rehabilitative unit of Northwest Hospital in Seattle in April and then in May, to the astonishment of both family and doctors, Debbie Chaltry regained consciousness.
Since then, she has been making steady progress. According to Keith, she has become more alert, she has more movement, and she has more control. “She’s practicing things like swallowing, moving her legs and opening up her hands by herself without us telling her to,” he says, adding, “She’s fully there as far as being herself…that hasn’t changed her whatsoever.”
Sometimes communication is difficult, but Keith works with her steadily and speaks proudly of her progress. When you tell her something, he explains, sometimes she has to “reprogram her brain” to do it.
“A lot of times I’ll tell her to open her left hand and automatically her right hand will open. I’ve got to remind her that you’ve got to send the signal over to the left hand. It takes a little while, but then she does it,” Keith said. He has seen Debbie make significant gains over the past month.
Between the hospital, home, and his job as an auto mechanic, Keith Chaltry has an exacting schedule. Both his parents and Debbie’s parents help out with the girls.
When he goes to work in the morning, he drops the girls at his parents’ house. After work he goes to the hospital, and about 3 times a week he will take the girls along to see their mother.
While he spends his weekends at the hospital, Debbie’s mother stays at their home and looks after the girls. Next year Cristy will start school. “Then I’ll really have my hands full,” he laughs.
At the hospital, he participates in the care of his wife as much as possible and often assists the nurses by cleaning her trach (the tube, inserted to aid Debbie’s breathing), giving her medicine, and turning her.
Through fundraisers, donations, and loans Keith is building an addition for Debbie in their home—a day room, a hospital bedroom, and hospital bathroom. Keith hopes to have the construction completed by August.
Right now Debbie is in transitional care at northwest Hospital in Seattle; she has about two more months of insurance for such care, and if she makes enough progress, she will be transferred to rehabilitation. If not, she will go home for a month.
Keith Chaltry’s confidence and ever-burning optimism is fueled by the success stories of others he has met who have had injuries similar to his wife’s. One family who contacted him was Barbara Blodgett’s of Yakima, Washington, who gave birth while in a coma to a healthy baby boy and then regained consciousness several weeks later.
Keith says that it is about 2-4 years on the average before most of the people who have been severely injured begin walking on their own. “That is encouraging,” he says, “definitely we have a good fighting chance…”
If he were ever called upon to advise another family with a loved one in a coma, Keith said he would counsel, “Never, ever give up. They can come out of a coma, even in a deep coma, they can come out at anytime.” However, Keith also cautioned realism.
“It’s definitely not like on T.V.” he said. “It’s a slow process.”