Gabriela Acuna had already given birth to a premature infant, been put on a ventilator, and gone into cardiac arrest when her family got the call last week.
A medevac helicopter had landed at the Las Vegas hospital where she was being treated to take her to California for a double lung transplant—her best chance for recovering from the ravages of the virus she contracted when she was 23 weeks pregnant.
Acuna’s sister, Paula Olmeda, says the nurse told them the next call they got would be when the 29-year-old new mom was in the air, on her way to the life-saving procedure.
But when the second call came, the family was told that the flight had been canceled and the helicopter had flown off without Acuna. It turned out that Nevada Medicaid does not cover lung transplants, as the procedure is not performed in the state. Kidneys and livers are, but not more expensive and challenging hearts or lungs.
“It went from ‘Your sister is going to get safe’ to ‘Your sister going to die’ in a couple of seconds,” Olmeda told The Daily Beast. “It was almost like a joke.”
Acuna fought on with the tenacity she had shown since first being admitted to Centennial Hills Hospital on Aug. 30. That happened to be the month during which 22 pregnant women died nationwide from COVID, the highest since the start of the pandemic.
Olmeda says Acuna was among the 69 percent of pregnant women who are not fully vaccinated. Acuna delayed getting the shot until she secured the approval of her OB-GYN. She had an appointment to do so the week of Aug. 23, days before she became one of 125,000 pregnant women to test positive for COVID. She was sent back home from an emergency room twice before her blood oxygen level fell so low she was admitted as one of the 97 percent of pregnant hospitalized COVID patients who were unvaccinated.
“The timing of it all was just awful,” Olmeda said.
The total number of fatalities among pregnant women nationwide was rising to 161 as Acuna fought for the life of her unborn son as well as her own. She was 24 weeks pregnant when she was admitted, and the doctors hoped to extend it for another six so his lungs would be more developed.
The family could not visit her due to COVID precautions but watched via FaceTime as she put off any invasive treatment for herself in order to accord her son a better chance at survival.
“Everyone wanted the baby to reach at least 30 weeks before they would take him out,” Olmeda later said.
Meanwhile, the family witnessed agonizing confirmation of the CDC’s finding that pregnancy greatly increases the chance of serious illness from COVID.
“It ate her alive,” Olmeda said.
Acuna had reached only 26 weeks on Sept. 13, when the doctors became worried her heart would fail. Her family spoke to her over FaceTime just before she was anesthetized in preparation for an emergency C-section, to be immediately followed by a tracheostomy to accommodate a ventilator.
“The last thing she told my mom was, ‘Mom, I have nothing for the baby,’” Olmeda recalled. “I was like, ‘Gab, don’t worry, I will take care of it. I will make your nursery ready, I will get your registry, I will take care of it.’”
Acuna managed a response before she was put under.
“A smile,” Olmeda reported.
Acuna’s son, Ryden, was just 1 pound and 10 ounces at birth. He was immediately taken to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), as is too often the case with newborns whose mothers have COVID.
“She didn’t get to see her baby because she was under anesthesia and they put the ventilator in right then, and it’s been a journey ever since,” Olmeda said.
Olmeda got into her car with her husband, two kids, and the dog, and immediately set off from Colorado to Las Vegas to make good on her promise to Acuna.
“We got some family members to come in and help us paint,” Olmeda said. “We got the nursery ready for her. I got the registry. She’s ready to go. We just need her to get better.”
Meanwhile, as the NICU worked to save the baby, the adult ICU fought to save his mother.
“I know they tried their best to keep them both alive,” Olmeda said. “It’s quite a rollercoaster ride with Gaby.”
On Oct. 1, Gaby went into cardiac arrest. The hospital permitted her mother and father into her room.
“They only do that when they think that person is going to die,” Olmeda later said.
The parents were present and their prayers seemed to have been answered when the medical team managed to revive her. Olmeda watched on FaceTime.
“We thought we lost her,” Olmeda said.
The mother and father leaned over Acuna’s bed, trying to comfort her as she continued an agonizing effort to stay alive.
“In that moment her eyes are like rolled back, her mouth is open, her tongue hanging out, and it’s just like, ‘Oh God, don’t make her feel this anymore,” Olmeda said. “We went from praying, ‘Please God, let her live,’ to that night we were just so defeated we went home and prayed for ‘God, please take her’ because of the amount of suffering that she was experiencing for so long.”
The prospect of losing Acuna was all the more wrenching because the family had always felt so protective of her. She is hearing-impaired and she was bullied in school and was always shy. The family figures that is part of the reason she became a daycare worker.
“The kids don’t judge her, they just see her as Gaby, and that’s it,” Olmeda said. “They see the true her. She’s got a heart of gold, and that’s why it kills all of us. She’s like an angel in heaven. Of all people, Gaby, our sweet, innocent, pure Gaby.”
She was a late bloomer when it came to romance but had found it with her fiancé, the baby’s father.
“She’s always, always, always wanted a baby,” Olmeda said.
But in the days ahead she stabilized.
“Somehow, she just started getting better, which is a miracle,” Olmeda said.
But now it was the new mother’s lungs that became the big worry. The family says the doctors recommended a double transplant. The family further reported that Keck Medicine at USC accepted her as a candidate for one.
“Gaby is a perfect candidate,” Olmeda said. “She’s young and passed all the necessary tests for her to get admitted into USC. We were told by Centennial Hills Hospital that her insurance had approved her transport to USC to perform a lung transplant. There are no words to describe that moment.”
On Oct. 6, despair turned to hope when the family was told that Acuna would be medevaced from the Las Vegas hospital to USC between 6 and 7 p.m. The parents went home to pack so they could drive and meet her there. A nurse told them that the next call would come when Acuna was in the air.
Then the parents answered the phone to learn the helicopter had flown off without her.
“How can they tell us to get our hopes up and then all of a sudden no?” Olmeda asked. “How cruel is that?”
She set up a GoFundMe page seeking to raise $2.5 million, the outside cost of a double lung transplant with aftercare. She pledged that any unused money would go to others who need transplants.
“Who will fight by our side?” Olmeda wrote on the page. “I’m calling out everyone who let her helicopter fly away! Shame on you for robbing hope from us.”
Olmeda went on, “She came back to life. She was not ready to leave her son. She fights. Okay Gabs, if this is your war then we are all your soldiers. We fight along with you. Gaby’s only hope for as normal of a life as she can get is a lung transplant.”
On the page is a photo of Acuna in her hospital bed with a snippet of Ryden’s baby blankie from the nurses at the NICU. The family placed it by her nose on Saturday.
“So she could smell him,” Olmeda said. “Looking at her just close her eyes and just smell her baby for the first time. It was heartbreaking.”
On Saturday, Acuna also got her first look at her son, via live video from the NICU. She was in her second day of seeming to be reoriented enough to fully grasp what was going on. But she remained on the ventilator and was unable to vocalize when beholding little Ryden.
“She cries and you can tell it’s like this intense cry, but nothing comes out,” Olmeda said. “But tears fall down. It’s awful. It’s so torturous. She tries to talk and she looks at us. We look back like, ‘How can I help you?’”
Help comes in the person of this infant who now weighs in at 2.02 pounds.
“Her being able to see her baby now she’s conscious enough to really understand what’s happening, it just gives her so much hope,” Olmeda said. “She has these moments where she is just so happy to see him and then she just like, breaks down.”
She then recovers herself and struggles on toward when she can actually be with Ryden.
“She’s fighting. She’s like, ‘I’ve got to see my baby. I’ve got to see my baby,’” Olmeda said. “You can see her struggling… Every day, it’s crazy how strong she’s getting. ”
On Monday, Acuna sat up on the edge of the bed.
“With help, of course,” Olmeda said. ”If you could have seen her three days ago, it’s a miracle.”
Acuna still has four tubes in her chest that need constant attention to keep her scarred lungs from collapsing. The family says her best hope for a good life with her son remains a transplant.
Olmeda made a YouTube video about Acuna and her plight titled “NEVADA MEDICAID DENIED NEW MOM TRYING TO SURVIVE COVID 19 A LUNG TRANSPLANT. HELP SAVE HER LIFE!”
Olmeda also wrote a letter to Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, having heard he is the only person with the power to make an exception to the state’s Medicaid transplant rule. His office responded later on Monday, saying her letter had been forwarded to the director of Nevada Health and Human Services. Olmeda contacted the state level Medicaid office.
“They told us that the governor does not in fact have the power to override this, but we can begin an appeal process, which we will,” she told The Daily Beast.
Centennial declined to comment. Neither Keck Medicine nor the Nevada governor’s office could be reached for comment.
On Oct. 18, Acuna turns 30, and Olmeda knows what would be the perfect present.
“It’d be the best gift: ‘You got approved, Gaby!’” she said. “Happy birthday. You get those lungs.”