Leena Cheng was 30 weeks pregnant when she came down with an illness she thought was just a common cold. At first, the coughing and fever were manageable, and Cheng tried to take her symptoms in stride. But then her condition began spiraling.
“I started having very bad chills, like off and on,” said Cheng, a 35-year-old Shoreview resident. “And then I had very bad body aches. I told my fiancé I had to get checked out for the sake of the baby.”
Cheng’s fiancé, Lee Vang, drove her to M Health Fairview St. John’s Hospital on April 30. Fearing the possibility of a COVID-19 infection, hospital staff tested Cheng upon arrival. The result was positive.
For the next 20 days, a team of doctors, nurses, and specialists fought to save Cheng’s life – and the life of her unborn baby – as her condition worsened. To help, the hospital launched a massive, around-the-clock effort. Cheng received leading-edge COVID-19 treatments, including remdesivir and convalescent plasma, while hospital staff created a special neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) in a neighboring hospital room in case her baby needed an early, emergency delivery.
“We collaborated in ways we’ve never done before to care for Leena,” said M Health Fairview Hospitalist Will Nicholson, MD, who was part of Cheng’s care team. “This was a great example of team integration, and the personalized, innovative healthcare that we provide for everyone who walks in the door, no matter their health needs.”
Though St. John’s care teams have seen COVID-19 patients, the circumstances of Cheng’s case were without precedent at the hospital.
“She was our first COVID-19 pregnant ICU patient who needed intubation and mechanical ventilation support,” said M Health Fairview Pulmonologist Rita Patel, MD, who oversees the intensive care unit (ICU) at St. John’s.
Cheng’s condition worsened rapidly after she was admitted directly to the ICU. “The night we went to the hospital, I felt very bad—I was coughing, I was aching, and I didn’t have any strength and I told my fiancé it was difficult to breathe,” Cheng said. “When we found out that I was COVID-19 positive, I was scared and I was very, very exhausted from all of the coughing and the lack of sleep.”
Eventually, the ICU care team determined that Cheng needed ventilator support to address her falling blood-oxygen levels – which were the result of poor lung function caused by COVID-19.
“With the updates I was given about her escalating oxygen support, I went to a cohort of providers in the ICU to outline a strategy for safe care of her and her baby through the day and overnight,” Patel said. “Every day she was in our ICU, the care team grew and our care plan evolved. The power of teamwork has never been stronger.”
Cheng was placed on a ventilator for seven days. Medical staff also administered remdesivir, a new antiviral drug that has been shown to significantly reduce COVID-19 recovery times. Finally, experts gave Cheng convalescent plasma – plasma from COVID survivors that is used with the hope of speeding recovery times for infected patients.
“Trying to manage her care while taking care of her baby was a huge team effort and new to our world,” said M Health Fairview Nurse Manager Beth Pearson, who worked alongside Maternity Care Nurse Manager Lori Dorn, Maternity Care Clinic Director Peg McCoy, ICU Clinic Director Lara Stilp, ICU Nurse Manager Sue Wendel, and others from the maternity and ICU teams to coordinate care.
Doctors planned an emergency cesarean section to save Cheng’s baby if her condition continued to worsen. A dedicated labor and delivery nurse was also assigned to continually monitor her baby’s health. But gradually, Cheng began to gain the upper hand in her battle. Slowly, her strength returned and her symptoms subsided. Eventually, Cheng was taken off the ventilator and moved out of the ICU.
“It’s awe-inspiring how well she did, considering how COVID-19 has affected so many of the patients we’ve seen,” said Patel.
Finally, Cheng’s conditioned improved enough for doctors to discharge her from the hospital. On May 20, Cheng left for home. Dozens of healthcare workers gathered to clap, cry, and cheer for Cheng as her fiancé pushed her wheelchair through the hallways on their way out. As he wheeled her down the halls, Cheng’s fiancé kept saying “I love this hospital.”
“Leena made a great recovery and it just reminds you of the important work we do here and the power we have when we are on our ‘A game,’” said Nicholson.
Cheng’s care didn’t stop when she left the hospital. At every step of their journey, an M Health Fairview cultural broker was there to help the family navigate the complexities of the healthcare system and ensure that Cheng received needed follow-up assistance.
M Health Fairview employs cultural brokers to help address health equity and reduce barriers to care for minority communities in the Twin Cities. They are equipped to help patients with an array of items, both during and after hospital treatment, including: bridging language barriers between patients and providers, arranging transportation, and explaining treatment steps. After being discharged, cultural brokers can even help patients manage concerns they have about billing for their care.
For Cheng, this comprehensive approach included emotional support. While she was at St. John’s recovering from COVID-19, Cheng was given the tragic news that her father had passed away. Cheng’s team helped her during the grieving process.
Though she was originally planning on having her baby at a different hospital, Cheng chose to scrap that plan and deliver at St. John’s because she knew both she and her baby would get the best possible care. On July 5, Cheng gave birth to LijXeeb Temujin Vaj. He was born at seven pounds, eight ounces and is healthy.
Cheng applauds the work M Health Fairview professionals did to help her beat COVID and become a mom.
“The thing that I’m most happy about is how they took care of my baby,” Cheng said. “They did an awesome job and that’s why we came back to have the baby at St. John’s.”