Mom Who Got COVID and Needed Lung Transplants at 9 Months Pregnant Celebrates Daughter's 1st Birthday
Amy Yamaguchi was nine months pregnant during Thanksgiving 2020. After two chemical miscarriages, she was thankful to be pregnant with a healthy baby girl, due Jan. 1. She and her husband celebrated in Seal Beach, Calif. with just Amy's parents, keeping their bubble small.
Amy didn't feel great; she was tired. "She thought it was just allergies," says her husband, Danny Levin, 36, a charter high school teacher.
The next day, Amy, 35, tested positive for COVID-19.
Doctor's performed an emergency C-section to allow Amy's lungs to have more room to breathe. But complications from COVID meant Amy remained in the hospital, unable to meet her daughter until she was 5 months old.
In April, Amy had a life-saving double lung transplant surgery, but during the procedure, she had a series of mini-strokes. When she woke up, she didn't remember the last five years of her life. She couldn't remember getting married, getting pregnant, or having her baby daughter. She didn't even recognize her husband.
Amy came home from the hospital in August to continue rehab. In December, she celebrated her daughter's first birthday — with a small gathering of fully vaccinated friends and family.
In December, Amy and her husband Danny shared the story of the last year together with PEOPLE, since Amy is still struggling with memory loss.
Amy: I have no idea how I got COVID. My family didn't get sick. I remember being very cautious, social distancing and wearing my mask; I knew pregnant women are so susceptible.
Danny: She she wasn't feeling good on Thanksgiving; she got tested the following day, we found out she had COVID. Walking from our living room to the bedroom was really tough for her. We got a pulse oximeter, and I was in close contact with her OB, but she just wasn't getting better.
We went to the hospital that we were planning to deliver at, Orange Coast Memorial. I couldn't go in because of COVID protocol, so Amy was alone in the hospital. That was Dec. 5th around 10 p.m. And then Dec. 7th, they did a C-section in hopes to give Amy's lungs room to breathe.
She was texting me before the C-section that morning. We said that we love each other, and Amy was happy that I was going to be there with the baby, but she was scared. I reminded her how strong she is, and told her that she'd be home with us soon.
They wouldn't let me come into the delivery room. I didn't get to see Amy at all. They gave her anesthesia for the C-section — and then they kept her in a medically induced coma until late January.
Maren Marie was born at 10:16 a.m.; she weighed 5 pounds 4 ounces. We stayed in the hospital two nights. I was isolated with her, which was a lot. They were doing cluster care, so they would only come in every three to four hours and try to get everything done. I remember asking them if I could have a visitor, because if Amy was there, I would be her visitor, and they said no. I was like, "Well, I could really use a visitor."
Meeting Maren was life-changing. It was just surreal to see her. But it was also overwhelming, because it wasn't how we pictured it at all. Amy and I were [supposed] to be together.
Amy's in charge. She leads us, and she's a good planner. Fortunately, I had a lot of people around me to help. While I was at the hospital, my brother and one of Amy's friends went by the house and made sure they hung up all of Maren's clothes and organized everything.
Mary Kate Coles Amy in the ICU
The day Maren and I drove home from the hospital, Amy's mom, Susan, was waiting at our house. We live about 10 to 15 minutes away from Amy's parents. My mom and stepdad are a 20-minute drive, so everyone's pretty close. I went and got another COVID test to make sure everything was still good. I got to sleep, which was nice. The first couple months, my mom and Amy's mom would rotate nights at our house.
The three of us would take shifts, which was a huge help; I was going through some things too. It was overwhelming, because a lot of people care about Amy, so a lot of people were reaching out, asking for updates, updates, updates. I think it was only a week out. I was already getting overwhelmed.
She was on a ventilator after the C-section. That was on Dec. 7th. And then Dec. 13th, they wanted to move her to a better facility — which, I appreciate Orange Coast Memorial realizing their limits and being pretty proactive about that. She got airlifted Dec. 13th to the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai so she could be put on an ECMO machine, which is life support. For Amy, it was basically doing the work of her lungs by oxygenating blood.
At Cedars, she was in an induced coma, and I would call twice a day at shift changes: 7:30 in the morning, 7:30 at night. Even then, with Amy in the induced coma, I remember a nurse saying, "I picked up two extra days in a row to work with Amy, because she's impacted me that much." And I was like, "Well, just wait until she wakes up. You'll love her even more." And then end of January, early February they took her out of the induced coma.
She was still on ECMO, and we would FaceTime, because there were no visitors at that time yet. And about that time, one of the doctors from the first hospital called asking how Amy was doing. He was the first person to bring up a double lung transplant to me. He said, "That might be the only way out."
Our next conference call with Amy's head doctor, I brought it up, and he was like, "Oh, I'm very happy you brought it up, because that's going to be the route we're going to go." When he said, "That's the way we're going," it wasn't as scary to me. I was like, "Okay, let's get it going then, because I want her home."
In mid-February, Amy was allowed visitors. Her mom and I would take turns. One of us was with Amy every day. We would look at pictures of Maren a lot, talk about Maren.
I remember the impact Amy had on everyone in the ICU. Everyone would come see her. Nurses that weren't taking care of Amy on a particular day would always stop by and chat with Amy. Nurses would come visit even after they moved to a different floor. They were always so amazed by Amy.
When I would go visit, my goal was to try to have her have a happy day — which is hard when you're in ICU for so long, and connected to many things, and not comfortable, and having difficulty breathing. We'd watch Downton Abbey, and Little Fires Everywhere, and home renovation shows together. We watched our wedding video a lot.
Amy was nervous about the upcoming lung transplant. One of her doctors at Cedars was telling her general statistics of lung transplant recipients and post-transplant life, and the numbers aren't the greatest numbers, so that was really hard for Amy to hear. She was afraid that she wouldn't wake up.
The day of the transplant was April 10. We knew it'd be a long surgery, about 12 hours. We talked to the surgeons afterward; they didn't know about the ministrokes yet. They were happy with the lung part of the surgery, and they let us say goodnight.
But the next morning, one of the nurse practitioners from ICU called and said, "Amy hasn't really woken up yet." That was pretty concerning. When Susan and I saw Amy, she was just lying there. Her eyes were open, but she wasn't really looking at anything. That was very hard.
They still only allowed one visitor at a time, so Susan stayed and went the next few days. The third day after surgery, Susan was like, "Amy's following me with her eyes now." The fifth day after surgery, you could see her looking at you and following you and answering simple commands, like nodding a little bit or closing her eyes, and then everything slowly built back up from there.
Amy didn't tell me that she didn't remember me; she didn't straight up ask who I was. She asked her mom, "Who's that nurse that's there with me all the time, but doesn't do anything but just sit there with me?"
Danny Levin Amy meeting Maren for the first time
Amy: My mom told me, and I was so shocked. I got a lot of new information that day. When I woke up, I thought I was 22. I recognized Danny, because I see him so much, but I was just like, "Who is this guy? He's always here. He comforts me and he talks to me when I'm scared." I recognized my mom, because moms are always going to be there. But I had no memory of being pregnant, having the baby, going to the hospital, getting sick. I didn't remember any of that.
Danny: The five years before surgery, she has most trouble with those memories, but I feel like a lot of them came back.
Amy: Music and videos, like our wedding video, have helped a lot.
Danny: Right around Mother's Day, they let her meet Maren.
Amy: It was beautiful. She was 5 months old. She wasn't newborn, so I was nervous to meet her. It was like going on a date. You're just like, "Oh, I hope she likes me." But the bond was there. It's still building, but she knows who I am. She can pick me out in a room. But the first time, you think you're going to see this little baby, and she wasn't big by any means, but older than you think it's going to be. But I still say it was pretty beautiful.
Danny: Amy's being modest. I would say the connection was there immediately. I told Amy, "Maren has been with you the longest, even though you've been here. She was in you for a long time, so she knows your heartbeat." When we put Maren in Amy's arms, because Amy was in a wheelchair at that point, Maren was just super happy, smiling, staring right at Amy. And then we passed her to one of the nurses. Maren got cranky, and then as soon as she went back to Amy, she was smiling again. For me, watching it, I think the connection was there all along. I wasn't worried about it. Amy's saying the relationship's still growing, but I think Amy's Maren's favorite.
On May 20th Amy moved from the hospital to a rehab facility. Every Sunday, they would give us four hours to go sit outside at the tables, and we could bring Maren, so she got to see Maren every Sunday for four hours.
Amy: It was the best therapy, Maren therapy.
Danny Levin Amy and Maren in rehab
Danny: She went home from rehab on Aug. 3rd.
Amy: Going home was… It was a little overwhelming. I forgot I lived where Danny and I lived! In my head, I was back in my old apartment in Long Beach when I was in my 20s. There was a big, beautiful sign, there were balloons. I was so excited. It was just great to have family and friends get to greet me.
Amy: I'm getting memories back by just driving around with my mom or Danny to basic things. Going the grocery store is a big adventure for me now, going to Target. It's been fun and also scary, just coming back into what our normal was before our world got flipped upside down.
I'm in all kinds of therapy, and now I can go longer on walks. Danny and I do go around the block. I'm getting better every day. When I came home I was wheelchair-bound. Now I have a cane but can walk by myself in the house.
I love getting on the ground with Maren. As soon as you get to the ground, you become a jungle gym. Seeing her get strong and using my body to do is quite entertaining.
When I play with Maren it's with very close supervision. I called Danny over the other day, and I was like, "I'm going to ask you something. Don't get mad," just because I know it's like pushing limits. But I was ready for that next step, next challenge.
Danny: Amy called me over and she was like, "I'm going to pick her up." I was like, "Okay." I just stood next to Amy, and I wasn't holding her, but I was ready to grab her if she fell, so I was just in position. And then Amy reached down.
Amy: He had to spot me in there! I could put her on my hip. I had her and I was like, "Okay, I'm right at my limit," so I was like, "I'm not going to put her down, because I don't trust myself with that yet." She moves everywhere. I'm like, "Why is she so wiggly?"
Danny took her, and I walked to the couch, took a break. Just knowing the limits. My physical therapist taught me to know my limits. And then also, though, when it's okay to push it, and if you're ready to level up. Just make sure someone's there.
This is not how I pictured the year going. This Thanksgiving, we had new reasons to be thankful. Now, it's taken on a whole new level of thankfulness, and really teaches you how important friends and family are and how important that support is.
Rolling into the holidays, we hit Maren's birthday, and we have so much to be thankful for her. She's been this bright little star in really dark days for us. I was just excited to meet her. And then my family had her to provide hope and joy in dark times.
For her first birthday party the theme was Alice in ONE-derland. She had a big black bow and the blue Alice dress.
Danny: For her party on Dec. 4, we invited 15 people, maybe. And it was all close family, friends. We made sure everyone that came was vaccinated.
Amy: Oh, yeah. We have a tradition in our family, a panda cake. That was my OT therapy for the day. I iced the whole thing. My aunt helped me make it, because I'm still a little cautious about ovens and stoves, because I can't move fast. You have to pipe these tiny little stars on [the panda], so I piped the whole thing, and then put some fake red roses on there, and then we gave it to her.
Danny: This was her first time with cake, too. And on her actual birthday, Dec. 7, she smashed that cake. The cake was everywhere, which was great. And then the big dog was sitting next to her, so she stuck her hand down, and he was licking her hand clean, and she was giggling. She really enjoyed it.
Amy: We have a lot of traditions. Jumping ahead to Maren's due date – Jan. 1 – we'll drink my dad's Good Luck Soup … and we'll have Maren's first Mochi Party.
Danny: I knew Amy would make it home, because she's in charge, and she's going to decide what happens. Amy, she was scared, but she never gave up. It was a pretty difficult situation, but she never gave up, and she never would.
Amy: It's important to keep going, even though it's an easy thing to want to give up on. Make sure you have someone to tell you to get up off that couch and walk. I have Maren, I want to always be with her.
I had strangers from literally all over the world just praying for me. Friends had prayer groups. There's people I never even met and I probably will never meet that were fighting with me and going along on this ride.
I think it's important for people to remember that there is hope. You can get a really bad medical condition, or an accident, but as long as your family doesn't give up on you, or your friends, I think that's important, too.
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