CLEVELAND — Caitlin Gerber's journey to become a mom has been a long one. While it all ends well, there were many chapters where it didn't look that way.
She battled endometriosis, surgery, and then IVF in her six-year voyage to have a baby, so when she found out she was pregnant with daughter Elliott last year, she was thrilled.
But both Gerber's effort to conceive and her pregnancy fell during a high-stress time for health care, and while she had some concerns, she felt somewhat reassured that she had already tested positive for COVID-19 in December of 2020.
"You know, you don't want to think that lightning is going to strike twice," she recalled.
A teacher, Gerber was fully vaccinated and then boosted during her pregnancy. Yet, in December, several colleagues fell ill, and she started to feel unwell.
"When omicron hit, I think just everybody was getting sick," she told 3News, "and it was just a matter of time before I ended up with it from school."
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Gerber was 36 weeks pregnant when she tested positive for the second time. What started off as congestion left Caitlin feeling really run down. Within a few days, things had escalated.
"By Tuesday, I really wasn't feeling well still," she remembered. Something in me told me to take my blood pressure before bed, and it was sky-high, so I called triage and they told me to come in immediately to be induced."
When she was admitted, Gerber's blood pressure was 160/105. She'd developed pre-eclampsia — a hypertensive emergency.
"From there, it was kind of a blur," she said, "but it was also a nightmare."
More than two intense days later, her daughter was born by C-section. Because Gerber was still COVID-positive, she was required to wear a mask, and visitors — including Elliott's excited grandparents — were not allowed to meet baby Ellie in the hospital. Caitlin says she was also concerned about her daughter's health.
"It was scary knowing that I was COVID-positive and then about to have a baby," she stated. "I was afraid that I was going to give it to her."
But Elliott never tested positive — she's healthy and thriving. Caitlin says she thanks her vaccine for that, but does suspect that contracting COVID led to those scary complications.
"They test your placenta after birth, and there were definitely some funky things going on that they noticed," she said.
Dr. Ellie Ragsdale at University Hospitals has studied COVID placentitis — sometimes the only symptom a pregnant person who tests positive for COVID might have.
"We're seeing very small babies, we're seeing babies that have blood clots all throughout their placenta, where their placenta is not providing enough adequate nutrition and oxygen to them," Ragsdale explained. "And we're seeing pregnancy losses that can't be explained by anything else other than COVID."
While they have seen vaccinated moms hospitalized, preterm births, long hospital stays, and fetal losses have been exclusive to unvaccinated women.
"I say to moms who are unvaccinated and are still uncertain, 'I am so glad for you that this has not happened to you yet, that it hasn't touched your life personally, but that's not a guarantee,'" Ragsdale described. "And as we open up more and people do more things, we still have more and more risks of doing that."
Ragsdale adds that though much of the world may be opening up and is largely moving on from the pandemic, increased risks are still there for pregnant people.
"Pregnant women have a higher risk than the average person on the street," she cautioned, "and I think we can't leave behind people who are still at tremendous risk from COVID."
At the same time, new research has also shown coronavirus antibodies in babies with vaccinated moms appear at much higher levels than those who experienced COVID during pregnancy. Jessie Beringer did her own research and was confident about her choice to get vaccinated before getting pregnant with her third son and later boosted during her pregnancy.
A lawyer, she still caught COVID, likely at the office.
"My cold symptoms lasted for probably two to three days," Jessie recalled. "I think I had a fever for one day and then I was just fatigued for probably a week."
Though her symptoms weren't severe, she says it was a nerve-wracking experience, with too many unknown risks to her unborn baby. She chose to be induced at 39 weeks.
"I was just like, 'We don't know what happened,'" she told doctors at the time. "'I'd rather just deliver and end the worry.'"
Baby Brooks was born perfectly healthy on Feb. 2. Both Jessie and Caitlin want their experiences to speak directly to pregnant people who still have the option: Get the shot.
"You should absolutely get the vaccine to protect you and your baby during this time," Beringer said. "I don't think there's any question about it."
"I just want to spread awareness to pregnant women that it it's very important that you stay safe," Gerber concurred. "I don't want anyone else to have this experience that I had while I was in the hospital, and even after, it was a tough recovery."