Recovery of Calif. woman described as 'miraculous' After birth of twins, mother fell into coma

December 25, 1991|By Kevin Johnson | Kevin Johnson,Los Angeles Times

CORONA, Calif. -- A woman who fell into a five-week coma following the birth of twin girls is back home for Christmas, after her family was told she had only a 1 percent chance for survival.

In a recovery that doctors, family and friends describe as miraculous, Dawna Munson has been reunited with her husband and four children in time for the twins' first Christmas -- a holiday few thought she'd ever live to see.

"In many ways, we feel this is pretty much a miracle," said Dr. Kevin Owyang, a Fullerton, Calif., family practice specialist who has been treating Mrs. Munson for the past month for the frequently fatal toxemia disorder, "HELLP Syndrome."

"She has come a long way -- so far that her turn-around and even survival is uncommon."

At the darkest point of her battle with the rare form of toxemia, Mrs. Munson barely clung to life, attached to myriad breathing and feeding tubes, while as many as 20 physicians and consultants, from as far away as Europe, tried to treat the disorder.

Today, Mrs. Munson, 34, remembers little more than vivid dreams of repeated and unsuccessful attempts to find her way back home.

"In my dreams, I would be on a plane or a train and I would be almost home, then I would find myself in India or someplace far away," Mrs. Munson said."I felt like Dorothy in the 'Wizard of Oz.'

"In my dreams, years were passing by, my family was growing up and I couldn't find them. I was so happy when [the nurse] said the year was 1991."

Originally scheduled for release Dec. 12 from St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, where she had been assigned to a rehabilitation regime, Mrs. Munson again beat the odds and was able to walk out of the hospital late last month.

Other than her slow, fragile stride, the only visible sign from the month she spent in the University of California at Irvine's intensive-care ward is the purple scar on her neck where a respirator helped keep her alive.

"All I know is, that is no way to live," Mrs. Munson said, watching her infant twin daughters, Haley and Skyler, rocking on an indoor swing.

Mrs. Munson's ordeal started shortly after giving birth Aug. 9 at the Placentia-Linda Community Hospital. Mrs. Munson and her husband, David, were preparing to celebrate the occasion with room-service dinner when she was overcome by chest pains so intense that it rendered her unable to speak.

Within hours, her liver ruptured, her kidneys shut down and her lungs flooded, bloating her to more than 100 pounds above her normal weight of 115.

In the days that followed, her worsening condition drew a score of doctors and consultants who tried to treat the disorder, which Dr. Owyang said strikes less than 6 percent of women after delivery, and many of them die.

While her husband and other family members split time at the hospital, news of Mrs. Munson's condition circulated through the family's Corona subdivision, where neighbors worked in shifts to keep the Munson household running.

For a full month, 13 families took turns preparing meals for David Munson and the two older children, Will, 5, and McKenna, 2. While David interviewed candidates to help with the children, the neighbors assigned themselves to work in shifts, around the clock, to provide interim child care.

They established a benefit fund for the family at a local bank which, Mrs. Munson said, has brought about $20,000 in donations for future child care and medical expenses. Although much of the medical bills are covered by health insurance, she said the family will be paying deductibles on a total bill that has recently surpassed $1.5 million.

"I have the best neighbors on earth," she said. "I have been just so touched by all the people who have done so much. You go through life, and you don't think that you touch that many people. I didn't think I mattered to that many people."

Mrs. Munson regained consciousness in mid-September. She continued to improve and was moved to St. Jude in October. Since her release last month, she returns three times a week for physical therapy and can feel her strength gradually returning. She said doctors tell her a full recovery should take a year.

"This has changed my whole sense of priorities," she said. "My friends say I am a lot calmer now. I can't help but think every day, 'God, I've got my life.' "

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