With her round cheeks, Summer Reign McMullen was born a healthy baby on July 27. Her 30-year-old mother, Kristen, smiled at the pink bundle cradled in her tattooed arms. That was the last time she would hold her daughter. Two pictures and a couple of minutes later, she was taken to the ICU, where she died more than a week later from covid-19 in a hospital in Brevard County, Fla.
Summer will never know her mother’s “bubbly and vivacious” personality, said McMullen’s aunt, Melissa Syverson. She will not meet the “active and full-of-life” young woman who grew up dancing, horseback riding and playing the piano in her native Virginia. Yet Syverson said she is determined to not let her niece’s memories perish: she’s sharing her story in the hope that people – especially pregnant women – take safety measures during the pandemic.
“We want to make sure that everybody, pregnant women and also people that know pregnant women take extra precautions,” said Syverson, who declined to discuss McMullen’s vaccination status.
The loss of a youthful mother who, according to Syverson, was otherwise healthy comes as more young people are being infected and hospitalized with covid-19. Some doctors are also warning of an uptick of severe cases among pregnant women – a group with a low vaccination rate that has also been found to be subject to a high risk for complications related to the virus. Amid the delta variant’s spread, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has moved to encourage expectant mothers to get vaccinated, as research shows they are more likely to require admission to intensive care and use of ventilators than non-pregnant women.
Syverson said her niece decided to move to Florida from Virginia out of a whim in 2017, where she would soon meet Keith McMullen.
“They met and they were literally inseparable immediately,” Syverson said.
A year later, they got married. He wore his U.S. Army uniform while McMullen carried a bouquet of red, white and blue flowers that matched her crimson lipstick. According to Syverson, the two dreamed of starting a family.
Even while pregnant, McMullen exerted herself at her job as hotel general manager, Syverson said. At the same time, she fussed over the prospect of being a mother, making sure her baby had a pair of pink onesies before she came into the world.
Elation morphed into fear only three weeks before her due date. McMullen began displaying covid-19 symptoms, which turned into a coronavirus-related pneumonia that hospitalized her on July 21, Syverson said. Even with antibiotic treatment, her health did not seem to improve.
Five days later, her aunt said, doctors decided to have an emergency Caesarean section to deliver the baby.
Despite worsening respiratory problems, McMullen had a brief and tender moment with Summer – posing for some pictures before she was wheeled into the ICU. The next time McMullen was able to see her daughter, it was through a cellphone screen.
Even while her lungs struggled to breath, McMullen’s topmost concern was Summer. “The baby’s fine, you just have to get yourself better,” Syverson said relatives reassured the mother.
But her conditions turned for the worse. McMullen died on Aug. 6.
“I just know she gave it everything that she had, just like she did everything else in her life,” Syverson said as her voice broke. “We really all thought that she was going to pull through.”
While Syverson said it remained unclear how McMullen became infected, the virus has taken a toll on her home state of Florida. The state currently holds the highest hospitalization rate in the country – at a time when both daily reported cases and deaths have significantly risen, according to The Washington Post’s covid-19 tracker.
Medical workers across the country are increasingly admitting pregnant women with covid-19 into the hospital, according to researchers. A thousand miles away in Dallas, Dr. Emily Adhikari – a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at UT Southwestern Medical Center – said she has witnessed an uptick in expectant mothers seeking urgent care for covid-related respiratory distress.
“What we want to focus on is delivering babies safely and helping parents start a new family,” she said. “And instead, we are caring for very, very sick, pregnant women.”
The much more contagious and rapidly spreading delta variant, combined with the significant risk of complications covid-19 poses for pregnant women, is one of the main factors driving the surge in obstetric cases, Adhikari said.
“As the rest of society has higher and higher rates of vaccination, the pregnant population has lagged,” she said. “So they are exposed to more virus and they are not immune at all. And so that’s the consequence of what we’re seeing right now.”
Misinformation regarding the vaccine’s effects on pregnancy and fertility has spurred hesitancy since the shots first became available. Yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its recommendation Wednesday, encouraging that pregnant women be inoculated after it found no increased risk of miscarriage.
The agency found women with a baby on the way had a higher risk of ICU admission, mechanical ventilation and death compared to non-pregnant women. It is exactly these patients developing the virus’s most severe symptoms who seemingly had a higher possibility of experiencing adverse pregnancy risks – including premature births, emergency C-sections and stillbirths – Adhikari’s research suggested.
While scientists are still learning about the immune response to covid-19, pregnant women’s lower respiratory reserve – a natural product of carrying a baby – makes them more susceptible to developing respiratory complications or failure during their third trimester, Adhikari said.
Since sharing McMullen’s story and organizing a GoFundMe campaign to alleviate the McMullen’s financial burdens, Syverson said the family has received an outpouring of support.
The comments, she said, are being compiled into a scrapbook for Summer – a “light within the darkness of this situation.”