Cali Hinckley should have been quietly asleep in her bedroom, curled next to her 2-year-old daughter that June afternoon. But as her husband watched football downstairs, his phone rang, her on the other end.
“I need help!” she cried, sounding breathless.
Josh sensed that his wife, 21 weeks pregnant with a history of blood clots, was in crisis. He started dialing 911 as he ran up the stairs.
By now, Cali was moaning and making strange sounds. The 911 operator could hear her and told her husband to start CPR. Josh, who had never done CPR before, pulled his wife to the floor and followed directions.
Thirty chest compressions. Counting out loud. Again and again.
While Josh kept his 24-year-old wife alive, an AirMed helicopter headed toward their house in Stansbury Park.
But an ambulance got there first. EMTs carried Cali on a stretcher to the front yard. She was combative, probably from lack of oxygen, kicking at the stretcher straps. Then, AirMed arrived.
A flight nurse assumed the young mother was a drug user who had overdosed and asked her husband what she was on. Only prenatal vitamins and blood thinners, Josh said.
The AirMed team knew they couldn’t transport Cali in this state, so they sedated and intubated her, giving her oxygen, which—once again—saved her life.
Windi Woods, a flight nurse who specialized in high-risk obstetrics, felt Cali's stomach: hard. Woods suspected a placental abruption, which means the placenta had separated from the uterine wall.
She also wondered if Cali might be experiencing an amniotic fluid embolism, in which amniotic fluid leaks into the mother, mixing with her blood. The condition is extremely rare and typically leads to the mother’s death. In her many years of OB nursing, Woods had never seen an amniotic fluid embolism, but Cali’s breathing issues, agitated state, and internal bleeding suggested this could be the first.
What she knew for certain was that the baby, a boy, was still alive. Her iPod-sized, portable ultrasound showed a beating heart.
The AirMed helicopter rose up and flew toward University of Utah Hospital. During the flight, the size of Cali’s abdomen kept growing.
As the hospital took charge of her patient that day in 2012, Woods felt extremely emotional.
“I remember breaking down and sobbing after this flight,” she recalled. “I didn’t know if she was going to survive.”
Doctors ran test after test. No easy answer emerged. Most amniotic fluid embolisms are only identified during autopsies, because the mothers don’t survive.
Cali started to hemorrhage. Medical staff rushed to replenish her body with pint after pint of blood.
In the end, Woods’ guess during those first chaotic moments in Stansbury Park had been right. Cali had an amniotic fluid embolism. Doctors removed Cali’s torn uterus to stop the bleeding. Her baby was not viable.
But she lived, perhaps the world’s only known survivor at the time of a spontaneous amniotic fluid embolism, according to the medical team’s research.
Cali’s case is so extraordinary that Woods and another flight nurse presented it at an AirMed conference a few years ago. They shocked the medical professionals by introducing Cali in person, alive and well.
The young mother would go on to adopt two more children.
She’s part of the AirMed family now, Woods said. Her family even attends their Christmas parties, where Santa arrives, of course, by helicopter.
“AirMed, we take them for granted,” Cali said. “They work excruciating hours. They work holidays. They do everything and anything they can to make sure the people who are in their care survive.”
To Cali, people who work for AirMed should have another name.
“I think of them as superheroes," she said. “They do some amazing, miraculous work.”