Karla Perez had a headache, decided to take a nap, and just one day later, the 22-year-old who was four-and-half-months pregnant was declared brain dead.
But for the next 54 days she was kept alive to give her baby, named Angel, a chance at surviving.
“I had hope that Karla would wake up,” her mother, Berta Jimenez, tells PEOPLE. “But she never did.”
Her Bright Future
Although Karla was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis as a young girl and was told it would be very difficult for her to have children, she never lost her determination to have a family.
Three years ago, Karla, who loved to dance and worked at a preschool, gave birth to her daughter Genesis.
“She couldn’t have been happier,” Jimenez says about her daughter’s first healthy pregnancy. “That little girl was her life.”
When Karla, who lived in Waterloo, Nebraska, found out she was pregnant with her second child, she once again couldn’t contain her excitement.
“I think deep down there was a reason she named him Angel,” Jimenez says. “Because of how everything turned out.”
A Disastrous Turn
On Feb. 9, Karla’s head hurt and she went to lie down. “After her nap she became unconscious,” Jimenez says while starting to cry. Karla woke up for a time, but was in a daze when help arrived. “The paramedics asked her how she felt and she said, ‘I’m here.’ ”
Karla arrived at the hospital around midnight, and a CT scan revealed a catastrophic intracranial hemorrhage.
“We had a strong inkling this was not going to turn out well but we did everything in our power to save her,” Dr. Tifany Somer-Shely, Karla’s OB/GYN, tells PEOPLE. “There was a very slim chance she would survive.”
But everyone knew, including Karla’s family and the doctors involved, that it wasn’t just her to be concerned about – her baby boy was now in serious danger.
“I had to think of my daughter and my grandson and I didn’t know what to do,” Jimenez says. “I couldn’t even understand what was happening.”
Karla’s family didn’t want to see beneath the surface.
“She didn’t look like she was gone,” says Dr. Tiffany Somer-Shely. “But she was. Her parents had to face this difficult decision of what to do.”
Her organs were failing and at one point she was being given more than 100 different medications.
They decided to keep Karla alive so that Angel could continue to grow and reach a point where he was big and healthy enough to enter the world – the family would gather around her hospital bed for ultrasounds to watch Angel move.
“It was extremely emotional for everyone,” Sue Korth, vice president and COO of Methodist Women’s Hospital tells PEOPLE. “Over 100 people were involved. It was traumatic. Her parents rarely left her bedside.”
The goal was to deliver Angel at 32 weeks, but at 30 weeks and 3 days, Karla’s condition destabilized and they had to move forward with the delivery.
He was born on April 4 at 11:47 a.m., weighing 2 lbs., 12.6 oz.
There have been only 33 cases reported of women kept on somatic support until delivery, worldwide, since 1982. The last successful case reported in the United States was in 1999.
“There isn’t a recipe card that defines how to care for patients like this because it’s just so rare,” Dr. Todd Lovgren of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at Methodist Women’s Hospital Perinatal Center tells PEOPLE. “We really learned as went.”
Jimenez sees Karla when she looks at her two children.
“Angel looks just like her,” she says. “And Genesis acts the same way Karla did when she was her age.”
Angel’s father also grieves alongside Karla’s family.
“I will talk about Karla all the time. I will tell them what she would expect from them and how much she loved them. It’s very comforting,” Jimenez says.
A fund to donate to Angel has been created under the name “Karla Perez Memorial Fund,” at all Wells Fargo banks.