By Katie Parsons, Editorial Contributor
The scariest moment of Emily Halverson’s life happened when she was pregnant with her second child.
For a decade, Halverson had suffered bouts of severe abdominal pain that were never fully explained, despite visiting several physicians to get to the bottom of it.
“I never knew when it was going to hit me. I could never find an exact trigger,” says Halverson, who lives in Sanford. “Sometimes I would go months with no problems, only to have severe pain return out of nowhere.”
Typically, a prescribed muscle relaxer stopped the pain. But at 16 weeks pregnant, Halverson suffered an intense episode of abdominal pain and vomiting. She knew she couldn’t follow the typical course of medication.
Her husband, Erik Halverson, drove her to Orlando Health South Seminole Hospital.
“It was excruciating pain. I remember closing my eyes and trying to breathe through it and feeling so much uncertainty about my baby,” Halverson says. “My faith in God kept me calm and confident. All the nurses and doctors were working all around me, trying to figure out the source of the pain and how to help me.”
The healthcare team ordered an MRI of Halverson’s abdomen, which showed that she was suffering from colonic volvulus. This condition happens when the colon twists around the tissue that holds it in place and causes an intestinal obstruction. Colonic volvulus can have several causes, including previous surgeries or cancer. As in Halverson’s case, sometimes colonic volvulus has no known cause. Often, the colon can relax eventually, but in severe cases, surgery is needed to alleviate the pain.
Surgeon Dr. Jessica Gielow was working at the hospital the evening that Halverson came in. Upon seeing the MRI scans, she referred Halverson to another Orlando Health surgeon: her husband, Dr. Anthony Gielow, a board-certified general surgeon and surgical critical care physician with Orlando Health. He met Halverson at Orlando Health Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies to discuss her surgical options.
“I remember what a great attitude Dr. Gielow had right away,” Halverson says. “It was like 3 a.m., and he was smiling, and he seemed genuinely excited about being able to help me. It really put my mind at ease.”
Dr. Anthony Gielow says the stakes of Halverson situation were high. There were risks to Halverson and her baby, including further pregnancy complications and loss of the baby. Pregnancy also raises the risk that the intestine wall perforates during the procedure, Dr. Gielow says.
But after carefully analyzing the information provided by Orlando Health physicians, Halverson determined the risks were higher if she continued without the surgery.
The surgery was complicated, with Halverson’s baby physically held in utero as Dr. Gielow removed the right half of her colon and part of her intestine, then reconnected the remaining portion of the colon and intestine inside her body.
When Halverson came out from under anesthesia, the severe pain had subsided, and her baby was back in place, with no signs of distress.
The first thing I remember wanting after the surgery was to hear my baby’s heartbeat. That was the only thing I needed to hear to know that the surgery was the right choice. – Emily Halverson
“The first thing I remember wanting after the surgery was to hear my baby’s heartbeat,” Halverson says. “That was the only thing I needed to hear to know that the surgery was the right choice.”
‘Incredibly Rare Surgery’
Colonic volvulus surgery is uncommon, especially on younger patients.
“It’s an incredibly rare surgery on pregnant women,” Dr. Gielow says. “This is the first one I’ve ever performed, and I likely won’t see another on a pregnant woman in my career. I asked around to my colleagues, and none of them have ever done one.”
Telling Halverson that her pain was gone -- and that her baby was still healthy inside of her -- was a high, he says.
“I try to remember that it may be the worst day of their lives for my patients,” Dr. Gielow says.
“In Emily’s case, she was worried about her baby, and then her family was worried about the baby and Emily. It’s my job to show them that I take those fears seriously and am more than happy to be there for them and do my best work.”
This bedside philosophy provided Halverson and her family with needed calm amid a terrifying storm.
“We felt so supported and well-informed by the entire Orlando Health team, especially Dr. Gielow. We’re forever grateful,” Halverson says.
Healthy Baby and Mom
In September 2019, Harper Halverson was born, full-term, with no complications. Today Halverson stays busy with her real estate career; supporting 4-year-old daughter Camden in her tennis and Pop Warner cheerleading pursuits; and keeping up with Harper, now a preschooler.
“One thing I tell others about this experience is to advocate for yourself. All those years, I knew that something was wrong with me that could be fixed,” Halverson says. “You are not crazy. Keep digging deeper until you find someone who will listen and advocate alongside you.”