Noah: Hey, it’s Noah, just a quick heads up before we get started, this episode has a few swear words and descriptions of medical procedures that might not be suitable well for everyone. Use your discretion and thanks for listening.
Jonathan: I got a telephone call. It was my wife, so I stepped out. She told me that she thought she had broken her water and that she was going to the hospital and that this was it, to get to Chicago as quickly as possible.
Noah: Jonathan Arnold was in New York on a business trip when his wife, Stephanie went into labor.
Jonathan: I asked my wife to see whether like, if possible, hold off delivering until I get there.
Noah: And Jonathan ran down to the street, jumped in a cab and spend to the airport. This was the Arnold second pregnancy. The first had gone off without a hitch and Stephanie had delivered a beautiful, healthy baby girl, but this pregnancy had been different, because for most of it, Stephanie had been having these strange feelings.
Jonathan: Gnawing feelings of foreboding and concern that were not specific to anything.
Noah: And over time, these feelings grew stronger. Stephanie told Jonathan that she was seeing things. She had visions of herself bleeding out during childbirth, and dreams of Jonathan standing at her grave.
Jonathan: It was very disturbing to hear my wife say that and relate that picture in her mind to me, then things really clicked into place for her.
Noah: Stephanie was convinced that something bad was going to happen.
Jonathan: This was the path that was going to lead her to a horrible outcome.
Noah: Jonathan was worried. He took Stephanie to the hospital a few times, hoping to put her at ease, but our test results were fine. The doctor said that what she was going through was stress related.
There was no reason to worry. So as he rode through New York, on the way to the airport. Jonathan was calm.
Jonathan: I was excited. I’m going to be a father again. I had only good feelings about it. My main focus was getting to Chicago as quickly as possible.
Noah: He got on a flight, and as he waited to take off, he texted back and forth with Stephanie.
Jonathan: And she was, you know telling me to please love our children and take them care of them and remind them who she was. And I was texting her back saying, can’t wait to call my new son and to give you a hug after you give birth. We were living in two separate places in our own minds when it came to this pregnancy and our child that was coming into the world.
Noah: And then it was time to go. The doctors were willing Stephanie into the operating room for her C-section.
Jonathan: So she said she loved me. I said, I love her. And then the chat went dead.
Noah: In the OR there was a tense atmosphere. As the doctors prepared Stephanie, they tried to sooth her. Stephanie turned to Dr. Julie Levitt, her OBGYN. Something is wrong with me. She said. Dr. Levitt performed a C-section and Stephanie’s son was delivered safely without any issues. And then the doctor went back to deliver the placenta. Almost immediately, Stephanie started having seizures. She stopped breathing and went into cardiac arrest. The doctors called a code blue and started chest compressions to restart Stephanie’s heart. They installed a breathing tube and administered drugs to counter the situation. But Stephanie was hemorrhaging a lot from the C-section incision
In every life. There’s a moment. Something happens. That’s so far beyond our experience. It challenges everything we believe. And in that moment, everything we knew before doesn’t make sense anymore. And we have no choice, but to pick up the pieces and try to understand. I’m Noah Rosenberg. And this is Believable from Narratively.
It’s a show about how our stories define who we are. Our producer, Ryan Sweikert brings us the story.
Ryan: Jonathan Arnold landed in Chicago. And as soon as he turned his cell phone back on, he reached out to Stephanie’s doctor, Julie Levitt.
Jonathan: Then she texted me back that Jacob was fine or in good health or something like that. And that Stephanie is stable.
Ryan: Jonathan raced to the hospital where he spotted Dr. Levitt.
Jonathan: Julie was coming out of the swinging doors from the operating room and she was covered in blood. My wife’s blood.
Ryan: Stephanie had an amniotic fluid embolism, an AFE. It’s when amniotic fluid or matter from the baby gets into the mother’s bloodstream, causing her to go into anaphylactic shock. Her blood is unable to clot and this causes severe hemorrhaging.
When Stephanie flatlined, it took the doctors 37 seconds to bring her back. Dr. Levitt told Jonathan this, and returned to the OR to continue to work on Stephanie.
A few hours later, Stephanie was still hemorrhaging. The doctor said that to stop the bleeding, she was going to need a hysterectomy, an operation where the uterus is removed. Stephanie had predicted that this would happen. In the months leading up to the delivery, she’d even found a specialized surgeon to perform the procedure.
The only thing Jonathan could do was wait.
Jonathan: I was waiting in the waiting room. At that hour there was one other person there and whenever he was waiting for finished and he left and I was in this enormous room all alone with no lights. The lights were off.
Ryan: Sitting there in the dark, Jonathan tried not to think about the warning Stephanie had given.
Jonathan: When scary things happen to me, I feel scared when it’s all over, but I don’t feel scared during the unfolding of events. I wasn’t listening to all the premonitions that my wife had in her head and seeing which ones were right and which ones were wrong. They were all right.
Ryan: Stephanie spent six days in a coma. On the sixth day, Jonathan was sitting at her bedside.
Jonathan: She’s swollen from all the parenteral solutions that are being put into her. So she has sort of a tummy. The breathing tube was taken out and she looks down and looks at me and says.
Stephanie: I’m still fucking pregnant. And my husband looks at me and he smiles and he’s like, I think she’s going to be okay.
Ryan: Do you remember the moment when you woke up?
Stephanie: I do not fully remember. I remember the feeling. Um, everybody said my voice was scratchy and everything from the tube, but I don’t remember any of that.
Ryan: What was the feeling of waking up?
Stephanie: The feeling was, time stood still. And I was continuing where I left off.
Ryan: Sometimes the way you feel going into anesthesia is the way you come out of it. Stephanie woke up scared and angry because that’s how she’d felt in the operating room. In the final moments before she gave birth.
Stephanie: I told my doctor, I said, Julie, there’s something wrong with me. And I broke down crying and she said, you need to relax. You know, I know Jonathan’s not here, but we’re going to take very good care of you.
Just before they took Jacob, the silence was so palpable. Because I knew.
Ryan: Months before the delivery, before the panic doctor visits and arguments with her husband, Stephanie had a feeling
Stephanie: Like an anxious feeling of, of a rollercoaster about to go downhill. It just felt like it was a warning or a real strong warning.
Ryan: And over the months of her pregnancy, that feeling got stronger and more specific.
Stephanie: I know my body really well. I felt these organs in my body, almost like a lava lamp emerging, and I’d feel little movements and it wasn’t the baby moving.
Ryan: And then she says that these images started popping into her head.
Stephanie: I would have these visions day, night, sleeping morning. I couldn’t sleep that well.
Ryan: And the things Stephanie was seeing, were scenes of her own death.
Stephanie: And it it stops you and jolts you because you were just thinking about, oh, what’s my grocery list today. And then all of a sudden you see yourself dead on an operating table.
Ryan: What did you make of having those visions?
Stephanie: They felt like they were already happening to me.
Ryan: Concerned, Stephanie and Jonathan went to the hospital a couple of times.
Stephanie: It wasn’t until the doctor said, no, everything’s fine that I thought, well, maybe I’m losing my mind, but it felt so real.
Ryan: And then at her 20 week ultrasound, everything Stephanie had been feeling, it started to make sense.
Stephanie: The radiologist says, I see you have a placenta previa. And then he’s like, I have to take a phone call. And he walked out and I look at my husband and I said, I don’t know what this placenta previa thing is, but whatever this is, I’ve got a bad feeling about it.
Ryan: Placenta previa is a rare complication where the placenta covers the cervix. It can cause serious bleeding during pregnancy and delivery. But 90% of the time it resolves itself. It was just something to monitor. The doctors weren’t that worried about it. But for Stephanie, this was a confirmation. She went home and scoured the internet reading page after page of risks and complications, and she matched what she was reading with the vision she had been having.
Then she built a medical narrative of what she believed would happen to her.
Stephanie: Well, at that moment, I sat back and the hair on the back of my neck stood up and I looked at my husband. I said, the baby’s going to be fine, but this is exactly what’s going to happened to me.
Ryan: She told Jonathan that the placenta previa would turn into an accreta. An extremely rare and dangerous complication. I am going to hemorrhage.
Stephanie: They’re going to need to put me under general anesthesia. I’m going to need a hysterectomy. They’re going to have to remove my uterus. The baby is going to be fine, and I’m going to die on the operating table.
Jonathan: It was, you know spiral into this increasingly low probability upon low probability evolution, culminating in her death. And I just thought that it was ridiculous.
Ryan: About one in 200 pregnant women are diagnosed with placenta previa, but just 3% of them developed placenta accreta. And Stephanie’s ultrasound was negative for it, but she couldn’t be calmed or swayed.
She was sure.
Stephanie: It felt like I could see this truck about to hit me and everybody else saw a field of flowers. It was somebody holding a gun to my head with their hand on the trigger. And nobody’s seeing this person. And I kept hearing it in my head. I kept hearing, you need to save your life. You’re sensing these things.
You need to say it.
Ryan: And Stephanie said it again, and again.
Stephanie: I told friends, I told doctors, I told nurses. Every ultrasound I had, every doctor visit. If I was in Starbucks and somebody said, oh, how’s the pregnancy going? I’d be like, I’m going to die. Everybody’s telling me to rest and relax and I don’t have any issues. And I said, this is not going away. This is what’s going to happen. And my husband would listen to this and he’d be like, he was worried, something was wrong. I was falling off the deep end. The only thing I could do was figure out how to save my life.
Ryan: Stephanie went to work. She knew she would need a hysterectomy and found the best possible doctor to perform it. A gynecological oncologist. Then she consulted with Dr. Grace Lim, an anesthesiologist at her birth hospital. Dr. Lim took Stephanie’s concerns seriously. She ordered extra blood to be on hand for the delivery, saving precious minutes for when Stephanie started to hemorrhage. The fast response may have prevented lasting damage. It may have even saved Stephanie’s life. And when Stephanie’s uterus was later, examined, doctors found that a placenta accreta had formed. It wasn’t what had caused her to hemorrhage, but it was there. And in the end, everything Stephanie said would happen did happen except for one little technicality: she didn’t die.
Noah: But how did Stephanie know this would happen? That’s coming up after the break,
Ryan: After the delivery, Stephanie was far from safe. Her kidneys were failing. She would need a lot more inpatient treatment. Northwestern is a teaching hospital and word of her story got around. So the residents were coming in, everybody was like, you know Mrs. Arnold, it’s a miracle that you’re here with us. It was like, I was the walking dead.
And everybody was just like, how did you know? I’ve read in your file, like all of the times you spoke up and everything how’d you know. And I’m like, I don’t know. Why don’t you tell me? Of course, no one could tell her. Her doctors had a few theories, but nothing concrete, they would say, well, you know, when one is going to have cardiac arrest, you know, sometimes they’ll have a feeling of foreboding.
That’s usually moments before it happens maybe 10 minutes before, but three months before in great detail about what was going to happen. I don’t have an answer for that. One of the doctors thought that Stephanie’s worrying had caused the complications.
Stephanie: I said, well, that’s an asshole remark to say to me then, because at the end of the day, I had been dealing with a lot of guilt thinking that I willed this to happen.
Ryan: Stephanie wanted a narrative, a story of what happened that made sense to her
Stephanie: I was not comfortable. And nobody could give me a scientific explanation.
Ryan: After two weeks, Stephanie was discharged from the hospital, but she still needed a lot of home care. She was healing physically, but mentally…
Stephanie: I was not myself and I nor did I act like myself.
Jonathan: She was quiet. She was somewhat withdrawn and she was just in pain. So it was very hard.
Stephanie: The part that was deafening for me was the overwhelming feeling of what happens if somebody didn’t listen and nobody was listening to me.
Ryan: Stephanie was still struggling to be heard. What happened had changed her life. And she wanted to talk about it, but Jonathan wanted to put it in the past as quickly as possible.
Stephanie: He’s like, let’s just forget about the premonitions. I said, no, we’re not going to forget about the premonitions because that you actually were present for all of it.
Um, he’s like, but I can’t find an answer to it. So I’m just going to forget about it. These questions are so big and so uncomfortable that I just go back to doing economics, doing my mathematical equations and living my life as an ordinary father, husband, and citizen.
Stephanie: For him to say, let’s just forget about this is making me feel for lack of a better term nonexistent, you know, he’s like, why are you doing this? And they said, maybe I’ll feel better. Speaking out about what she was feeling had helped save Stephanie’s life, and she thought that telling the story might help others do the same.
News anchor: Stephanie Arnold treasures of these quiet moments with her baby Jacob.
Stephanie: He is perfect.
News anchor: But they are moments almost lost to her forever.
Stephanie: So I tell the story to local CBS affiliate and the very next day, it’s the cover story of Yahoo Worldwide. I’m getting calls from people. And then the next day it was on Good Morning America.
Good Morning America: About a mother who beat the odds after dying while delivering her baby son.
Stephanie: Then I get a call from the doctors.
Anchor: You may all be asking, wait a minute. Stephanie died. And in many ways you did.
Stephanie: And then Steve Harvey.
Harvey: this is so awakening for not just you before a lot of people for me sitting here listening to think that you reaffirmed your faith.
Ryan: It was a perfect story for the talk show circuit. And account of the paranormal backed by medical science.
Anchors: This is a thing we can explain in medicine, but when you hear a woman who’s so nervous that something’s going to go on as an obstetrician, we set up and take notice.
Ryan: Stephanie delivered the story again and again, calm and clear-eyed. And every single night I had those dreams visions. She was lucid and firm.
She believed what she was saying.
But privately, Stephanie was struggling. Put yourself in her shoes. This thing happens to you. And by all current science, it’s considered impossible. Basically the world is telling you that your experience is not real. How would you react? How would you square your impossible experience with reality?
Stephanie: I went on this complete warpath to just find answers. I was uncomfortable in my skin at this point. So, I seek a bunch of therapists and they’re like, how can we help you? And I said, well, you know, I need to know how it is. I saw everything before it happened. And they said, Mrs. Arnold, let’s not worry about that right now. Let’s worry about getting you out of the trauma.
I said, see that’s problem for me because what happens if I have another premonition and what happens if I start seeing things. If there was a way to find out then I was going to find out. So ultimately a friend recommended, I go see a regression therapist.
Ryan: In regression therapy, the patient is hypnotized and guided back to a memory in their past. This is done so that they can deal with emotions around that memory. And before we go on, I should say that regression therapy is controversial. Some critics say that it doesn’t work and that at its worst, it can harm people. Stephanie videotaped all her regression therapy sessions. She did them over Skype.
And I want to warn you, hearing the audio is intense. It might be upsetting for some people. After many, many hours of therapy, she finally got me back into the operating room. It’s almost like watching a movie in 3D and seeing it happen and you’re standing outside watching it.
Stephanie: So you’re seeing me laying down on the operating table, nurses, doctors in their scrubs. And I explained this stuff. It’s going to happen very quickly.
Ryan: This is sound from the video of Stephanie’s therapy session. Stephanie has her eyes closed. She’s holding your hands out in front of her.
Stephanie: I saw the C-section already happening, but I saw me. Wide open. My therapist said it’s not going to be painful going back.
She lied because it was incredibly painful.
Ryan: The look on Stephanie’s face changes in an instant.
Stephanie: I felt it in every cell of my body. My chest is out and I stopped breathing and I had a seizure.
Ryan: In the video Stephanie’s body stiffens and shakes. She looks to be in a lot of pain. It’s hard to watch
Stephanie: Right before I flatlined, I saw Stephanie’s spirit in white perpendicular to my body.
When I flatlined, what I saw was a shooting star. Stephanie says she saw a bright white light had left her body and shot through the ceiling of the operating room. And then you start hearing about what I see around the entire operating room, what’s happening down in the hall. And I heard them say hit the button, call the code, hit the button.
Ryan: Stephanie watched his doctors and nurses ran into the room and went to work.
Stephanie: Resuscitating me, opening me up a rush to get the blood in. There was so much chaos at the time she washes the first defibrillator failed and they had to get a new one. Yeah, they get the cart. We’ve got it up. She saw where everyone was standing, what they were doing.
She heard her doctor’s voice.
Stephania: Julie. She said, this can’t be happening.
Ryan: Stephanie wanted to confirm some of the things she saw in regression therapy. So she showed the video of the session to the doctors who were present in the operating room. She met Dr. Julia Levitt at a restaurant and recorded her reaction.
Stephanie: I mean, it’s absolutely incredible. I, when I said, I can’t believe this is happening, I did say that. That’s very spooky and that’s very real. I mean, it is accurate down to where Nicole was, where I was. There was a scrub tech at your feet and blood pooling up and I couldn’t close you right away and making a drain. Admittedly, I don’t know a lot about the regression therapy and seeing this is a very eye-opening, there’s no way that you would have been able to give the detail and the people, the places, the slow, unless you were in spirit and then observing, and your body was on that table.
There’s no other way.
Ryan: For Stephanie. This was a breakthrough. Finally someone, a medical doctor, was validating what she had experienced, but she needed more. She needed to know that what she saw was real. She showed the regression video to Nicole Higgins, the anesthesiologist who was in the operating room at the time.
I spoke with Nicole by phone.
Nicole: So, I mean, there were parts of it that she absolutely had some kind of recall of, and there was no way she would have known that. And then other parts were not. What happened in the operating room from, from my standpoint.
Ryan: Nicole says that not everything Stephanie narrated under hypnosis is correct, but there was one detail in particular that stood out.
Nicole: first crash cart that we brought in the nurses could not get, get it to work properly. And she described that event. And so, you know, that was kind of striking to me.
Ryan: But rather than the spiritual explanation, Nicole is more comfortable with a physiological one.
Nicole: She was unconscious, but your ears don’t turn off, you know, like. Maybe you have consciousness of what people are saying and what people are doing.
Ryan: Nicole is right. Brain activity usually ceases within 20 seconds of cardiac arrest, but it can continue for minutes. In some cases, Stephanie’s eyes were closed. But she could have constructed an image of what was going on in the operating room, from what she was hearing. Experiences similar to Stephanie’s have often been reported by victims of cardiac arrest. During the period where their heart stops, many recall floating outside of their body, watching what happened to them. Sometimes they can later describe what took place in detail, including specifics about the medical procedures done to them. There are theories about how or why these experiences happen, but no one knows for sure. It’s not surprising that patients like Stephanie describe these experiences as spiritual.
Ryan: When things are unexplained, we ended up grasping for an explanation. To Stephanie, the out of body experience was proof that there are things going on in the world that are beyond our knowledge. But I was surprised to find that even the doctors in Stephanie’s case were moved to that conclusion.
Nicole: I do believe that she somehow had a sense that this was going to happen.
I was witness to it. She came to us with the concerns she did. She did go through a lot of effort to make sure every one who was going to take care of her, knew about her concerns. And, you know, it ended up, it ended up being correct. And so again, it’s just something that I’m going to have to accept that they’re at. As of right now, there is no scientific explanation for it.
Ryan: The truth is, humans can predict the future. We do it all the time. During the war in Afghanistan reports were coming back about soldiers who correctly sends to tax or explosions before they happened. In some cases, their intuition saved lives and the US Navy took those accounts seriously. In 2012, it launched a research program, hoping to learn how soldiers can harness this ability to predict danger and use it on the battlefield.
See, humans are experts at pattern recognition. As we move through the world, we constantly read our environment with our senses. We compare that information to past experience and make lots of little split second decisions. Sometimes those decisions aren’t even conscious. They’re just feelings that come out of nowhere, encouraging us to act.
And that can feel like a super power. The Navy called it the sixth sense. So what happened here? Maybe Stephanie is just really in tune with her bodily signals. Maybe she felt something was off with her body and had that feeling confirmed when she was diagnosed with a placenta previa, and maybe she Googled the worst case scenario of that condition and became convinced that it would happen.
And by incredible coincidence, she was right. It’s easy to doubt the idea that Stephanie can see into the future, but for the people who witnessed all of this doubt, isn’t that easy anymore.
Do you understand, the skepticism that people might have for this story?
Jonathan: I live the skepticism. I’m completely sympathetic to the skeptics. I think it’s becomes increasingly hard for me to be skeptical when my wife is able to demonstrate this capability over and over again in different applications.
Ryan: Jonathan tells me about the other times. Once in a meeting, Stephanie told the room that she felt a weird pain in her chest. An hour later, someone from the meeting called to say that their father had suffered a heart attack. That exact moment.
Ryan: There are a dozen other stories too, he says.
Jonathan: I take them seriously now. I find that she is invariably right when it comes to serious stuff. I accepted and go with it.
Ryan: I think we look for stories that explain what we experience, and when you experience something unbelievable, answers are hard to come by. Stephanie’s story has no definitive answers. It’s easy to come up with grounded explanations, but I’m not surprised that they don’t fit what she went through.
Let’s say that just for the sake of argument. None of this is real. If none of it is like real and that’s confirmed tomorrow, what would you, what would you think about.
Stephanie: I don’t think I can answer that question. Um, I think it’s, it’s left to the skeptics or whoever would say no, no, they’re making it up. Thing is, is that I’m not, and there are too many people around who have seen it
Ryan: When I talked to Stephanie, I’m conflicted. I don’t always believe in what she’s telling me, but I know she’s telling the truth. She knows how all of this sounds. She’s lost friends over it. She’s lost the comforts of her normal life. And she keeps saying it because it happened to her. What else can she do?
Stephanie: I’m trying to just accept that I might never know the answers, because the flip side is if I’m not okay with it, it’s going to be, be torturous for the rest of my life.
I have been desperately trying to find a scientific explanation for it. I am talking to theoretical physicists and astronauts who specialize in quantum entanglement. My husband said to me the other day there was an incident that happened. And I said, I don’t understand how I felt that. And he said, at some point you just have to accept it.
I don’t know whether science will ever catch up to this, or whether we’ll have an answer a hundred years from now, but we won’t have it in my lifetime.
Ryan: Does that bother you?
Stephanie: Hell yeah! I don’t know whether I’ll ever stop looking.
Noah: Stephanie Arnold lives in Chicago with her husband, Jonathan, her daughter, Adina, her stepdaughter, Valentina, and her son, Jacob. 37 Seconds, her memoir about this experience, is available wherever books are sold. The story was produced by Ryan Sweikert, with support from Emily Rostek and me, Noah Rosenberg.
Ryan also did the mix and sound design, Brendan Speigel is our story consultant. Our episode art is by Zoe van Dijk. Additional support from Ula Kulpa, Julia Barton and Raffi Khatchadouria. Special thanks to Rob Boynton, the NYU School of Journalism and the Made In New York media center. Podcast hosts say this a lot, but if you’d like Believable, tell everyone you know about it.