Pregnant with leukemia: Perils for mom and baby

Faith. The name says it all. If not for faith—religious faith, but also faith in the face of serious illness, faith in doctors and medical science—Carol Schulte doubts whether she and her premature daughter, Faith, would have survived. Their intertwined trials began in May 2009 when Carol was diagnosed with recurrent leukemia, a life-threatening of cancer of the blood or bone marrow. Treatment at Iowa Methodist Medical Center in Des Moines led to remission in October.

Carol and Faith SchulteBut Carol’s leukemia returned 10 months later while she was 26 weeks pregnant. Somehow Carol persevered with help from a team of physician specialists at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and UI Children’s Hospital. Among the specialists was Jennifer Niebyl, MD, a nationally known obstetrician-gynecologist who gave Carol three options to consider:


  • Immediate cesarean-section
  • Cesarian section in two weeks when the unborn baby would be 28 weeks along
  • Chemotherapy with a goal of getting the unborn baby to 30 weeks

“I had to throw fear out the door,” Carol recalls. “I prayed often.”

Critical questions had no easy answers. “How do you handle having chemo and being pregnant and wondering how it’s going to turn out?” she asks. “How do you answer the question posed to you if it’s not possible to save you both? Who should we go for? Nobody ever thinks about how they’re going to answer questions like that.”

Ultimately, Carol chose chemotherapy, which jump started her treatment for leukemia and–thanks to high-risk obstetricians–ended up getting the baby to 33 weeks, thereby improving the baby’s chances for survival.

Indeed, after her delivery on Nov. 5, 2010, Faith spent the next 18 days receiving ‘round the clock care from neonatal specialists at UI Children’s Hospital. During this time Carol became a “commuter mom” of sorts, devoting waking hours to her family (including six other children) in Pella, Iowa, and nights back in Iowa City.

The entire process worked well, and Faith was sent home earlier than expected. As a precaution, she needed a heart monitor at first since her heart and vascular system were still maturing.

Faith had been home about a month when Carol returned to the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center at UI for a bone marrow transplant. After the transplant, Carol spent 13 days in an isolation suite, a necessary precaution against infection. Since there was work to be done, Carol used Skype to home-school her older children.

Carol returned home on Dec. 30, 2010, cured of her leukemia and thrilled at the idea of reuniting with her family. In all, she and Faith had spent 88 total days in the hospital.

Carol hopes that by telling her story, others will be inspired.  “I remember being visited by another leukemia patient while I was in the hospital,” she says. “When you see someone like that, on the other side of recovery, you have hope.” And perhaps a measure of faith as well.

–Fall 2013