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Healthy You

Unscripted Virus Creates a Pregnancy Plot Twist

Friday, November 16, 2018 8:15 AM

Broadway, movie and TV star Carrie Coon was filled with anticipation for a premiere in her personal life—becoming a mom. But the popular actress, who lately shuttles between Chicago and New York, had no idea that starting a family also would create some real-life drama.


Five months into her pregnancy, a blood test revealed that Coon had been exposed to a common virus—cytomegalovirus (CMV). Pregnant women often contract CMV from drooling, diaper-wearing babies and toddlers. Such was possibly the case for Coon, who had spent countless hours with nieces and nephews early in her pregnancy.

Babies Are Most Vulnerable
A follow-up amniocentesis verified the virus had passed on to Coon’s unborn baby. That is when she turned to NorthShore Maternal-Fetal Medicine experts for guidance.

CMV causes few, if any, symptoms in kids and adults, but it can be devastating to some babies who are infected in utero. Risks include premature birth and low birth weight, along with permanent disabilities including hearing loss and vision abnormalities.

Understandably, emotions swirled for Coon, 37, a Tony- and Emmy-nominated actress who has starred in several movies, including “The Post” and “Gone Girl,” and HBO’s “The Leftovers.” She and her husband, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and actor Tracy Letts, read everything they could find on the virus to be better prepared.

Her NorthShore-affiliated OB/GYN Kristin Bennett, MD, teamed up with Maternal-Fetal Medicine Specialist Mara Dinsmoor, MD, MPH, to provide Coon with advanced prenatal screenings and antibody treatments to help reduce CMV’s effects on the baby.

Focus on Prevention

“If you contract CMV during pregnancy, like Carrie, there’s a high likelihood of passing it on to your unborn baby,” explained Dr. Dinsmoor, who holds an academic appointment at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. “But only a small percentage of infants with congenital CMV actually experience adverse symptoms or long-term health issues.”

In March, Haskell Letts was born at NorthShore Evanston Hospital at 5 pounds, 13 ounces—the low birth weight possibly a result of the virus. “With a swirl of fluffy light hair that resembled a baby chick,” Coon recalled, she snuggled with her baby boy for a few minutes before her care team completed a full checkup. “I knew we were in good hands at NorthShore, and when they told us Haskell was born perfectly healthy, we wept in relief.”

Dr. Dinsmoor noted the baby will have frequent follow-up testing to monitor for the possible development of hearing loss. She also stressed the importance of taking precautions including careful handwashing especially after changing diapers or sharing utensils, and to avoid avoiding kissing young children on the mouth.

By sharing her story, Coon hopes to start a conversation to help women understand CMV—especially if they are planning a family.

“They don’t routinely test for CMV because there’s nothing they can do for it,” Coon noted. “I would still argue that it’s better for women to know the facts so they can make informed decisions before, during and after pregnancy.”