UMEM Educational Pearls


The arrival of a critically ill pregnant patient to the ED can be anxiety-provoking for emergency physicians as two lives and outcomes must be considered.

Some basic tenets of care, regardless of underlying issue, include:

  • Obtain IV access above the diaphragm to avoid delay/prevention of administered products reaching central circulation due to compression of the IVC by the gravid uterus. 
  • Provide supplemental oxygen as needed to maintain a saturation of >95% which corresponds to a PaO2 >70 mmHg. A PaO2 <60 mmHg is associated with fetal hypoxemia which will quickly lead to fetal acidosis and bradycardia. 
  • Goal maternal PaCO2 is 28-32 mmHg; this respiratory alkalosis maintains a CO2 gradient to help shift offload fetal CO2 into the maternal circulation for clearance. 
  • Hypotensive pregnant patients with a large uterus (20+ weeks) should be turned to the left lateral decubitus position or tilted leftward by at least 15 degrees to offload aortocaval compression and minimize secondary decrease in venous return) by the gravid uterus. 
  • In cases of maternal cardiac arrest, the patient should be kept supine for chest compressions with the gravid uterus manually displaced to the left.
  • Keeping the mother alive is the best way to keep the fetus alive. Standard sedatives, vasopressors, and inotropes are okay if they are needed. Exception for ketamine, which has mixed effects in existing studies and while low doses are probably safe if needed, use as a firstline agent is not recommended. Notify the NICU team of medications given to mother if there is a precipitous delivery.
  • Fetal tococardiometry monitoring if available, or regular POCUS assessment of FHR, in all viable pregnancies.

Finally, once critical illness is identified the OB and NICU teams should be consulted immediately. Fetal distress in a viable pregnancy may be an indication for delivery, and initiation of the transfer process should occur if the supportive specialties are not in-house.



Gaffney A. Critical care in pregnancy: Is it different? Semin Perinatol 2014;38(6):329-40.

Pacheco LD, Saade GR, Hankins GDV. Mechanical ventilation during pregnancy: Sedation, analgesia, and paralysis. Clin Obstet Gynecol 2014;57(4):844-50.

Practice Guidelines of Obstetric Anesthesia: An updated report by the American Society of Anesthesiologists Task Force on Obstetric Anesthesia and the Society for Obstetric Anesthesia and Perinatology. Anesthesiology 2016;124(2):270-300.

Guntupalli KK, Hall N, Karnad D, et al. Critical illness in pregnancy. Chest 2015;148(4):1093-1104.