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Stories: Voices from the frontline

Jeroen Vanderhoeven, M.D.

Jeroen Vanderhoeven, M.D., is driven to keep pregnant people and their baby safe. Which is why, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the maternal fetal specialist has focused on uncovering secrets of the disease’s effects on his patients.

Pregnant people are especially vulnerable to respiratory infections, which led Dr. Vanderhoeven and a team of researchers from the University of Washington, Seattle Children’s and a handful of other local hospitals to hypothesize the same would be the case for COVID-19. What they found, though, surprised them: While pregnant people are not at an increased risk of infection, those who do get the virus have either mild symptoms or very severe ones—there’s no in-between.

“We thought the infection would be quite devastating among these patients,” Dr. Vanderhoeven says. “We were relieved to find that wasn’t the case.”

The study—one of the first on the effects of COVID-19 on pregnant people—was published this spring in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology.

While the results were promising, their incongruity underscored the need for more work. Dr. Vanderhoeven hopes to identify risks to both pregnant people and their baby through an in-depth review of medical records of COVID-positive patients from six hospitals across western Washington. This comprehensive examination can reveal patterns across large groups, potentially helping us predict which COVID-positive pregnant people are more likely to experience complications like ICU admission, preterm birth, and intrauterine growth restriction.

With a vaccine months or years away, Dr. Vanderhoeven hopes to find an answer to save other women from complications should they contract COVID-19 while pregnant.

Answering questions that have yet to be asked and broadening the medical community’s understanding of high-risk pregnancies has driven much of Dr. Vanderhoeven’s work since he joined Swedish in 2013. 

An example of the questions he’s worked to answer is why a woman’s amniotic sac can rupture early. Premature rupture of membranes (PROM)—any time a woman’s water breaks before the 37th week of pregnancy—can lead to infection and preterm labor. With his research partners from UW, Dr. Vanderhoeven has found certain structural commonalities among membranes that rupture prematurely, which may lead to a test that could predict a woman’s susceptibility to it.

“Research is a calling for me,” he says. “Being at the bedside without a solid scientific rationale for guiding my next steps is an uncomfortable position for me and the patient.”

To learn more and to invest in Dr. Vanderhoeven’s research contact Lorna Kneeland at lorna.kneeland@swedish.org or 206-215-2217. You can also make a secure gift online now at https://give.swedishfoundation.org/covid-19.