I had always known that one day I wanted little hands tugging at my shirt shouting, “Mommy! Mommy!” I loved being pregnant, but my journey into motherhood began with morning, day, and night sickness. I’m not going to lie, it was rough. The smell of, well… pretty much anything was more than I could handle. I lived off crackers, chicken noodle soup, and life savers. I wasn’t gaining weight, I was actually losing. Since Will’s work relocated him, we were also in the middle of house hunting and moving to a different state. It was the first day in our new house and the air conditioner broke. It was the middle of summer and I was miserable, to say the least.
After 15 weeks, my severe morning sickness subsided and I felt like I could take on the world! At 23 weeks I started to experience pain. I called the doctor twice expressing my concerns and how at times I couldn’t even stand up straight. She quickly dismissed my symptoms for round ligament pain. I went to my monthly check up at 24 weeks voicing my concern once again and asked my doctor to do an exam to reassure me all was well. Something just didn’t feel right. My doctor told me Isabelle’s heart rate was good. She told me I’m measuring on track. She told me that I am young and healthy. She said there is no reason to worry and that my symptoms were a normal part of pregnancy. I pushed the issue, but she continued to pushed back. I left that appointment without an exam.
At midnight on October 16th, 2008 I woke up in excruciating pain. I was 25 weeks pregnant. The pain escalated on and off. These couldn’t be contractions, right? I walked around the house for a little bit, but they were just getting worse. I woke Will and we called the doctor, he told us to come to the hospital. It took us 30 minutes to get there and the contractions didn’t let up. I couldn’t walk or talk through the pain. I had no idea what was happening. I was immediately rushed to the exam room, hooked up to monitors and examined. The look on the nurses faces made my heart feel like it was about to pump right out of my chest. I was 4 cm dilated. I was immediately put on magnesium sulfate, which is a drug used to stop preterm labor by slowing contractions. As soon as they started my drip, I felt a rush of heat, like my skin was on fire, and within seconds I got sick. My contractions started to slow down, but I was still dilating and they had maxed out my magnesium. Several hours later, they stopped my drip because I was having trouble moving my arms and legs and my vision was blurred (side effects of too much of the drug). It didn’t matter anymore because their hope of me keeping Isabelle safe in my womb for at least another 48 hours to allow the steroid shot to set in (to speed up the maturation of Isabelle’s lungs) was gone. I was already 10 cm dilated and they had me inverted in the hospital bed to keep her from, in their terms, “falling out”. The neonatologists and NICU nurses came in like a swarm of bees and we were told every single complication that we were about to face. To say we were terrified is an understatement. We knew absolutely nothing about premature babies. It was information overload and everything felt like a complete blur (you know, like in the movies where the room becomes blurry and the voice of the person talking to you is muffled by the sound of your own breathing… it was kinda like that). One thing did stand out when she was talking.
“At 25 weeks there’s a 50% chance she’ll survive.”
It kept repeating in my head. You think we would have been devastated, right? No, it actually gave Will and I a glimmer of hope. We had no idea this nightmare had the possibility of a happy ending.
We were told, when she is born she won’t be breathing.
She will not cry.
Will won’t be able to cut the cord.
I will not get to hold her.
She will be immediately handed to the NICU team to intibate her to get her breathing and stabilized.
But none of that mattered. We just wanted them to save our baby.
I had been in labor for 10 hours and my muscles were terribly weak and almost unmovable from the magnesium. I begged for an epidural. No. Really. If I could have gotten on my knees, I would have. My “birth plan” consisted of two things:
1. get to the hospital
2. get an epidural ASAP
That was it, folks. Epidural. Plus, given our situation, I truly felt I could not possibly handle any more. They caved and gave it to me, but it didn’t have enough time to set in before Isabelle needed to make her arrival. Two extremely weak and barely-there pushes, and our miracle was born. And you know what? The most magical little squeal came out of those tiny lungs! Another glimmer of hope. You could hold her tiny body in the palm of your hand, all 1 lb 13 oz and 11 inches of it. The NICU nurses, who are truly angels sent from God, were able to stabilize Isabelle enough to wheel her over to me.
We were able to see her for a few seconds before they rushed her off to the NICU. Will snapped this photo with his then flip phone. Her tiny body was covered in plastic wrap to keep her warm even though she was under a heat lamp. She had medical tape from ear to ear stabilizing her breathing tube while a nurse manually pumped air into her miniature lungs. I remember touching her tiny head and telling her I love her. At that moment she looked like she was trying to open her eyes even though they were still fused shut. It was a moment that gave us another little glimmer of hope we could cling to.
First obstacle. Survive birth.
Second obstacle. Survive the first 48 hours. Those were the most crucial.
Third obstacle. Survive the first 2 weeks. If she could make it past her first 2 weeks her chances of survival increased tremendously.
To this day, we still do not know exactly what happened, or how, or why. We all have our theories, but we’ve come to terms with never truly knowing. Her white blood cell count was high after birth, testing positive for Group B Strep. She was put on an antibiotic for 10 days. Her head ultrasound showed a grade I brain bleed on each side of her brain. A grade III or grade IV bleed meant she would be mentally challenged or if it was severe enough it meant death. We needed her to get through her first two weeks without her bleeds increasing above a level II. How do we do that? Keep her calm and keep her blood pressure down. Those were a long two weeks, but at the end her head ultrasound showed a level I and a level II. It is highly unlikely they would progress after two weeks. That was a huge step forward. A PICC line was inserted through a vein in her arm and up toward her heart. It was a more permanent IV line to reduce the risk of infections due to changing her IV frequently. She was also on a ventilator for her first 6 weeks. Her PDA (a persistent opening between two major blood vessels leading from the heart) was open, if she didn’t respond to the medications she would have to undergo surgery to correct it.
We breathed a huge sigh of relief after her two week birthday. I was FINALLY able to hold my baby girl. It was only 5 minutes before her temperature started to drop and we had to return her to the incubator, but it had been the best 5 minutes since she had been born.
Isabelle was past her critical two week point, but her vital signs were all over the place. I asked for her weekly blood check to be done early because she had been sleeping all day and not responsive when I would change her diaper or take her temperature. The angelic West Penn nurses and doctors worked with me and trusted my observation. Sure enough, her white count came back extremely high, signaling she was fighting something. They wanted to rule out the worst, meningitis. They performed a spinal tap on our then 2 lb 2 oz baby. The first set of results took 24 hours and the second set took 48 hours. The first set of results showed she did have meningitis, but we wouldn’t know how advanced it was until her second set of test results came back. God had answered our pleading prayers, we caught the meningitis in its early stages and it had not yet destroyed any brain tissue. The second test results showed that it was not growing quickly, which was best case scenario! They started her on a 6 week cycle of antibiotics. They said the third and final round of medication worked to close her PDA in her heart, but her oxygen was still all over the place. They could not hear the valve open, but I asked for another ECHO (sonogram of the heart) to make sure. We praised God then and we praise him now that He didn’t let Isabelle’s PDA close. The ECHO not only showed that her PDA was still open, but she had also developed endocarditis, an infection in the inner lining of the heart. If this had not been caught in time, it could have caused several different complications potentially resulting in taking her life. Her medicine was changed to treat her meningitis and endocarditis. She was on antibiotics for 6 more weeks and her third round of medicine to close her PDA worked. Another huge sigh of relief!
Will and I got a call very early one morning and were told Isabelle was requiring 100% oxygen and still desaturating. Once her ventilator is set at 100% they cannot do anything else to help her. We were told we didn’t need to come in, but if she got worse they would call us. Will didn’t go to work and we headed up to the hospital anyways. We got there and her oxygen levels and heart rate were unstable. They thought she was in pain, so they gave her morphine and a paralysis medication to keep her from moving around. All we could do was pray and pray and pray. No one had any idea what was causing this.
In a split second every doctor and nurse was rushing to Isabelle’s side, alarms sounding, and all parents being ordered to stand outside the glass doors as they tried to keep Isabelle with us. As I feel like I am unable to breathe myself, I tell Will I will be back. I turned the corner to the dark NICU pod that wasn’t being used and desperately dropped to my knees and begged and pleaded for Him to save her, to take me instead. That’s when I felt a power lift me off my knees and gave me the strength and courage that I needed… that Isabelle needed. By the time I got back to Isabelle they realized her lung had collapsed and they were trying to get it working again.
We stayed at the NICU that evening in their overnight room (our NICU didn’t let parents stay there unless they thought your baby may not make it through the night). By the next morning she was down on her oxygen and more stable than she had been. Our prayers were answered and eventually her lung inflated and started to work again. She was stable enough that we made our trip back home that evening to get some sleep. I was woken up by Will at 11:30 pm telling me to get dressed, the doctors called and we need to come up to the hospital. That moment still haunts him. Can you imagine having to wake up your husband or wife to tell them that they had to go to the hospital because their baby girl could be dying? Isabelle’s ventilator was at 100% oxygen and she was still desaturating. Her oxygen levels are getting dangerously low. They already had her at 100% and again, there was nothing more they could do. The 30 minutes it took us to drive to get to Isabelle we were bargaining with God. Making deals with him. We had no idea what we would walk into when we stepped though those NICU doors. Although my focus was on the doctor standing next to Isabelle’s incubator, I could see the pitying faces look up at us as we walked in. From that moment on everything seemed fuzzy. What I do remember is the doctor telling us they had bagged her (manually pump air into her lungs) a few times to keep her from desaturating for too long (which would cause permanent brain damage). They realized she was having bronchial spasms (basically asthma attacks). Her lungs were unable to expand. They changed her ventilator and administrated breathing treatments to open up her lungs and keep them open.
From that day forward Isabelle continued to get better. She suffered a few tiny setbacks, but nothing compared to what she had already overcome. On top of everything else, she had several blood transfusions, jaundice which required phototherapy, was on and off TPN fluid (a calorie water given through her IV when she wasn’t able to tolerate milk), had several daily heel pricks that you can still see on her foot today, pneumonia, daily chest x-rays, and had laser eye surgery because she developed ROP (abnormal blood vessel development in the retina). When she came home from the hospital she was still on oxygen and heart monitors, had constant apnea (she would stop breathing) and bradycardias (her heart rate would drop) when she ate. She had terrible reflux that required medication until she was well over a year. She also had an umbilical hernia. Isabelle was discharged 3 days after her due date. She came home on a few medications including zantac for her reflux, a diuretic to keep her lungs from retaining fluid, and sodium. After a couple months she came off the oxygen and heart monitor.
She is now an unbelievable, healthy, smart, intuitive, loving, kind, pure-hearted, strong-willed, most amazing NINE year old! She is adored by so many. Isabelle insisted on doing things her way then, and she still has that feisty attitude today. She is a fighter and the strongest person I know. She is our walking miracle. She makes me a better person. Isabelle is a constant reminder of what this life is truly about and a constant reminder of what God can do.