Have you ever heard the saying, “Miracles happen to those who believe in them?” Well, after having given birth to a baby prematurely, I found myself a believer. In fact, I found that statement could not resonate more since my daughter, Anna Kate, came into this world.
November 17 is World Prematurity Day
I was 29 weeks pregnant on October 9, 2009 when I went to see my doctor for what I thought was the worst case of heartburn a person could have. Instead of prescribing me antacids and instructing me to stop eating so much marinara sauce on everything (my top pregnancy craving), she instead sent me straight from her office to the hospital. And after a series of tests, I was told the “heartburn” was pain from my liver swelling, and I had a severe case of pre-eclampsia called HELLP syndrome. I had never felt so much physical abdominal pain, and this condition could be life-threatening to me, but that wasn’t even the worst part. While being hooked to IVs and monitors, I was told the only treatment option for me was to deliver our baby.
This was an unexpected shock to my heart. Even though there was nothing that I did to cause this condition, I couldn’t help but feel guilty for it. This sweet life I had been carrying inside of me was being forced to leave before its time. My hospital room flooded with NICU doctors, NICU nurses, lactation nurses and other specialists, each of them preparing me for a baby that I would not be able to hold after delivery. I would not be able to breastfeed but instead would need to pump. I received a series of disappointing pep-talks on what to expect with having a preemie. I would have to prepare myself for my baby to stay in the hospital for weeks of intensive care and tests that might give us such news as brain damage, loss of eyesight, hearing loss and other related developmentally delayed conditions. I originally thought that the most exciting news I’d receive on my delivery date would be finding out if it were a boy or a girl. That quickly changed to just hoping my baby would be able to be born with the strength to breathe on its own without being intubated.
Anna Kate’s Birthday
My husband, Jason, and I felt so unprepared and worried. We cried together in fear. We held each other and prayed for a miracle. Beneath it all, Jason gave me the unspoken, calm assurance that he would take care of his family no matter what, this day and always. His unyielding love reminded me why he was the man I married in the first place. Minutes before my c-section, Jason took out his daily prayer book that he always keeps folded up in his pocket and read me the message of the day. It concluded, “Jesus tells us in the gospel, what is impossible for us, is possible for God.” That statement of truth radiated in our hearts, and it held us together as Anna Kate was born 10 ½ weeks early on October 11, 2009. She was only 2 pounds, 4 ounces, and Jason’s wedding ring fit around her tiny hand.
Seeing her for the first time made me feel closer to God than ever before. She had arrived and thus far survived! My mind kept playing a verse of one of my favorite hymns Amazing Grace: “How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed,” because although I could label myself a lifelong Christian, it was as if I was seeing the wonders of His grace for the first time…it was that powerful, a re-affirmation of my faith…just to see our little miracle.
Anna Kate spent 10 ½ weeks total in a neonatal ICU (NICU) before going home. She fought every day, and she overcame so many obstacles. She was small, but she displayed so much courage, which in turn gave her parents incredible strength. I would stand over her incubator and bilirubin light, and it broke my heart that I couldn’t “fix it,” that I couldn’t just put her back in me so she could finish her much needed growth and development before being brought into this world. Thankfully, Anna Kate was tougher than I gave her credit for. While she needed oxygen for most of her stay, she never needed to be intubated. She passed all of her head ultrasounds showing no signs of brain damage. Her eyes were developing normally. Those were all high points.
On the flip side, there were some pretty rocky low points. She had to be rushed to Children’s Hospital after 10 days in Touro’s NICU because they thought she would need emergency surgery. She was struggling to breathe, her belly was purple, and she was vomiting nonstop. Someone had to stand over her at all times because occasionally her heart rate would drop too dangerously low. She was developing a serious condition called necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC, a condition where the preemie’s immature and weakened intestinal tract could burst, and even with surgery, there were high risks of sepsis and death). She was received at Children’s Hospital and with a great team of doctors and nurses by her side, she was treated supportively and never became diagnosed with NEC, avoided surgery, and kept going.
Anna Kate’s Fight
She fought every day, and she overcame so many obstacles. She had 3 blood transfusions due to anemia and was poked often with multiple needles for catheters, blood draws, etc, to give her the medicine, fluids and care she required. Because she was born without the reflex to know how to suck/swallow/breathe at the same time, simply nursing a bottle of my breast milk would cause her to stop breathing entirely! She was small, but mighty, and her determination made us so proud. I rejoiced at her accomplishments; she was somehow reaching incredible milestones before being developmentally designed to do it!
“It will be an emotional roller-coaster ride being a NICU parent” is something they all warned me of in my delivery room that I completely came to understand…because with every triumph, we soon faced another challenge. It was hard going to that NICU every day. Instead of being surrounded by happy families taking their healthy babies home, we saw hospitalized tiny infants and their weary parents. These fragile premature babies were so sensitive that their health could take a turn for the worst in a day, or even an instant. But nothing made the situation more real to us than when her roommate, a little baby named Myracle, died unexpectedly just a few days shy of when she was due to go home. I still think of her often…and how her short and precious life impacted me.
During the difficult days we faced, I could barely find the energy to stay strong, and it was then I could gaze at Anna Kate as if she were saying to me, “Don’t cry, Mom. I got this.” God gave Anna Kate the strength to fight through her prematurity and therefore it carried me at my weakest hour. She was not giving up on her fight to leave the hospital, and it gave me an overwhelming sense of peace.
Looking back I don’t know how we went through it. It was hard to keep the faith while watching our child “eat” through a tube, needing oxygen to help her breathe and the worst: we were only allowed to hold her for 20 minutes a day so she wouldn’t be outside her incubator. (I was her mother! Who was anyone to tell me I couldn’t hold my child?) In my whole life, I couldn’t have been more helpless. Thankfully, we could rest each night because God was in control. It was the most humbling experience to rely 100% on God’s will and intentions for our new family. Each time we left the hospital, we prayed for His continued blessing, and we put our trust in Him.
Anna Kate: Our Little Miracle
Anna Kate’s miraculous story involved so many. Her doctors and nurses were my first experience with angels here on earth; she received the best medical and also kindest supportive care. We were so blessed with such amazing friends and family that stormed the heavens with their prayers. There was not a prayer list anywhere that did not have her name on it. The prayer list even reached a NICU mom in Florida whom I had never met; she contacted me and encouraged me, and more than anyone else, she understood my fears and helplessness. She quickly became a person whom I’ll always remember, and the reason why I want to reach out to any NICU mom, ever, in hopes that I could share with them that they are not alone.
As the prayers grew, Anna Kate also grew; it was a direct correlation. She grew more healthy, more strong, becoming her own unique self, full of life and personality. Her every noise, every expression, every movement…they were all special and perfect. She became an inspiration to us all.
Anna Kate came home weighing 4 pounds, 14 ounces on December 23, 2009, just 2 days before Christmas and 2 days after her original expected due date. I was more full of the Christmas spirit than ever before. It was the best Christmas present ever.
Fast forward and here we are today with a healthy and happy 3 year old Anna Kate. It’s still been a roller-coaster ride, but thankfully we only had one major downfall: she was hospitalized again in 2010 because of a serious bout of pneumonia. Besides that horrifying time, she’s been nothing but on the up-and-up. We’ve continued to be blessed with tremendous support. She had a lot of therapy (occupational, physical, speech/language and special instruction) and neurology doctor visits that ended at age 2 when it was determined she had caught up with her peers. Anna Kate received all of her therapy under a state-funded program called Early Steps that helps preemies with developmental delays but also provides therapy for any child with a disability. Therapists come to the home or, in Anna Kate’s case, she went to the Bright School for a couple of hours a day, which was coincidentally and conveniently located in our Church’s childcare center. It’s humbling to look at her now and how far she’s come since that incubator. It brings me to my knees in gratitude, thanking God I am witnessing a miracle every day of my life.
I found our experience through Anna Kate of having a premature baby can be summarized with this statement by Robert H. Schuller: “Impossible situations can become possible miracles.”
Do you believe in miracles?
Emily Lemann was born and raised in New Orleans. She grew up in Lakeview and is a graduate of Isidore Newman School. She attended Louisiana State University for college and received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree at LSU School of Veterinary Medicine. She is very passionate about her career with animals and is proud to work in a small animal practice in Uptown New Orleans with her dad, Dr. Gene Zeller. She and her husband, Jason, live in Metairie and are the proud parents of a 3 year old daughter, Anna Kate, who is the joy of their life. They also have 3 furry children: a dog, Newman, and 2 cats, Mike and Amelia. When not at work, Emily most enjoys spending time with her family. She also loves her church, her friends, LSU football, dining out in New Orleans, Mardi Gras, traveling, creative writing and pottery.
March of Dimes (contact Courtney for more information on getting involved)
The March of Dimes stands apart from other non-profits in that it accomplished its original mission, which was to defeat polio in our country. After the polio vaccine was discovered and widely implemented, the March of Dimes shifted its focus and the commitment of its volunteers to fighting birth defects and infant mortality. Over the years, the organization has researched the genetic causes of birth defects, promoted newborn screening, and educated medical professionals and the public about best practices for healthy pregnancy. As premature birth became one of the biggest challenges facing babies in our country, the March of Dimes made raising awareness about the known causes and signs of premature labor as well as funding research into the largely unknown causes, its chief aim. In 2011 alone, the March of Dimes made more than $21 million in direct investments in fighting prematurity, funding research, NICU Family Support Centers at more than 100 hospitals around the country, and education campaigns. With 1 out of every 8 babies born prematurely in the United States, supporting the March of Dimes is a way to advocate for our tiniest citizens. Don’t you agree that all babies deserve to be born healthy and on time?!?