by Catie MacDonald

Our story begins as we were anticipating the arrival of our longingly wished-for, fervently prayed-for firstborn child. We basked in the glow of an uneventful, healthy pregnancy, celebrating with showers and wish lists, collecting tiny shoes, and nesting a beautiful nursery. Our joy amplified with each prenatal appointment, never expecting anything but good news about our healthy little boy. 

We made a birth plan, toured the facility, and prepared for our delivery at Stillwater Medical Center. Bags neatly packed, car seat installed. All we needed to do was wait on bated breath for the first signs of our son’s arrival. The signs began at 38.5 weeks – just a touch early for a first pregnancy but still considered full-term. After an uneventful pregnancy, we fully expected our full-term baby to be the picture of health.

We had a long, difficult labor, but our nurses were absolutely fantastic. I had the privilege of being cared for by Shelby Foster and she went above and beyond for us. Although we had a few touch-and-go moments during labor, our son was finally born and took his first anxiously-awaited breaths. But as the nurses held him up, it was quickly apparent he was far too small for his gestational age. The average weight of a 38-weeker is about 7 pounds, and our baby weighed in at only 5 pounds 1 oz. Anything below the 10th percentile, or 6 pounds for this gestational age, is considered “Small for Gestational Age” (SGA) and comes with significant risks, and our baby measured at below the 2nd percentile.

An SGA baby increases the risk of complications and requires a higher level of care and monitoring than average babies. And we saw that risk come to fruition when our nurses checked our baby’s blood sugar, and it was critically low. After attempting to stabilize his blood sugar for a day with all the methods at their disposal, Dr. Webb determined it was necessary for him to be transported to a NICU. A transport team was dispatched to SMC immediately, and he was transported directly by a specialist NICU team in their expert care.

Although I knew he was in the best of hands, I cannot begin to describe the emotions that overtook me as an immediately postpartum mother being separated from my baby. Any mom can tell you that those hours immediately following delivery are a wild rush of emotions. Add in an unexpectedly ill baby and a mother standing with empty arms as he is transported away, and you can imagine the overwhelming stress and anxiety that follows.

We were able to follow him to St. Francis in Tulsa shortly after he left. We were told we were one of the lucky ones, as if I had required a cesarean section, I would have had to stay admitted at SMC even longer before I could meet our baby in Tulsa. Emotionally, the impact was devastating. But I quickly realized that his transfer took a physical toll as well. After 30+ hours of labor, I was suddenly expected to be up and walking around, navigating a huge hospital complex to be bedside with our son. I used wheelchairs when I could, but the NICU still took so much out of me physically, especially on top of pumping around the clock. My recovery was highly complicated and delayed due to the stress and physical toll being present at the hospital took on me. Late that first day, one merciful neonatologist could see I was running on empty and ordered me to go to a hotel to sleep. I was pale and on the border of fainting from exhaustion, a low that most definitely set back my recovery in consequence.

We were finally able to go home after what felt like a very long week in the NICU. We received the best follow-up care with Dr. Webb and her team, care that I’m forever indebted to. Thankfully, our sweet boy overcame the complications from his extreme hypoglycemia and SGA diagnosis, and he is a thriving little boy with tons of energy to spare and an unmatched curiosity and fervor for life. 

Looking back on our story while celebrating the cusp of SMC gaining a NICU, I see so many reflections of how our story could be different. With a consulting neonatologist on staff and a facility with the equipment and technology to provide specialized monitoring and care of high-risk babies like my own, our son could have stayed right here at home. He could have received the extra neonatologist-driven care he needed in the same wing where I received my own postpartum care. Emotionally, the trauma I experienced would have inherently been lessened without the separation and fear of the unknown. Physically, my recovery would have been so much easier without traveling and navigating an unknown hospital complex. Rather than a neonatologist I had just met happening to recognize my physical exhaustion at the brink of a complete crash, my own nurses and physician would have been on-site and monitoring me more closely. Our local support systems would have remained intact to better care for our support needs, such as meals. Our story would be different. 

Although it is easy to see how beneficial a NICU in Stillwater would truly be for so many logical and concrete reasons, knowing the personal story of a mom who lived the experience of the current reality makes this initiative all the more worthwhile. The reality is that my story is just one of many. So many families will benefit from having immediate access to life-saving care right here at home. Although my son’s case was truly critical, he was stabilized and transported quickly. I shudder to think of the consequences if his transport or care had been delayed any further. Specialized neonatal care here at home will save lives, no doubt. But it will also save so many families from the birth trauma of an unexpected separation from their newborns, and has far-reaching benefits in maternal health as well.