After battling high blood pressure most of her pregnancy, Ashley Hinton of Vernon, New Jersey heard her doctor say the words pregnant women dread: “We can’t help you here any longer.”
With her daughter in distress, Ashley was rushed to a hospital an hour away and diagnosed with preeclampsia. Bristol was born 13 weeks early at 27 weeks gestation and spent 90 days in the NICU.
Balancing NICU life with a three-year-old son at home took a toll on Ashley. “I lived in a constant state of anxiety, fear, worry and it was exhausting,” she said.
Ultimately, she worked with a therapist who gave her tools to cope and helped her understand that it was okay to let her guard down and not pretend that what happened didn’t hurt.
“I spent those first months of my child’s life surviving it all right alongside her, but I needed help sorting through the mess of emotions in order to start living my life again.”
Read about Ashley’s preemie mom story below and her essay on NICU PTSD here.
What were the circumstances surrounding Bristol’s premature birth?
Bristol’s premature birth was due to my severe preeclampsia. I experienced high blood pressure early on in my first trimester so I was being monitored quite frequently for issues. I went in for a routine check that happened about every two weeks at my maternal fetal medicine doctor who took one look at my blood pressure reading and uttered the words, “We can’t help you here any longer.”
The hospital I was hoping to deliver in would not deliver a baby before 34 weeks. I was sent to labor and delivery immediately where they began to prep me for a transfer to a level III NICU in Morristown, New Jersey and started me on a magnesium drip. According to the labor and delivery nurse, I was a ticking time bomb.
I spent two days at Morristown before the 24-hour urine test came back showing preeclampsia and the symptoms I was having deemed no longer safe to continue on in my pregnancy. I was rushed into an emergency C-section and our girl was born at 27 weeks.
What was it like seeing Bristol for the first time?
I never got to see her in the operating room. I had only a pixelated picture my husband had been able to snap of her before they whisked her away prior to this point. She was 29 hours old when I was finally allowed to see her.
Upon laying eyes on her, I remember being scared and utterly frightened by all the wires, tubes and other medical machinery necessary to help her live. For the first time, it all felt real. Suddenly, it was a rush of emotions – the good, the bad, the ugly. It was everything at once. I cried in relief that she was here in front of me. I cried in fear of what could be. I cried to mourn a pregnancy that was no longer and I cried because I didn’t know what else to do. It was overwhelming in so many ways.
What was it like finally getting to hold Bristol for the first time?
Bristol was a week old when she was strong enough to be held for the first time. I was anxious leading up to that moment. She still had a lot of wires and tubes hooked up to her so when the nurse laid her on my chest, I remember freezing. I wasn’t sure if I could move and was afraid of breaking her.
I also felt for the first time since her birth that all was right with the world again. My baby was in my arms where she should be. The NICU is such a funny place. It can evoke so many different emotions. It’s a cocktail of all the feelings, all at once.
What kinds of things did you do to feel more like a “regular” mom to your preemie during your NICU stay?
This sounds crazy but I’m sure other preemie moms will understand: Doing laundry! In our NICU we could dress our babies in non-zipper outfits and sleepers as well as bring in receiving blankets that were used in their beds/nests. So at every visit, I’d change her clothes if the nurses hadn’t done so already, and take her laundry home with me. This little bit of baby laundry made her feel real outside of the NICU and made me feel like a “regular” mom.
Was there anything anyone did for you that helped make the NICU stay easier?
We had a friend that organized a meal train for us which helped greatly as well as one who organized gas gift cards for us. With the hospital being an hour away from where we lived, gas was taking a toll on our finances so those in our community were gracious enough to give gas gift cards to help us make the trips to and from.
My mother-in-law also took a month-long leave of absence from her job to help take care of our oldest son, who was three-years-old at the time. That was so extremely helpful since I was always worried if I was doing the other a big disservice by being with the other child. I strongly believe having his grandmother with him when my husband and I couldn’t be there was what helped my son navigate through such a trying time.
How did you balance having a child at home and a preemie in NICU?
The simple answer for this is help. I had to allow others to step in and take over for me as a mom, caregiver, housewife, and friend.
I also had to realize I couldn’t spend every waking moment next to my daughter’s incubator. My son needed his mom, too. He needed both his parents. We would pick days where we spent the day with him and then at night we’d go to the hospital or vice versa. Then, there were days where we’d spend a short period of time with her and then dedicate the day to my son.
The staff at the hospital understood I couldn’t be there all the time and often would encourage me to go home. If they needed me or had an update, they would call. It was a balancing act for 90 days juggling the needs of two children who lived an hour from each other and finding a way to make it work.
How was it relating to friends and family during your NICU stay?
It was tough. I felt alienated. I felt like people pitied me for our situation and that they didn’t know what to say to me. I would often put on a smile and say, “I’m okay, all is well!” In order to keep from making things weird. I did have a few individuals who I clung to for support. I wouldn’t have made it through without them.
What got you through the tough times?
Besides talking to friends and family during those tough times, my outlet was actually writing. Every week, I would write up an update on our girl. I would explain what was going on medically with her. I would share our triumphs, our failures and my feelings.
Some posts reflected my positivity that I felt the day I wrote a certain piece and others screamed “I’m hurting” when the world felt like it was coming down around me. I shared because prior to Bristol being born prematurely, I knew no one that had been in our position. So I decided to talk about it and by doing so, I had so many doors open in order to talk to people who understood where we were.
Talking about it or writing about it got me through. It made me feel less alone and a lot less scary when I had others saying, “We have been there. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Hang in there.”
What would you tell a mom who has a preemie baby in NICU right now?
No doubt that this may be one of the most difficult things to go through. No one will argue that having a baby and not bringing it home with you goes against the nature of motherhood. There will be good days and bad days but know that you are strong enough to get through them all, no matter what.
Also, be easy on yourself. I know there are so many emotions running through your head and mama, it’s okay to feel every single one of them. It’s okay, truly. Be mad when you’re mad, be sad when you’re sad, laugh when something is truly funny, and smile genuinely when the sun hits your face while sitting there holding your baby.
This is a chapter in your book of life. One that you will tell for years to come and look back on knowing you survived it. Your baby isn’t the only one that goes through prematurity, parents and families of preemies do too.
I always say preemie moms deserve a merit badge. What merit badges do you think you have earned?
A merit badge for holding pee the longest! I would spend hours holding my pee just so I could continue doing skin to skin with my baby, even if my bladder was screaming at me the entire time!