Ashley Riehl was already feeling poorly when she visited her doctor at 27 weeks.
“You may have this thing called preeclampsia. Let’s check back in two weeks,” the doctor said.
She admitted herself to the hospital at 29 weeks with a blood pressure of 200/119. She was diagnosed as high-risk, transferred to another hospital and delivered her son, David, at 30 weeks.
Today, she is celebrating the one year anniversary of David coming home after 66 days in NICU. I’m so honored to she is sharing her story to help encourage other preemie moms.
Do you remember what it was like to seeing David for the first time?
Honestly, at first I thought he was stillborn because he was so blue. Once he cried, my heart skipped a beat. I was only allowed to hold him for a minute before they had to take him away. After that, I didn’t see my son for three days because I developed HELLP syndrome and couldn’t leave the high-risk unit.
The first time I saw him after that was the most amazing moment. His little cry sounded like a lamb and I balled. I was finally able to see him not all wrapped up. Just to be able to put my finger in the isolate hole and hold his hand for more than a minute made my heart smile. It was the real first time that I fully bonded with my son.
When did you get to hold David for the first time?
I was able to hold him a week after he was born. I remember when a nurse in the high-risk unit told me I could hold him I was only able to hold him for an hour but it felt like an eternity and a minute all at the same time.
My husband couldn’t believe it, but the moment they took him out of the isolate, he started crying. Once he was all situated on my chest, he immediately stopped. He knew I was his mama. I remember just wanting to fall asleep with him in my arm. I didn’t want to let him go. I look forward to that hour every day until he came out of the isolate into a crib at 34 weeks old.
What got you through the tough times?
I journaled. I found a preemie website on Pintrest and ordered a daily journal. It helped me with my postpartum anxiety to write down how he was doing, what his weight was, and how he was eating.
I also created my #DailyDoseOfDavid hashtag on Instagram. Many people have told me I should have made a blog, which maybe I should have, but posting a picture of him every single day, and having others follow his journey was uplifting as well. The kind words that strangers gave me and the prayers that we received were sometimes what I needed on a bad day. The world was rooting for him.
What kinds of things did you do to feel more like a “regular” mom to David?
I really didn’t feel like “me” until David came home. The only thing that made me feel normal was walking my french bulldog, Archie. I needed to walk. It craved it because it sometimes made things more peaceful.
Were you able to relate to friends and family during your NICU stay?
It was hard to relate to people around me. I remember having this conversation with my husband because I missed a credit card bill. He was telling me how the world was still going on outside of the hospital, and I remember just balling my eyes out saying I couldn’t focus on anything other than my world who was inside that hospital. He was working and staying strong while I lived and breathe the NICU every day. I also hated being on social media at times because I couldn’t stand seeing people so happy and having healthy children while my world was falling to pieces and I didn’t know what the next day would bring.
Luckily, I did know two people that had children in the NICU before, so it was nice to talk to them when the days felt long or David was regressing.
Was there anything anyone did for you that helped make the NICU stay easier?
I had such a team behind me. I had people I haven’t talked to since high school send me prayer blankets. My sorority sent us a gift card and fuzzy blanket. I had girlfriends send me spa essentials for the stressful days. I had friends send me preemie books. It was just amazing! I felt like every other day there was a package for David or myself. It definitely lifted my spirits to see how compassionate people were in my time of need and crisis.
How is David today?
My little David is amazing! He is almost fully caught up from his adjusted age to “real” age. He is leveling at 15 months for connection and social skills (way over his age which is awesome) and just lacking in some motor skills (leveling at 11 1/2 months). He is so close to walking, gets into everything (typical boy) and say mama, dada, dog, and ball. He is ALWAYS happy, and you would have never known he was in the NICU for 66 days.
What would you tell a mom who has a preemie baby in NICU right now?
I’m not going to lie, it sucks. When other moms use to tell me that someday it will end and you’ll look back on it like it was forever ago–I never believed them. I thought how could the world still be turning when my world is in a little plastic box?
However, there is an end. There is a day when you finally don’t need to commute to see your baby. It is also true, that the NICU will become more and more of a distant memory.
Journal, mama. Journal. Journaling is what helped me get through the good and bad days. It helps you reflect on what is going so well for you and your baby.
Make time for yourself. I know that sounds ridiculous right!? Who can make time for themselves when their baby is in the NICU!? Trust me. I lived at the NICU between 12-15 hours a day. I was there from 6:30 a.m. to sometimes almost 9 p.m. at night. I even did a 72-hour stretch to help my son get off the feeding tube. But you need “me” time to make you sane. I walked. I found walking and journaling were the only things that made me feel normal. I would make sure to “schedule” a walk outside the hospital or just walking to the food court to actually eat.
Also, nourish yourself. I know, I know, you don’t want to miss ANYTHING that is going on with your baby. But, to produce the milk you need for that little one, you need to take care of you. The first step is to have a meal. I was so bad with that until I had a nurse force me to go to the cafeteria. It’s amazing how eating a little bit of food can change your mood and outlook.
As much as it sucks not being with your baby 24/7 and having a better relationship with your pump than your newborn, the NICU nurses help you be the best parent you can possibly be. Also, reach out to the Social Worker on duty. I had one that was better than a therapist. They are there for you, so use them! Even if you need to just talk frustrations or fears out, use them.
Lastly, find the silver lining. I always say how the NICU gave me a 101 on how to be a mom, so when I came out of the hospital, I was 100 percent trained on parenting. I babysat before and knew mostly how to take care of a baby. However, that reassurance and almost “easing” into it, helped a lot with my confidence.
I will tell you that the NICU grew me and molded me into the mom I am today, and I am damn proud to be a strong and surviving NICU mom.
I always say preemie moms deserve a merit badge. What merit badges do you think you have earned?
I think I earned the “Mama Bear Badge.” I say this because there were several times I had to advocate for my son to push him forward. I’m not a confrontational person at all, but oh boy did claws come out when it came to David.
I remember when he wasn’t taking the bottle. I told the doctor to take the feeding tube out because he knew he would be fed no matter what. She told me that wouldn’t make a difference and we would probably have to put it back in. I stayed at the hospital for 72 hours attempting to breast feed around the clock so he would eat. The night I left, I was so scared he would have the tube in his nose. I came in to find out that he ate all his milk bottles and did not need the tube. I was in tears!
Another time, I had to advocate for him was to come home. The doctor told me he was coming home on August 27. That day my husband and I arrvied early to finally bring our son home. However, an overnight doctor came in telling us he couldn’t go home because that night he fussed with one bottle. I fought tooth and nail to get him home. Finally, she called the other doctor, who gave him the OK to be released. I would have never had the guts to do that, but being a preemie mom makes you strong and tough.