I Gave Birth to a Preemie During a Pandemic

Emily Ritter, a designer and art director in Raleigh, N.C. shares her experience giving birth during coronavirus.

As told to: Premature Birth (New Mom/NICU Experience) During COronavirus
Photo: Cavan Images/Adobe Stock

I remember being pregnant and staying up all night looking at the news and wondering if my due date was going to align with the peak of coronavirus cases where I live, in Raleigh, North Carolina. I delivered six weeks early, so that didn’t happen; my experience was scary in other ways.

I had preeclampsia with my first child, Jack, who’s 5 now; it’s just something that hits and you can’t really expect it, and it can be life-threatening to both the mother and baby. Because of that, he was born at 36 weeks and spent a few days in the NICU. The fear surrounding that was one reason we waited so long to have a second child; I had to kind of psych myself up to get pregnant again.

Even though it was frightening, we always kind of laughed that Jack was born early and was born on April Fools day, like someone up above was playing a joke on us — and then the same exact thing happened with Lily: April Fools preemie baby take two. This time with a global pandemic on top.

My doctors had been watching throughout my pregnancy to see if I was developing preeclampsia and as I crossed into 34 weeks, they told me to go to the hospital for monitoring. My husband, Bret, couldn’t come because he was watching Jack, and they wouldn’t allow children at the hospital, so I didn’t have anyone there with me for two or three days. At that point, they did a blood test and discovered I had a rare form of preeclampsia called HELLP syndrome, marked by elevated liver enzymes and a low platelet count. If they determine that you have it, they usually say you have to deliver, even if you’re only like 25 weeks along, so in that sense I felt lucky that we were much closer to full-term.

One of the rules for the hospital was you could have your birth partner there, but once he’s there he can’t leave. So we were in sort of a pickle with, well, who’s going to watch Jack? My dear friend came to stay with him, and then my parents drove down from Buffalo. But because they’re older and more high-risk, that also made me feel really nervous.

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My results came back in the morning and the doctor came in and said we have to deliver the baby. I was like, “When? Later? Tomorrow morning?” And they were like “1” — it was around 11 a.m. at that point. I realized it was April Fools again and was like “this has to be a joke,” and mind you it’s Jack’s fifth birthday, which was so hard. First, we had to cancel his party because of the virus, and then he wasn’t going to have either of his parents there with him all day. I know it’s so minute, but these are the small things you can do for your kids that can help them feel normal and we were missing that. Thankfully, my friend was able to do some makeshift birthday celebrations with him, but it was kind of heartbreaking, and I just felt like I was letting him down.

Things moved pretty quickly from there. I received a few phone calls from doctors from elsewhere in the hospital as I was in my room, so that was interesting that they wouldn’t come by. I was a little obsessed at first about the safety protocols and my proximity to COVID patients, and the team did put my mind at ease. Everyone who worked with me was wearing a mask, and I realized they only had like one mask for a week.

I remember feeling very similar to how I felt when I had Jack: things were very rushed. I was barely able to process that the baby was going to be 34 weeks old and in the NICU — I wasn’t focused on how the virus was changing things in the hospital.

We were just kind of in awe, like, “I can’t believe this is happening again.” All you want to do is protect your kids and keep them close — especially right now, like shelter them — and so knowing that wouldn’t be an option for us and she’d have to stay in the hospital and we’d have to leave was really scary.

It was very emotional to have it go down that way. But in the back of my head I did feel like we were in the best place that we could be, and I was able to have Bret there so I was thankful for that, and all of the nurses. You could tell they were feeling a lot of the heaviness with everything going on — I guess heaviness is a good way to describe everyone’s feelings.

And then comes baby — and the NICU.

Lily was so tiny when she was born, and she’s still really tiny. She was born 4 pounds 8 ounces, and they said she was acting “by the book” — she was breathing on her own and everything. I got to see her for a hot second and then was taken to a recovery room. Bret got to hold her. They brought her out to get the first birth picture, where they put the baby on your chest and take a picture, and then they’re like alright! Peace out! They took her to the NICU, while I had to be monitored to see what was going on with my body.

Later in the night, she started having trouble breathing and they had to put her on a CPAP machine and then a ventilator to help get oxygen to her lungs; it’s so heartbreaking to see the tiniest of humans with this giant contraption on their head. At that point, the NICU had a rule that each baby can only have one visitor. And because I was in a recovery room, Bret could go and see her. But as soon as I was able to, I became the only one who could go in and out. Bret only saw her a few times before it was just me, which was really hard for him.

There was still that rule that if he left the hospital he couldn't come back, so he decided to stay with me to make sure everything was okay and he could advocate for Lily were something to happen with my health. Thankfully it didn’t, but then came the hardest part.

Leaving the hospital without baby.

I came home on a Sunday when Lily was five days old, and she came home on the following Monday, so we were apart for just over a week. When I was in the hospital I felt I was only a few doors down from her; being home felt so far. I also felt really torn because I hadn’t seen Jack in seven days, and it was just super bittersweet to see my first babe, but then also leave this tiny little one at the hospital. I wouldn’t get any sleep those nights. The one thing I focused on, that I felt I had control over, was pumping. I could do it for her and it helped me, in a way, because everything was so far out of my control. So I’d bring milk to the hospital for Lily, but I wasn’t able to hold her until about her fifth day. Missing out on those first few days when you’re trying to bond was also really hard.

Meanwhile, they would give me a mask with a brown bag and I was supposed to use it for a week, the same as hospital workers. Aside from that, I guess out of self-preservation, I had to put the virus in another compartment in my brain. Because all of the other stuff was so worrying, thinking about the virus and both of the kids was too much. I didn’t start really worrying about it until I was home and Lily was in the hospital. I was trying to research when things would get really bad in Raleigh, and just watching the news which is the worst thing to do right now for anyone’s mental health. I did feel, however, that she was in the safest spot possible.

Bringing baby home: “This is next-level shit.”

Now that she’s home I’m continuing to adjust to the coronavirus version of delivering a premature baby. First off, there’s no visitor. No one is coming, no family. There’s not a real celebration quite yet. Still, the outpouring of love that we’ve received from family, friends, and neighbors has been really incredible. And Lily’s doing great. She loves eating, and it’s awesome to see her growing.

There’s still a worry. If anyone in the house sneezes or coughs, I’m on hyper-alert. Being a new mom, you’re worried about these things, but this is next-level shit. The other difference is that no one is going to the store. If we need something it takes a lot more planning; we have to order delivery or curbside pickup. Times are strange to bring a new baby home. One thing that’s amazing about being a mom is that the baby really just needs you in a lot of ways. Once I got her home I was like, OK, we can do this. We aren’t apart anymore. It’s not as scary since we have each other.

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A change in perspective.

Something that has helped me, and this is helpful in any aspect of life, is trying to find the one thing that you can be grateful for in the situation. For instance, even though Lily had to be in the hospital, she was far away from the coronavirus patients and also in an airtight little house (her incubator) staying safe, and the NICU workers were incredible, like angels. At first it just felt so overwhelming and hard to find any perspective, but as days went on I realized that every day it would get better. And, it could always be worse. Also, no birth plan ever really works out to be what you think it will, but women have an innate ability to adapt.

Looking to the future, she has such an incredible birth story, I’m sure we will be able to laugh about it. Hopefully next year when we’re celebrating both of our kids’ April 1 birthdays we can be like, ‘Remember how fucked up that was?’ In some ways it already feels like the experience was so long ago but it has only been a few weeks. It’s amazing what people can handle.

The virus itself is still really scary, and no one ever thought, getting pregnant, that they would be bringing their kid into the world during a global pandemic. Like, no one imagined that. But no one’s birth plan is as expected. There can always be April Fools — times two.

This week, we're examining how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted pregnancy and childbirth. Come back each day for a first person story from the moms and birth workers living this reality alongside you. We promise, it's not all bad news.

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