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Saving baby Isabelle

Physical, emotional & spiritual care at St. Mary’s brings family through premature birth

Baby Isabelle in St. Mary's NICU
Go back to last summer. Chrissy Bridges smiles as she wipes away a tear in St. Mary’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

“This is the happiest day of our lives,” she says.

Chrissy and husband Joseph are sitting on a sofa in a private room in St. Mary’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Their daughter, Isabelle, is asleep in a bassinet nearby. It’s July 9, 2015, exactly 90 days from Isabelle’s too-early, too-frightening birth. Today is the day she is going home.

Staff who have become friends drop by with hugs and tears and words of encouragement. There’s a moment where Chrissy pauses, uncertain, as she swaddles Isabelle. Nurse Louise McCampbell reassures her, gives her a little help tucking the blanket behind the sleepy baby, touches Chrissy’s hand. It’s a small gesture of assurance, of love.

It’s a vital part of the care that has brought Isabelle to this joyful day.

A scary beginning

It was Easter weekend 2015 and Chrissy was 25 weeks pregnant.

Her pregnancy had been going perfectly. But now, the Monday after Easter, she was worried. She was experiencing significant discomfort and just didn’t feel right. She went to see her OB/GYN, who immediately sent her to St. Mary’s, where a thorough exam determined her cervix was failing.

Led by neonatologist Victor Morales, MD, St. Mary’s NICU staff explained what was going on. They helped her get ready for the days ahead, the treatments that would extend her pregnancy as long as possible, the measures that would give Isabelle a fighting chance.

Chrissy was in tears, frightened that she would lose her little girl. She called Joseph, an electrician, who dropped what he was doing to rush to her side.

“They put me on the most serious kind of bed rest. And I didn’t move,” she says. Treatment included medications to promote Isabelle’s lung development and slow the birthing process. Then, on Friday, April 10, as Chrissy and Joseph watched the Master’s tournament, contractions began. Isabelle was coming. But she had turned. An emergency C-section was the only option.

As Joseph accompanied his wife to St. Mary’s C-section suite, he counted weeks: his daughter’s due date was July 19 – almost 15 weeks away. How could a baby, born so small, so early, possibly survive?

“I had no clue about NICUs,” he says. “I was not expecting a good outcome. I didn’t know all of this was possible.”

The C-section was difficult because Isabelle was so small and the situation so urgent. When Dr. Leah Lowman delivered her, Chrissy and Joseph got to meet their baby for just a moment before she was rushed to St. Mary’s NICU.

Isabelle weighed 1 pound, 15 ounces at birth. She was only 13½ inches long.

Comfort through the waiting

Isabelle faced huge challenges. Her tiny body had to start doing everything every newborn’s body does, but 15 weeks sooner. Treatments with surfactants helped her premature lungs start to function. A heart murmur emerged but resolved with time and treatment. Her digestive system needed to start working; Laura Crowe, one of St. Mary’s lactation consultants, worked with Chrissy daily to provide the nutrition so important to Isabelle’s development.

As Chrissy recovered from surgery, she came up the private elevator from the Family Birth Center/Women’s Surgery Unit to stay with Isabelle in the NICU. Then Chrissy was discharged to finish recovering at home. St. Mary’s NICU nurses helped ease the separation.

“Louise would comfort me over the phone,” Chrissy says. “We formed a real connection. I wanted to be with Isabelle, but Louise helped me feel more comfortable with taking the time I needed for my recovery.”

As soon as she could travel, Chrissy was back at St. Mary’s. “In the 90 days we’ve been here, I think Chrissy missed being here two days,” Joseph says proudly.

“In the beginning, I couldn’t touch her,” Chrissy says. “I wanted so much to hold her, but she was so fragile, it hurt her to touch her, and it hurt me not to touch her. I watched her in the incubator and just prayed. As she got bigger and stronger, anything Dr. Morales and the nurses would let me do, I would do. But basically, I stayed up here and prayed. They just kept assuring me it would be OK and helped me if I was having a bad day.”

Going home

“When we first arrived, I cried because I didn’t think we would see this day,” Chrissy says. “The nurses told me this day would come, but I had a hard time believing it. She’s such a fighter. I couldn’t be happier.”

On the morning of her discharge, Isabelle weighs a healthy 6 pounds, 14 ounces. Mom and dad are joyful but also a little nervous. Isabelle will need supplemental oxygen while she’s feeding and will sleep with monitors for her heart rate and oxygen saturation. An alarm will sound if there’s a problem.

“She’s been doing fine and we don’t expect any alarms,” Joseph says. “The monitors are mainly for our peace of mind. Otherwise, we’d be afraid to leave her room.”

“She has been in the best hands,” Chrissy says. “We all have. God has definitely been with us on this journey. It’s the physical, emotional and spiritual support we’ve gotten at St. Mary’s that has brought us through.”

Fast forward a year

Sheer joy radiates through Chrissy’s voice.

“She just turned one on Sunday and had her one-year check-up on Monday. She weighs 23 pounds and is 28 inches long. She is right where she is supposed to be developmentally. Her pediatrician is amazed. She’s learning to walk! She’s doing everything a healthy 1-year-old should be doing.

“She’s a little miracle,” Chrissy says. “She’s such a tough little angel. It’s a miracle how St. Mary’s NICU works. We could not have had better doctors and nurses helping us through this emotional journey. Many nurses have come to visit Isabelle and we still stay very closely in touch with St. Mary’s NICU staff, especially Louise. It has been such a joy to have Isabelle home happy, healthy, and so strong.”

Chrissy adds one more accomplishment: they will be the March of Dimes Ambassador Family at this year’s Athens Area March for Babies on Friday, Aug. 5, at 7 p.m. at the Classic Center. Everyone is invited to come and support the fight for healthy babies.