SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — About 12 percent of all babies born will enter the world a bit too early, says Memorial Health neonatologist, Dr. Brad Buckler.
For those families coping with the stress and uncertainty of caring for premature infants, the hospital’s level-three neonatal intensive care unit serves to nurse their little ones to good health.
“We’re the only level-three NICU in the surrounding area anywhere for about two hours in any direction,” Buckler told WSAV NOW. “There’s no other level of NICU that can provide care like we can here.”
He says the medical center is equipped to transport babies in a special ambulance, along with neonatal respiratory therapists and NICU nurses, from where their families live in surrounding counties all the way back to the hospital.
The convenience was a blessing for Effingham County residents and new parents, Victoria and Austin King, who welcomed 40-day-old John-Austin on Aug. 6, 2020.
However, their 1-pound, 2.7-ounce, 11-inch-long bundle of joy arrived well ahead of his Nov. 1 due date.
Twenty-year-old Victoria describes her complicated pregnancy experience as “a mess from the start.”
She and Austin had early genetic testing, which revealed that the baby had tested positive for chromosome disorder trisomy 13.
“In most cases, it’s not compatible with life,” Victoria told WSAV NOW.
They breathed a sigh of relief upon learning it was a false positive — but their worries didn’t end there.
“Around 25 weeks, I started feeling very weird, so I went into my doctor and my blood pressure was high,” she said. After monitoring it for a couple of days, it only got higher.
The expectant mom was admitted to the emergency room and later diagnosed with preeclampsia.
“Within the next two days, it was so severe that we had to go ahead and schedule a C-section,” Victoria recalled.
The first-time parents say baby John-Austin has been well taken care of at Memorial Health’s NICU unit ever since. They add that it’s been rough not being able to bring him home right away.
“I cry at least five or six times a day just because I feel so bad that I can’t take care of my baby,” Victoria said. “I mean, I can come and help change his diaper and do anything to help the nurses out, but it’s just like, my baby’s not with me, I’m not mothering him.”
Twenty-three-year-old Austin says as a father, he’s had a difficult time, as well.
“It’s really hard coming home from work and wanting to be with your wife and your baby, ” he said.
“If I come up here, then it’ll be me by myself coming to spend time with him,” he shared, referring to Memorial Health’s rule of allowing only one of the parents in the NICU at a time due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Victoria normally visits her child during the mornings, while Austin visits after work whenever possible and on weekends. “It’s hard to leave one or the other.”
‘They’re literally mothering these babies’
Memorial Health has about 82 beds reserved for NICU babies. At the time of interview, 64 of them were occupied.
“We do about 1,200 admissions a year and we do about 450 transports [to the hospital],” Buckler said.
Victoria and Austin say they commend the hospital’s nurses and staff for caring for their little one during what happens to be National NICU Awareness Month.
“They’re literally mothering these babies,” Victoria said. “They’re taking care of them, they’re doing everything they can to keep them alive, keep them breathing, keep them eating, and they’re so special to us.”
Before John-Austin and other NICU babies are able to go home with their families, they need to achieve certain health goals while at the hospital.
“[He needs to] breathe on his own, be able to eat on his own and maintain his body weight and his body temperature,” Victoria explained.
They’re hoping to have their newborn home by his original due date of Nov. 1.
As they go through their trying experience, they share words of advice to other families enduring the same journey.
“Worrying is just gonna make things harder, and finding a good support system really helps, it’s good to have somebody to lean on,” Victoria said. “The people here [at the hospital] know what they’re doing, and they’re taking much better care of him than we could at our own home.”
This week, Memorial Health is hosting a virtual NICU reunion via Facebook, where doctors are able to see the progress and hear updates on healthy children who previously spent time in the unit.