By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, firstname.lastname@example.org
Ashley Parker is a trained pediatric nurse, but on the day her son was born at just 24 weeks, she was a mom first and foremost.
Little Jack Parker needed her to be just that, especially during the four months he spent in the NICU at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health North.
Parker works in the Heart Center at Riley in Downtown Indianapolis but lives in Fishers, so she had always intended to deliver her first-born at IU Health North Hospital in Carmel. She just never expected that day to come so early or amid a pandemic.
A nurse at Riley since 2019, Parker previously worked as a registered dietitian at the same hospital for five years.
“I loved my job as a dietitian. It was a good way to get into the hospital and get comfortable talking with families,” she said. “I would see the nurses working, and I was striving to know more about how to take care of these babies.”
She went back to school to get her nursing degree and hopes one day to become a pediatric nurse practitioner.
“I love talking with the families and bonding with them, and in this job I can do that more. Obviously, after having Jack, I feel like I’ve been able to connect better with these mothers who are going through the hardest time in their lives.”
She knows how that feels, wondering if and when her baby would ever come home.
Parker suffered a placental abruption, which occurs when the placenta separates from the inner wall of the uterus before birth. Placental abruption can deprive the baby of oxygen and nutrients and cause heavy bleeding in the mother. Sometimes the baby must be delivered early.
Jack wasn’t waiting.
Parker’s husband, Ben, rushed her to the hospital when she began suffering debilitating contractions. She was supposed to have an emergency C-section, but before the surgery could begin, she delivered Jack naturally, barely an hour after she arrived at IU North.
Traumatic is how she describes the experience. The pain was intense, and the worry was indescribable.
But the NICU team at North is “top-notch,” she said. “I knew immediately he was in good hands.”
Jack was born Jan. 12, 2020, weighing 1 pound, 9 ounces. A miracle child at just 24 weeks gestation.
Because his lungs weren’t fully developed, he was on a ventilator for several weeks, but he was weaned off successfully and never needed surgery. That might have required a transfer to Riley Downtown.
“Obviously, I would have been very trusting in the care Downtown. I just knew the sicker babies are Downtown, so it was comforting to have him at North. If he’s here, things must be going well. And we’re right by home.”
He came home May 7, 2020, just before Mother’s Day, and today, he is a busy 15-month-old (adjusted age 11 months) who is simply amazing, his mom says.
“You wouldn’t know he was a preemie. He was taken off oxygen in January, so he’s been off oxygen and monitors for a few months.”
As she talks, Jack squeals in the background. He is a busy little guy who pulls himself up to a stand and cruises as he holds onto furniture.
“He’s thriving,” she said. “He says dada, baba and he’s starting to say mama.”
Jack had an NG tube for six weeks when he came home because he failed a swallow study, but he’s a good eater now, evidenced by his chubby cheeks. He’s also a fantastic sleeper. A blessing, Parker says.
“Ever since we brought him home from the NICU, he has slept so well. I think he’s giving us a break after the first few months of his life when he freaked us out.”
She doesn’t mince words when she talks about those early days in the NICU.
“I don’t even think I felt like he was my baby until maybe the last month of him being in the hospital, when we could actually do things for him,” Parker said. “In the beginning, I felt like, ‘Do I even belong here?’ ”
While her nursing background helped her understand what doctors were talking about during morning rounds, she didn’t have experience with preemies. In the Heart Center at Riley, she said, they have NICU babies, but they’re big babies. It’s a different expertise.
Parker is grateful for the noise and toys around her at home now, a far cry from the dark days in the NICU. As a nurse, she knew it was important that she took care of herself while the NICU team took care of Jack. It’s the same advice she gives to exhausted parents in the Heart Center.
“It’s OK to go home, don’t feel the guilt,” she said. “I felt the guilt – why am I OK with going home? But when your baby is in the hospital for 116 days, you can’t set yourself up for being there every single night. You’re going to go crazy.”
Photos by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, email@example.com