Born too Soon

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Ridgely Ingersoll

ReaganCalhoun1In CHKD’s neonatal intensive care unit, the greatest advances in care save the tiniest patients. The power of technology meets the power of touch. And the smallest among us are sometimes the strongest.

On an average day, there are around 50 babies in the NICU, some born as early as 23 weeks’ gestation, others full-term, but suffering from serious birth defects.

Reagan Calhoun came into the world on February 23, 2006, 11 weeks before she was expected. Like so many NICU moms, Amy Calhoun of Chesapeake had a completely normal pregnancy – until the day her daughter was born prematurely.

“I had a checkup with the obstetrician and everything was fine. But two days later, I felt funny when I woke up. Not really sick, just sort of ‘off,’” Amy said. “I thought I might have a bladder infection, so I called the OB’s office, and they told me to come in.”

At the doctor’s office, Amy learned that she was leaking amniotic fluid. There was a tear in the thin-walled sac of fluid protecting her baby. When the amniotic sac breaks, babies are at high risk of infection, and labor often starts within a few hours.

Amy was 29 weeks pregnant. She hadn’t yet purchased a crib or started her childbirth classes. But her doctor said she needed to get to the hospital immediately.

Brent Calhoun, a Virginia Beach police officer, was at work when he got the call to meet his wife at Chesapeake General. “Amy asked the nurses to call me because she didn’t want to scare me by calling me herself. But I could hear her crying in the background so it didn’t really work. I was plenty scared!”

The next few hours were overwhelming for the Calhouns. The staff at Chesapeake General discovered Amy had a fever, a sign of infection that also put her baby at much greater risk of developing an infection. The decision was made to transfer Amy by ambulance to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital. There CHKD’s team of neonatologists, nurses and respiratory therapists attend high-risk deliveries to immediately administer care to neonates in preparation for moving them across an adjoining corridor straight into CHKD’s NICU.

Amy met CHKD neonatologist Thomas Bass soon after she arrived at Norfolk General. “He was wonderful! He told me he had a whole team there, and that they’d take good care of my baby. And I knew about the reputation of CHKD. I knew we were in the best hands.”

In Reagan’s case, that turned out to be a very good thing. She was born before the day was over, at 11:35 p.m. She weighed 2 pounds 13 ounces, and she was very weak. “Brent didn’t tell me until later how lifeless she looked when she was born,” says Amy.

Amy’s eyes filled with tears when she recalled her first visit to the NICU to see her baby girl at 4:30 the next morning. “I couldn’t go to sleep until I saw her,” she said. “It was so hard. She was so incredibly tiny. And she looked so vulnerable with all the tubes and wires and everything. It was heartbreaking.”

But Amy says her worst moment came two days later, when she was discharged from the hospital – without her baby. “Before that, everything happened so quickly it was almost surreal. I think walking out of the hospital without my baby is when it all finally sunk in for me,” she said quietly, as if she could barely stand to remember how painful that moment was.

By NICU standards, a baby born at 29 weeks gestation weighing 2 pounds 13 ounces isn’t unusually small or premature, says Dr. Bass. “But every baby is different and there’s no way to predict what course a baby will take. All of these babies are extremely fragile. Their conditions can change in the blink of an eye.”

Reagan had several challenges related to breathing and eating to overcome before she was strong enough to go home. She required a blood transfusion, which hit home for Amy, whose work with the Red Cross is organizing blood drives. Reagan also had a heart defect called patent ductus arteriosis in which a valve that is supposed to close after birth remains open. Fortunately, Reagan’s condition resolved on its own with medication, and surgery was not required.

ReaganCalhoun3Reagan spent 62 days in the NICU. There were good days and bad, progress and setbacks. But through it all, NICU nurses like Cassie Laney, Cheryl Wallace and Eli Ticar were there for Reagan and her parents. “Every single person was wonderful, from the person who answered the phone – and believe me, I had that number memorized –- to the doctors and nurses,” Amy said. Brent concurred. “With the kind of work those people do, you know they were bound to have tough days. But you never, ever saw that on anyone’s face. They were amazing,” he said.

Today, the most amazing thing in the Calhouns’ life is little Reagan, whose only medical needs since her discharge have been her regular checkups with her pediatricians at Tidewater Children’s Associates. They’ll keep a close eye on her for issues such as developmental delays or eye problems, which can arise after premature birth.

But already Reagan is catching up. At five months, she smiles, coos and kicks her feet, a happy sight for her 8-year-old brother, Austin, who maneuvers effortlessly around all the girly baby things in the family’s photo-filled home.

And with the photo albums bulging at the seams, a new book is ready to be filled with images that show no hint of a scary beginning, but reveal the results of the expert care of CHKD and the loving embrace of a grateful family.

Dr. Bass practices with Children’s Specialty Group PLLC at CHKD.

This story was featured in the fourth quarter 2006 issue of KidStuff, a publication of Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters.

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