Parents get to prepare their home for the baby, share “bump” photos and find a coming home outfit for their little nugget.
Parenthood and pregnancy isn’t always that easy, though.
Some families experience early deliveries and days in the neonatal intensive care unit with no way to help the life they brought into the world. It can mean feeding tubes, oxygen masks and incubators. Then, add a global pandemic that attacks the respiratory system — an organ system that is often underdeveloped in a premature child — for added worry and uncertainty.
One mother knows what this is like. Her baby, Liam, spent nearly a month at North Colorado Medical Center earlier this year when he was born seven weeks premature.
Nicole Cox, a teacher with Greeley-Evans District 6, started a project and soon-to-be nonprofit called “Love from Liam.” She creates care packages for families with babies in the NICU.
“I needed to find a way to process my grief myself,” Cox said. “I wanted it to honor Liam and be in his honor as a way to give back to other families who are going through this same experience and show them they’re not alone.”
‘Creating that community of support’
A mother posts a photo of her baby’s nursery on her blog. In one corner sits a baby-safe plant with a small bookshelf along the adjacent wall. On the other side of the room, a chair and ottoman wait to be used. The photo also features a suitcase and tote bag. It features what parents expect to need during their hospital stay — clothing, baby blankets, pens, notebooks, snacks, phone chargers and toiletries.
Mothers who give birth seven weeks early, may not get to complete their nurseries or pack their bags before baby arrives. Many times, their hospital admittance often comes unexpectedly. That’s where Love from Liam comes in.
Cox had a normal, healthy pregnancy until the third trimester when she developed pre-eclampsia, a complication characterized by high blood pressure and swelling. She tracked her blood pressure at home to ensure she and her baby stayed healthy.
One day, though, Cox felt incredibly sick and her blood pressure reading came back abnormally high. She went to the ER and was admitted as a high-risk patient shortly after her arrival.
Cox received tests for the flu, strep, mononucleosis and human parvovirus, all of which came back negative — her care team now thinks she was COVID-19 positive. Doctors also explained how Liam would need oxygen, wouldn’t cry when he was born, and her own health conditions would limit the time she spent with him in the first few days.
“I was devastated and mad. I felt like I failed him. It was really hard,” Cox said, crying as she recalled the experience. She wasn’t confident they would both survive.
“I knew I was where I needed to be, but I was very sick at that point. I think I was in denial about it,” she said. “When I saw that my delivery bed was lined (with pads to prevent injuries) for seizures and strokes, that’s when I think it hit me how sick I really was. It was just really traumatic. I just did not expect that to happen or escalate that quickly.”
Not only was Cox filled with fear — “In your mind, you’re like, ‘I didn’t make it to 40 weeks, my baby didn’t have time to grow. Is there going to be something wrong?’” — she was unprepared for a hospital stay. Cox recalled asking her doctor for chapstick.
Liam was born via emergency cesarean section and spent nearly a month in the NICU. He left the hospital days before the first COVID-19 shutdown and racked up $121,000 in bills within the first week.
Now, the mother of three wants to ease the burden preemie families face. She began talking to other NICU parents and a nonprofit in Idaho about what they would’ve liked during their unexpected delivery.
Cox has delivered 45 bags to NCMC since September. She makes them after a day of virtual teaching and the kids are sound asleep, putting a variety of items in each bag and crocheting baby blankets.
The process is therapeutic. Cox grieves her own experience and trauma, while being thankful for a healthy baby. Those feelings — in addition to love, empathy and support — are woven into every bag.
“We have to offer support and rally behind these families, because it’s extremely hard,” Cox said. “I think we need to start creating that community of support.”
‘A sense of security’
At the end of a long school day, Brush teacher Mollie Dreitz just needed to take a break. What started as a quiet moment in her classroom, however, ended with a pre-term baby.
Dreitz, 29, delivered at 34 weeks rather than trying to stop the labor process and hoping to prevent infection. She also had a healthy pregnancy but didn’t want to put her or her child in an emergency situation when everything was happening naturally.
Her daughter, Quinn, arrived on Halloween and spent 12 days in the NICU. Doctors monitored the newborn for signs of infection, gave her a feeding tube and lots of oxygen. Quinn remains on supplemental oxygen at home, though she may soon be strong enough to breathe without it.
“(My husband and I) were obviously not prepared. We thought we would have a few more weeks, and we were scared,” Dreitz said. “We didn’t know what the outcome would be. We just had faith that she was ready and that the doctors knew. We felt safe there and were grateful to be in a place that had a NICU.”
The family was among some of the first recipients of a Love from Liam bag, receiving several needed items and an adult coloring book to help pass the time.
“It gave us a sense of security, like somebody else has gone through this and gotten to the other side of it,” Dreitz said. “It’s not easy being a parent right now.”
Houstan Aragon, 33, is another first-time mother and Love from Liam recipient. She developed severe pre-eclampsia in the second trimester and was diagnosed with flash pulmonary edema — respiratory distress from fluid buildup in the lungs — before delivery.
Her son, Truett, was born at 34 weeks on Nov. 13 and will likely remain in the NICU another month. Doctors estimate his respiratory system was similar to a 28-week old child when he was born. Aragon and her husband, Mario, must take turns seeing him due to COVID-19 regulations.
“For the first two days, it was really touch and go,” Aragon said. “He was struggling really bad. It wasn’t until day three that he started to show some progress.”
Aragon received a Love from Liam bag, too, and cried when the nurses explained to her what the project was about.
“To have a complete stranger do something so kind for somebody who has gone through something very traumatic and (is) trying to comprehend everything in your world that was just flipped upside down, trying to process everything, is very generous,” she cried as she told the story.
‘It’s good to know you’re not alone’
In the days after giving birth, it’s common for mothers to experience postpartum depression and anxiety. They may struggle to bond with their baby or not feel confident about how to care for them. These feelings can be exacerbated when a newborn can’t go home quickly like other babies.
Cox said postpartum depression and anxiety are becoming less taboo to talk about. Still, it was harder for her to handle when compounded with her inability to see him due to her own medical concerns, his stay in the NICU and extreme caution taken due to the coronavirus.
She hopes the Love from Liam project can spur continued conversations about what mothers go through after birth and increased education on premature delivery.
“In my mind, I knew babies were born premature, but I think when you haven’t experienced it or haven’t been close to someone who had a preemie, you think chances of survival are low,” Cox said. “The survival rates for preemies after 32 weeks is high, but you’re not really educated on that during pregnancy until you’re in the situation.”
According to a study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, there is roughly a 99% survival rate for deliveries after the 30-week mark.
Cox began the project at NCMC, since that’s where she gave birth, but Love from Liam is already expanding. The next round of deliveries will be taken to UCHealth Poudre Valley.
Love from Liam has an Amazon wishlist with supplies that can be delivered directly to Cox. She is also partnering with “Swaddle4Swaddle” to provide more blankets for NICU babies.
Cox posts all donations on Facebook to show she received them and encourages families to share their bags on social media. She wants donors to know that they go directly to NICU parents.
“It’s a wonderful thing for any new parent, or even a seasoned parent who may be new to the NICU experience. It’s always the little things, and it’s good to know you’re not alone in your journey,” Aragon said. “While each baby is different, the NICU has a very odd sense of belonging. It was very touching to be able to receive the gift.”