“My provider came in, and I knew from her face something was definitely wrong,” Rebekah Dybowski says. “We just celebrated his viability day five days prior. I knew the national average for survival at 24 weeks was just 30 percent. I was convinced we were going to lose him.”
The 23-year-old never expected to meet her baby boy at 24 weeks and five days into her first pregnancy. She recalls feeling period-like cramps for two days in the middle of the week. She continued with work and checked in with her providers a couple times. But by the end of the week, things were different.
“My partner, Aaron, kept telling me I was overreacting and nothing was wrong. We checked into the hospital at UnityPoint Health – Meriter at two o’clock on a Saturday. That’s when I knew something was very wrong,” Dybowski says.
For the next two hours, Dybowski remembers it being a blur of people asking for permissions and consents for procedures. At 3:45 p.m., her water broke.
“His umbilical cord made it out before he did. This meant his head was pressing on the cord, cutting off his blood flow. It quickly went from the medical team being supportive and calm to a sense of immediacy, telling me to push with all my might right now,” Dybowski says.
After less than ten minutes of pushing, baby Jasper was born just shy of two pounds, five ounces.
“I think they had to resuscitate him once or twice in the delivery room. But he came out a fighter. As they were trying to wrap a plastic bag around his body for warmth, he was fighting the nurses, peeing on them and just being sassy. I got a minute or two to see him before he went upstairs to NICU,” She says.
That’s where the longest days of Dybowski’s life unfolded.
“You know, one of the hardest things in those first days was deciding if I was going to go back to work or take maternity leave now. Doctors told me Jasper would likely be in the NICU for over three months until his due date or maybe even after. I did end up back at work about a week after his birth,” Dybowski says.
Not only was Dybowski physically exhausted, she was mentally struggling, too.
“There is a lot of self-resentment for delivering that early. I questioned myself, a lot. ‘How could you mess it up? How could you not do the one thing you’re meant to do and do it correctly?’ That weighed heavily on me the first month or two. It’s still there, but I now know it wasn’t my fault and I couldn’t have changed anything,” Dybowski says.
About a week after Jasper’s birth, the placenta biopsy came back and somehow Dybowski’s placenta had spontaneously gotten an infection.
“Multiple studies have shown an association between infection/inflammation and preterm birth, likely brought about by the release of a compound called prostaglandin, which can induce labor,” Dr. Nina Menda says. “Signs of this type of infection, called chorioamnionitis, are found in the placentas of 20-75 percent of infants born prematurely.”
Besides work, Dybowski spent all her free time at the NICU.
“We’d randomly get little gifts from our core group of nurses. Like, we’d get a picture of the first time I held him with colorful paper in the background and labeled nicely. One of the ladies who gave him a bath, gave me scrapbook-like pictures of his experience. We got a picture of footprints hanging with two red balls, like mistletoes, during the holidays. All stuff I would have done with him at home, but we couldn’t. Having them take the time to help me develop memories when I couldn’t just freely pick him up and hold him was really nice,” Dybowski says.
“As one of Jasper’s primary night shift nurses, I had the pleasure of spending many of Jasper’s 106 nights in the NICU with him and, boy, was that guy a night owl,” nurse Jessica Schneider says. “I think he took to his mom’s late-night schedule, because he was always ready to party come 11 p.m. when Rebekah would return from work. Jasper loved snuggling, eating and making funny faces for the camera. I enjoyed every minute of being a part of his family’s journey.”
Finally, weighing in around eight pounds, Jasper got to go home one day before his due date.
“We are very lucky. At this point, Jasper developmentally looks fine. His eye exam was beautiful. His lungs are looking good, which is something we must check often. We found out right before we left the NICU the muscles in the roof of his mouth aren’t fully connected. We saw a speech therapist and plastic surgeon, but they said the issue was so small it shouldn’t be a problem. Going forward, we’ll keep an eye on his speech. But, otherwise, it’s like he’s a healthy full-term baby,” Dybowski says.
Looking back at her time in the NICU, Dybowski has one piece of advice to anyone who finds themselves in her shoes.
“Taking time to cry is very important. You need to feel all the negatives. You need to feel all the bad stuff and give it room to work itself out, or it’s just going to weigh on you longer. There were days I would go shower at three in the morning, and I would need my half an hour to breakdown and feel it. Allow yourself those moments,” Dybowski says.