Before her pregnancy, Alisha Elder had never been hospitalized, had never been hooked up to an IV, and had never heard the term “NICU.”
But that was before Mary.
Alisha was at her 23-week check-up when her doctor discovered her thinning cervix. She was referred to a specialist who gave her and her husband, Mike, some pretty grim news. “I’m pretty straightforward when it comes to doctors,” said Elder. “My specialist told me that if I delivered at 23 weeks, the chances of our little girl—we found out she was a girl at that appointment—surviving weren’t all that great. We knew there was nothing we could do to stop the process that had already started. We could only do our best to slow it down to give her the best chances.”
Slowing it down meant bed rest, which wasn’t an easy thing to do for Alisha, who is a teacher by trade and the assistant debate coach at East High in Sioux City. “Moving is kind of my thing,” she joked. “But my husband said, ‘You’re going to sit down and you’re not going to do anything.’ So I made it my job to start prepping for her arrival—from the couch.” This meant shopping for a car seat, a crib, baby clothes, even a baby-friendly car. “We went a little crazy,” she added with a laugh. “But when faced with so much uncertainty, you do what you can.”
At 26 weeks, Alisha was home alone and felt a weird pressure on her back. After talking with her husband and her mom, they headed into the hospital, where her primary OB happened to be in the building and did the ultrasound himself. “I was prepared to go back home, thinking this was just pre-term labor pains. But the doctor made it clear I wasn’t going anywhere.”
Her water broke that night, but they were able to stall delivery for an additional five days, which wasn't an easy feat. And then the moment came when Mary just couldn’t wait any longer.
“As crazy as our experience was, I absolutely loved my delivery,” adds Elder. “I wanted a natural birth, and the doctors and nurses were so supportive. It felt like there were 20 people in the delivery room, and there was so much light and laughter. They made what could have been stressful and scary one of my favorite memories on this journey.”
Mary was born with strong vitals, weighing just over 2 pounds and was 13 inches long, and Alisha was allowed an opportunity few parents of preemies get; she was able to hold her daughter briefly before they placed her in the NICU. The doctors warned that many premature infants go through a “honeymoon” phase for the first three or four days when all seems well and easy, but there would likely be some scary moments in the coming week. Mary’s honeymoon phase was nine days. “We were just starting to get the hang of it,” said Elder. “And then she stopped breathing on her own.”
And that’s when Alisha and Mike saw the true value of the UnityPoint Health - St. Luke’s NICU staff. “That was a scary day. But the doctor wouldn’t go home until she was ventilated and doing ok. I’ll never forget that. These doctors and nurses put their heart and soul into our babies before going home to theirs.”
“If it weren’t for the nurses or my husband, I’m not sure how I could keep going,” stated Alisha. “The nurses are always there. They never fail to give us the answers and reassurance we need. They treat Mary like she was their baby, and I think it would be harder if we didn’t connect with them like we have. They have told me over and over again that a lot of men disconnect with preemies. They are so afraid to touch them and hold them. But not Mike. He was the first one to feed her, and he’s good at it. He’s better at burping her than I am.”
“As you can imagine,” she adds with a smile, “it didn’t take Mary long to have her dad wrapped around her tiny finger.”
During Mary’s three-month stay in the NICU, Alisha and Mike became hospital experts, learning the vernacular, the procedures, and the care necessary to meet Mary’s unique needs. One of the first things that caught her eye was “the NICU book,” a manual for the neonatal intensive care unit provided by the Children’s Miracle Network to guide parents through the medical jargon and processes they are likely to experience during their stay.
“Before this experience, I was familiar with the Children’s Miracle Network and the work they did for kids with disabilities, but I had no idea they did so much for babies like Mary and families like ours,” said Elder. It was through the Children’s Miracle Network that Alisha and Mike met families who had experienced similar circumstances and NICU stays. “Meeting and talking to people who have been through this has been so helpful,” she adds. “It was a good reminder that we are going to get through this, even if it feels like we won’t. The more we talk about it, the better we feel.”
Alisha returned to work while Mary continued to grow and thrive at St. Luke’s. “The first week of school, I walked into my classroom where I teach, and I caught myself wondering if Mary would ever sit in these classes,” she said. “When I told the class about Mary, a few hands started to go up. I thought they had questions, but I was wrong. One by one, these students announced, ‘I was a preemie, too.’ That moment, that cumulative feeling that it’s all going to be ok, is what has kept me going.”