Today’s Story of Perseverance comes to us from Marsheila Tillman. She is mom to Sanaa Eriah Tillman (6 months old; 4 months adjusted). Michelle is sharing her journey with a high risk pregnancy, and her NICU stay.
Briefly describe your experience having your water break in early pregnancy, having a baby in the NICU, and how it might differ from a "normal" birthing experience.
Last year, after trying on and off for 8 years to conceive, my husband and I found out we were pregnant on February 15, 2022 right before we were scheduled to begin our IVF journey. What started out as an easy pregnancy with minimal morning sickness ended up turning into a nightmare in an instant. At 17 weeks I began to experience severe abdominal pain that led to a trip to the hospital. After spending a few hours under observation, I was given pain medicine and sent home to rest. Unfortunately, and to our unfortunate surprise, my water would break within 30 minutes of returning home. I immediately contacted my OBGYN, and she instructed us to meet her at her office; which was at the same hospital I had just left. After an examination and testing, my OBGYN confirmed our worst nightmare: I was experiencing Premature Preterm Rupture of the Membrane (PPROM), and I was informed that I would likely miscarry within 48 hours. We were given the option to terminate, but we declined and went home to do our own research and to pray. She told us that if we happen to make it past 48 hours, she would send us to a high-risk doctor.
Those 48 hours went by, and the contractions miraculously STOPPED! As promised, our doctor sent us to a Maternal-Fetal Medicine specialist (MFM). The first MFM doctor thought terminating was highly favorable because the risks of going forward with the pregnancy were life threatening due to the prognosis. The ultrasound showed no measurable amniotic fluid, and we were informed that it was impossible for a baby to develop without it. He further informed us that delivering a healthy baby at this point was very slim; giving our baby 1% chance of survival IF she made it to viability. My husband and I decided at that moment that we would take that 1% and give it to God!!! We immediately called our OBGYN and requested to be transferred to yet another specialist. Thankfully, we were able to start our journey with one of the best MFM specialists in our area! I am still convinced that Dr. Misti Patel and her team were sent from heaven!
After spending five weeks on bedrest, I was admitted into the antepartum department where I would stay until it was time to deliver my baby girl. In addition to PPROM, I was also diagnosed with Anhydramnios, which is the absence of amniotic fluid. Each week, I would have an ultrasound, several nonstress tests, injections, medications, and visits from my high-risk team to go over the status of my pregnancy. Their goal was to get me as far along as safely possible. Miraculously, each test would show my baby was developing on target; her heart rate was strong, and she was somehow very active despite not having any measurable amniotic fluid!
To everyone’s surprise, I was able to carry Sanaa for 30 weeks! On Tuesday, August 16, 2022 at 11:11am, I gave birth to a healthy 3lb 6oz baby girl via a vaginal delivery! Because of everything she went through in utero and being born 10 weeks premature, Sanaa had to spend two months in the NICU. However, she didn’t have many major complications. She was on CPAP machine for a couple of weeks, and then low flow nasal cannula before transitioning to complete room air. She quickly mastered bottle feeding and was able to come home October 15th.
After having such a traumatic pregnancy, the NICU journey was exhausting and frightening. I had to quickly transition into our new normal. Because of everything we went through, I felt like I was robbed of the typical pregnancy experiences like maternity photos, a baby shower, and a “normal” full term pregnancy. After spending 59 days in the hospital, I had to immediately begin spending every day traveling to the NICU. I found that being able to bond with my newborn in this environment was challenging and very emotional. I spent my nights longing for my baby and dreaming about the day we would be able to bring her home.
Who or what helped keep you grounded during your pregnancy and time in the NICU? What about currently?
The stress of having such a high-risk pregnancy and not knowing for sure if I would make it each day caused me to experience extreme levels of anxiety. Prior to this experience, we had never heard of PPROM and Anhydramnios. Living in a state of uncertainty for so many weeks would make anyone go through several emotions. However, I didn’t go through it alone. Before anyone or anything else, I have to say God kept me grounded! When everything looked hopeless and the statistics weren’t in our favor, God showed us that it is He who makes all things possible. This experience forced us to lean completely on Him, and our faith grew stronger each day. We stopped focusing on what things looked like and what the science said, and began to focus on the outcome we desired. I was reminded that doctors practice medicine, but God is the greatest Physician!
Secondly, my amazing husband, Earl II, spent every single day with me while I was in the hospital. He kept me grounded during my pregnancy and during our NICU journey. His presence, prayers, help, encouragement, and love made the experience bearable. We were a team from the very beginning, and he showed me what partnership was!! On days when I felt defeated, Earl helped replenish my energy and did anything to see me smile. He was my peace during this process. There were some days when I didn’t want to talk much. I was exhausted from being in the hospital bed, and He would find a wheelchair in order to take me on trips around the hospital! Each week he would do things to celebrate reaching another milestone, and he would read to my tummy and pray for us. When Sanaa was born, Earl made daily trips to the NICU, often taking his work computer and completing his tasks while there. Being present was very important, and he took his role as a new father seriously.
For both of us, our parents kept us grounded. They journeyed the scary waters with us and encouraged both of us to keep believing. We are truly blessed with the best parents anyone could ask for, and their presence, prayers, and support helped both my husband and I make it through this trying time. They are the best grandparents anyone could ask for!
How did you balance the needs of your family and yourself while still allowing room for coping?
After my water broke, I went into survival mode. Not just for myself, but for my baby. I was determined to make it by any means necessary! However, I still had obligations to fulfill. I am a full-time federal government employee, and at the time I was a full-time doctoral student. Because I telework, I was able to continue working from my bed. My husband and I used my time on bedrest to spend quality time together. We watched lots of movies, talked about anything and everything, and played board games! In the midst of this chaotic experience, we found peace in being present with each other.
While going through this experience, I finished my last doctoral class and was about to begin my comps exam and dissertation. Right before I gave birth, I made the hard decision to take a leave of absence. While I had created a personal timeline to complete my doctoral studies by Spring 2023, pausing was the best decision I could’ve made for myself and my family. Doing this gave me room to cope, reset, and focus on my new normal.
What advice would you give to parents in a similar situation (or really any parent who is dealing with uncertain challenges)?
I would advise parents to follow their gut and do their own research before making any permanent decisions. Going into premature or preterm labor is scary just as having any other pregnancy complications. There are things that could happen during pregnancy that people don’t talk about, but it’s better to be prepared, stay in the know, and get a second or third opinion if you have to.
I would also advise parents to build a village of support. This village should include people with the same mindset as you; be it family or friends. It’s important not to go through alone if you don’t have to. It is also important to seek therapy during any uncertain challenges. Seeing a therapist can help give you the tools to cope with uncertainties and also help you maneuver through different decisions you may have to make throughout your pregnancy.
What has this experience taught you about resilience?
This experience taught me that I am stronger than I ever thought I was. Prior to getting pregnant, I fought AND beat breast cancer. However, fighting through this journey required me to identify strengths I didn’t know I had! Through this journey, I learned the importance of not giving up; even when I don’t know what the outcome will be. I also learned an important lesson of resiliency through my daughter, Sanaa. Sanaa defied the odds that were stacked against her. Despite having no measurable amniotic fluid, Sanaa developed, moved, and survived. She came out kicking and screaming; shocking and surprising everyone in the room. At six months old, she still shows how feisty, determined, and resilient she is. I truly believe that resiliency and determination I see now helped her make it while in my womb. If she can GROW through the most unfathomable circumstances, I know that I can overcome whatever challenges I may face. No matter what battle I may face, I have to be fight-ready just as I was when I fought cancer and when I made the decision to fight for my baby.
What is something you wish others understood about having a baby in the NICU?
Having a baby in the NICU is not like having a baby you’re able to take home from the hospital immediately after birth. NICU moms often miss those first moments of bringing a newborn home. Coming home from the hospital without the baby you gave birth to creates an indescribable pain that only those who have experienced it can understand. I wish others understood that having a baby in the NICU requires an additional amount of courage. Having to leave your newborn with strangers, and trust that they will do what it takes to care for your child is hard for any mom to do. It’s important that others have empathy and are patient with NICU moms because in addition to going through postpartum, having to cope with leaving your baby in the NICU creates overwhelming emotions that are sometimes hard to explain to others who have not gone through the experience.
Update on your baby
Today, Sanaa is a 6-month-old VERY active 14 lb. baby! She is thriving and developing right on target; rolling over; and is always attempting to stick everything in her mouth! She loves to laugh and she is always smiling and cooing. Sanaa enjoys tummy time and watching Ms. Rachel! We are truly amazed at her growth, and we are loving every minute of being her parents!!!