The Stricklen Family

The Stricklen Family

Jessica Stricklen shares Noelle’s NICU story

In the Fall of 2013, we were excitedly awaiting the arrival of our third child. My oldest had just started Kindergarten and my "baby" was about to be 5.

We had decided on the name "Noelle" because she was to be born a month or so after Christmas. I imagined it being really sweet to be "great with child" and singing songs like "The First Noel" with my kids, while they felt her move and kick inside of me.

In August, I began to bleed at 18 weeks, and my dreams of a "normal" pregnancy were replaced by a growing fear.

My perinatologist, Dr. Jeffrey Korotkin expressed he was concerned that the bleeding could lead to my membranes rupturing early, causing pre-term labor. He was not exactly sure where the bleeding was coming from, but was guessing that it was probably from the placenta, and that something could be wrong with the placenta. I was told to stay on modified bedrest at home with the hope that the bleeding would stop. It did not.

At 21 weeks, my water broke and I laid on my couch in shock and denial.

You see, I knew what it was like to give birth to and to hold a baby at that gestation.

Seven years before, I had delivered our firstborn child, Caleb, at just 22 weeks gestation, and he was unable to be saved. My cervix had unexpectedly began to dilate at just 20 weeks gestation and I was hospitalized on strict bedrest at Northside Hospital for 2 weeks, just trying to keep him in.

The NICU team had visited with us the week prior to his delivery, giving us information on survival rates, complications, etc., so we knew what the outcome would be when my body began to labor after trying to be completely still for 2 weeks.

But nothing could have prepared me for the devastating loss of a baby. He was born alive, just shy of a pound, 11 and 1/4 inches long. His eyes were still shut and he was perfect in every way. We examined every inch of him, taking him all in for hours that beautiful Saturday afternoon in late April of 2006. And then we released his little body to the morgue and we began the long process of grieving this person that we would never get to know this side of eternity.

I remember, throughout those first few weeks of grieving Caleb, thinking that I wanted to get pregnant again as soon as we could. I had been told about other women who had lost babies like I had, diagnosed with incompetent cervix, who had gone on to have children. So I was hopeful.

The doctor suggested we wait 3 months to start trying to conceive and so we did. We were both excited and fearful when we found out we were expecting. We immediately set up an appointment with Atlanta Perinatal Consultants (now Georgia Perinatal Consultants) and met Dr. Korotkin.

He was so kind and reassuring to us and believed that having a cerclage placed at 12 weeks, along with some minor restrictions throughout the pregnancy, would be the best way to ensure bringing a term baby into the world.

And it worked!

We had basically a "normal" pregnancy with my son, Noah, who was born at 38 weeks after the cerclage was removed. Then, just one-and-a-half years later, another term baby. Caroline was born at 37 weeks when my water broke on its own. Neither pregnancy had any complications or bedrest involved and they went so smoothly that by the time we were expecting Noelle, I just assumed it would be "smooth sailing" like the other two.

Boy, was I wrong! So, as I laid on my couch that September day, in shock and denial about the gushes of water I was feeling leave my body, I just thought of Caleb and how I didn't want to hold a dying baby in my arms again.

I knew I was not in active labor because I wasn't having consistent contractions and I knew that with the 'stitch" in my cervix, nothing would just come "falling out" like it had with Caleb.

I contemplated all the losses that this situation could bring: on one hand, leaving my husband and children without their wife and mother at home to be hospitalized for a period of time sounded heart-wrenching. But not giving this baby a fighting chance to get to a "viable age" was not an option either.

I had fought hard to try to get Caleb to a viable age and it had not happened, but I was determined to fight again to try and make it happen for this little one. So, we made our way to the emergency room at our local hospital that Sunday morning and there the doctors were able to stabilize me and stop the minor contractions I had been experiencing.

After a week, there were no signs of my womb accumulating any more water, despite my being on strict bedrest and IV fluids. We were told that the situation was too risky for me to continue waiting as my membranes were ruptured and infection could set in.

The doctors suggested I go ahead and let them take the stitch out and deliver Noelle at just 22 weeks. That was the moment I knew I was going to Northside Hospital. I needed to go somewhere that had HOPE.

I had been keeping Dr. Korotkin informed throughout my stay in our local hospital and he said that if we wanted to wait this out then we could discharge ourselves from that hospital and come to Northside. There, he would confirm my membranes had ruptured and then admit me and we could just see what would happen. So, that’s what we did. We requested to be discharged and I crawled into the back of our RAV, trying to be as careful as humanly possible. We drove the 1.5 hours to Northside Hospital. I clearly remember the coolness of the air that September morning and I distinctly remember sitting on the bench, right outside the doors to the entrance of the Northside Women’s Center, trying to take in the fresh air and sunshine because I wasn't sure how long it might be until I would get to be outside again.

Thankfully, I was able to hold her in for an additional 3.5 weeks, which got her to the viable age of 25 weeks, 5 days. It was at that point the she experienced a heart decal, so Dr. Korotkin determined it would be better for her to be outside my body rather than inside. There was obviously something wrong, so we began to prepare for a C-section within the hour. On October 17, 2013, Noelle was taken from my body and was forced to fight for her life — outside my womb.

She was 1 pound, 1 ounce. and 10 and 1/4 inches long. I could not believe that she was potentially able to be saved for she was just 2 ounces heavier than Caleb and about a whole inch shorter! They let me look briefly at her before they took her to be assessed by the NICU team. I had a momentary flashback to delivering and holding Caleb because she looked just as small and fragile, but her eyes were slightly open and she had the tiniest cry I had ever heard.

I just could not wrap my mind around the fact that she, as small as she was, had a chance to survive while Caleb had not. But, I remained hopeful. I lay there, being stitched up and wondering if she was even still alive as the NICU team worked on her. I didn't know it then, but that was the beginning of the longest six-and-a-half months of my life.

Over the course of the next several months, as my daughter fought for her life, I fought to maintain my sanity. My husband fought to maintain a "normal" life for our other 2 children. He fought to keep us afloat financially and to hold our family together in every imaginable way.

We had no idea that we would spend the next 197 days in the hospital (all major holidays, except for Memorial Day and the Fourth of July)! It was a fight that we could have never have fought alone. The friends and family that supported us during that time were amazing, but I think that one of the most amazing, unexpected "warriors" in this fight were the people who became like family to us — the various employees of Northside Hospital; the doctors, the nurses, the therapists, the case managers, the NICU front desk personnel, the NICU administrators, the hospital chaplains and even the NICU environmental technicians.

Northside Hospital is like a "home away from home" for me as I spent 4-5 days/week there while Noelle was in the NICU. I would travel the 1.5 hours, alone, to and from the hospital, 2-3 days during the week and then return again every weekend, with my family, to stay at the Ronald McDonald House nearby.

It was a maddening existence. Feeling torn in every direction all the time, but the staff at Northside helped me manage it as best I could. They always spoke words of encouragement over me and my baby, they checked in on me regularly, they left gifts/cards at the bedside, and, most importantly, they loved on and cared for my baby in ways that I was not able to, especially when I could not be there to do it myself. One of the most practical ways the staff at Northside Hospital was a help to me and my family was through the generous giving of financial assistance through Miracle Babies.

The check that we received through Miracle Babies was used for gas and food, while I traveled to and from the hospital multiple times a week. This traveling was necessary for me to be able to be mom to both my "babies" at home and to my preemie in the NICU.

Without the generous giving of many of our friends and family as well as the generosity of Miracle Babies, we would not have been able to afford for me to travel as often and to spend time with my "miracle baby," Noelle.

On May 1, 2014, Noelle was finally released from Northside Hospital. She required extra oxygen, as her lungs were incredibly fragile and damaged from being born so prematurely, and she had to undergo a surgery to place a g-tube in her stomach, so that she could be nourished as her reflux and oral aversion were so severe that she could not/would not eat by mouth.

Today, Noelle is an energetic and joyful 3 year old who enjoys books, music and her siblings. She was finally able to get off the extra oxygen support this past spring (2016), but still gets all of her nutrition via the g-tube. She is currently in feeding therapy weekly to learn how to eat by mouth and everyone is confident she will learn this skill as she continues to grow and mature.

We feel so indebted to Northside Hospital, in so many ways, and we will forever feel a special love for the people there who have made our miracles happen.

Thank you Northside Hospital!

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