In late December 2013, Ashley Piche and her husband Michael were getting ready for the New Year, not their twins… yet. Ashley was just 26 weeks pregnant– with a boy and a girl – and the excited, expectant parents had begun preparing the nursery for the babies’ arrival in April of 2014.
The twins had other plans. Max and Michaela were born on December 30, 2013, a startling 14 weeks early after an otherwise healthy pregnancy. Born thirteen minutes apart, Max weighed just over two pounds, and Michaela weighed one pound, 14 ounces.
Every year 15 million babies around the world are born preterm, before 37 weeks of gestation. These preterm babies have included some of the world-changing personalities of recent history, from Winston Churchill and Pablo Picasso to Michael J. Fox. Premature birth is the leading cause of infant death in the U.S. and even if a woman does ‘everything right’ during pregnancy, there’s still a risk.
However, technological advancements and growing expertise about prematurity are increasing preterm babies’ chances of survival. Over the last 10 years, the smallest baby saved has improved from 550 to 350 grams, and the youngest baby saved has improved from 26 to 22 weeks.
When Max and Michaela were born, they both had difficulty breathing. Doctors immediately resuscitated them in the Operating Room and placed them in incubators in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). The Piche family spent a total of three months in the NICU, waging a day-by-day, breath-by-breath, ounce-by-ounce fight for weight gain and hope.
“We were incredibly grateful for the nurses and doctors’ support,” recall Ashley and Michael. “They helped us stay calm and showed us the ropes so that eventually we could pick up on the signs of when our babies weren’t doing so well.”
These tiny babies needed every bit of help possible to stay alive, but thanks to their incredible resilience, amazing support from their parents and the hospital staff, and the advanced technology, they pushed their way through. Max and Michaela are now happy, healthy, and beautiful two-and-a-half-year-old toddlers with little to no lasting effects from their time in the NICU.
Every family has their own unique journey in the NICU, but Michael and Ashley shared two specific things that helped them cope – and hope.
“We were prepared for bad news throughout our NICU stay, but we tried really hard not to expect it,” Michael said. “Instead of getting lost in the statistics or dwelling on the low points, we focused on celebrating the highs. This helped us stay positive and emotionally supportive for our babes, which we felt was our most important contribution to their care as parents.”
“You have the find the right balance between being there to support them but also taking care of yourself so that you can be fully present and positive,” Ashley added.
Becoming advocates for your babies
“We will be forever in awe of the well-oiled machine that is the NICU, and the amazing nurses and doctors who cared for our children. It’s easy to feel helpless as a parent when you can’t contribute to the care plan or even give your struggling child a hug,” they said.
“We did come to find, however, that the ‘data’ we gathered by just being observant over time ended up being invaluable. After a few weeks, we could see patterns in our babies’ behavior and response to care that the rotating hospital staff could have missed. Being a more active participant helped us form a bond with our babies we couldn’t snuggle.”
At very early stages, parents aren’t always able to touch or physically comfort their babies, but by being fully present, they can detect when the babies might not be comfortable. In fact, a recent study from Memorial Care Health System looked at the importance of parent involvement in neurodevelopmental NICU care and length of stay. The study results indicated that increased parental involvement was correlated with shorter NICU length of stay and reduced parent stress.
“In a way, we served as the bridge between nurses to the point where we could even predict when Max might stop breathing before the machines showed it,” Michael shared. “We saw the whole story when others may have been getting pieces or snapshots.”
Ashley and Michael are one of many families who have experienced prematurity and are sharing their words of wisdom and inspiration for others currently going through it. Read their messages here.