Six weeks before her due date, Erin Decker suddenly learned she had to have an emergency cesarean section.
The Wyoming woman had had a healthy pregnancy. She and her husband, David, even traveled to Israel and Jordan the month before their son’s birth to finish their graduate degrees in theology from The WEST Institute in Laramie, Wyoming.
Then contractions started and her son’s heart rate was dropping.
Doctors at Ivinson Memorial Hospital, in Laramie, delivered the Deckers’ son, Mason, at just 34 weeks on Aug. 19.
What transpired after Mason’s unexpected early arrival in the world was gut-wrenching for the family. Mason had to spend more than seven weeks at UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, about an hour south of the family’s home.
During forced separations between mother and son, Erin loved checking on Mason via a bedside monitoring camera – a new innovation at Poudre Valley Hospital.
The camera made a huge difference to Erin, allowing her to mother from afar.
Highest level NICU between Denver and South Dakota
Erin and David were expecting their baby on Sept. 27 and hadn’t even packed a bag to go to the hospital.
“We were so far out from my due date,” Erin said. “We hadn’t fully processed what we were going to do. We thought we had more time.”
Then Mason was born prematurely and needed to be transported by helicopter to Poudre Valley Hospital, where specialists tended to the preemie in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).
The Fort Collins hospital’s NICU offers the highest-level care of any hospital between the Denver area and Rapid City, South Dakota. Neonatal experts at Poudre Valley Hospital care for babies as young as 27 weeks.
Erin got to see her infant son briefly, then had to kiss him goodbye.
“The helicopter was on standby,” Erin said. “After Mason was born, he started crying, which was huge because they didn’t know if he’d have that control. So they brought him over to me before he left.”
Mason weighed 4 pounds, 5 ounces and measured 17 inches long. He had experienced an intrauterine growth restriction caused by placental insufficiency resulting in the fetus adapting by preserving critical oxygen and nutrients for the brain.
“What was necessary for his development, he got it. His head size was in the 80th percentile,” Erin said. “But his weight gain and fat were in the two percentile. He was anemic and skinny.”
Despite his premature birth, Mason didn’t need a ventilator. Erin was able to cradle him in her arms soon after delivery. Then, it was time for him to board the helicopter.
“It was hard to say goodbye and let go, but he was the first priority throughout this whole process,’’ she said.
Separated from your newborn for the first time
Erin needed time to recover from the C-section and spent 20 hours after she said goodbye to Mason hospitalized in Wyoming. David drove to Fort Collins and spent the evening at Mason’s side. The next day, Erin, who is unable to drive because of poor vision, made the trip with her parents.
In the NICU, Mason was hooked up to machines and monitors. Erin stayed at his bedside for five days, 24/7 until she got a sore throat. Mason could not be exposed to sickness, so Erin had to return to Laramie until she felt better. Separating from her baby left Erin heartbroken.
“It was awful. It was the hardest thing out of anything we’d experienced in the past weeks. It was harder than all the anxiety and stress of Mason being on a monitor, harder than going through surgery, it was the hardest thing to leave him.”
NICU connecting families
The Poudre Valley Hospital NICU has a family-centered care philosophy. Each family has a private room, with a sleep sofa for parents wishing to stay overnight. When parents have to leave, a new camera system allows them to look in on their child almost 24 hours a day. (The cameras are not active during patient exams.)
NICU charge nurses help parents set up the camera program on their smart devices so they can see their child on their phone, tablet or computer. Knowing she could see her son whenever she needed to brought Erin comfort as she had to part with him for the second time in his first week.
The hospital’s parent and family advisory council (PFAC), a group of NICU parent volunteers, collaborate to find ways to improve the patient experience. The NICU PFAC received a substantial grant from The Antioch Foundation and additional funds from the UCHealth Northern Colorado Foundation to purchase and install 16 NICVIEW cameras.
“The goal of this project was to establish better connectivity for our PVH NICU families,” NICU nurse Claire Reed said. “We have families in the NICU that live quite a distance away and can’t easily visit regularly. Other families have young children at home, which complicates visiting. Additionally, these cameras help families connect with distant relatives.”
In addition, Reed said a mother could watch her baby via the camera while pumping, which helps with breast milk production.
A mother’s need to be by her child’s side
David stayed with Mason while Erin recovered for a week at home. She was grateful that she could look at her son on her smartphone without disrupting her husband. The cameras do not have audio.
“I had the monitor running almost all the time on my phone. That way, I could flip to it often – probably every two minutes for the first day. That was my obsession, but I have no guilt over it,” she said with a laugh.
Supporting parents in the NICU
In addition to cameras, NICU nurses are essential in helping parents connect to their newborns. Parents can stay in a child’s room all day, which is important for Erin, who can’t drive home or to a hotel, because of her vision impairment.
“This lets me, as much as I can in this environment, be a mom,” Erin said. “I can participate in Mason’s care 24/7 and practice what it will look like when we go home one day.”
When she was sick at home, she often called the nurses to check on Mason.
“The staff is great,” Erin said. “I could speak to a nurse about how his day went, get updates and what they said about Mason at morning rounds. It is set up well for when we can be here and when we can’t. They make us feel involved.”
Leaving the NICU for home
Mason stomach growth and weight gain improved during his stay in the NICU, and on Oct. 10, he traveled home to Laramie with his parents.
“Mason has been healthy from the start but was premature and needed more time to develop his breathing, maintain his heart rate, and eat. But we are here to work on those functions,” Erin said while holding Mason in the NICU about two weeks before he was discharged. “Every baby develops differently, so they (doctors and nurses) don’t set a timeline.”
“It’s a waiting game. Especially as a parent, it’s hard not to go home, but we are comforted knowing this is the best place we can be.”
UCHealth Northern Colorado Foundation
The foundation helps provide value-added services not covered by insurance to UCHealth’s not-for-profit hospitals. Through donations and pubic grant funding, the foundation supports innovative research and education, patient financial assistance, community health programs and enhancements to patient care. Every dollar donated goes to the foundation’s philanthropic funds, with no overhead costs or administrative fees. Consider donating today. Donations can also be made specifically to the NICU PFAC fund.