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19 and Pregnant…Oh no…a 3 Pound, 2 Ounce Baby.

Zack right after he was born

I met Heather Stanowski the summer between 5th and 6th grade at a summer camping club. We became fast friends and even though we don’t live that close to each other, we have maintained a strong friendship over the last, dare I say it, 25 years. She has overcome so many statistics and is one of the bravest women I know. Here is her story.

Before you got pregnant, what did you think of teenage moms?

That it would never happen to me. I would never be like them. I thought they were careless and stupid. I thought it would ruin your life. I think that most teenagers think that they are invincible and that bad things won’t happen to them.

What was life like before you got pregnant?

I was attending the University of Michigan and majoring in psychology and was a straight-A honors student. I worked at a fashion store and lived at home. I went out a lot with my boyfriend and did things all the time like young women are supposed to do, movies, mall, etc.

How did you find out you were pregnant?

It was just a couple weeks before my 19th birthday. My cycle was always really irregular so I wasn’t thinking too much about it. But I had heartburn and indigestion really bad. I was so skinny and small chested. And all of a sudden I had large breasts and someone commented on them at work and it dawned on me that I might be pregnant, so I took a test. We had used a condom every time we were together, but realized nothing is 100% except not having sex at all. We both came from two very large, fertile families. We should have been more careful.

What went through your mind when you read the pregnancy test?

It didn’t feel real when I told my boyfriend who was 21 years old at the time. He was really quiet and asked, “How do you know?” He was very surprised. Then I had to tell my mom. I didn’t tell her for a couple of weeks. Then one morning I got up early and I just blurted out — “I am pregnant.” I was nervous that she would be disappointed and furious. She said she had three unplanned pregnancies so she couldn’t say much and that she would support any decision I made except an abortion, which was never an option for me.

Did you consider adoption?

It was a momentary thought, but at that point I thought my boyfriend and I would be together forever. If my situation had been different and if my family and boyfriend hadn’t supported me, I would have considered adoption. I was adopted so I thought adoption could have been a good thing.

How was your pregnancy?

I never felt good. I threw up a lot, but I was still going to school full-time and working part-time. For some reason, I thought I was having a girl, but found out it was a boy. I just had read an article in Time Magazine about micro preemies and thought if I had my little boy in a couple weeks he would look like the pictures in the article… tiny and with tubes everywhere. But thought, I am so lucky to be healthy. I never thought that would end up being my baby’s story.

I got a really bad cold and just didn’t feel good at all. I had gone to bed. My body was achy. I was thinking I had the flu. I woke up around 1 a.m. and every muscle in my body felt like it was knotted up. My boyfriend was at work, so I called my doctor and told him that every muscle from my armpits to my knees were all tight and my back hurt so bad. The doctor said, “Why don’t you just come into the hospital. I am sure it’s nothing but just in case.” He was working at the hospital that night anyway. The doctor thought I might have a Urinary Tract Infection (UTI). I asked my mother to drive me there. I didn’t think it could be anything serious. Does anyone?

I was only 30 and a half weeks pregnant and the hospital staff didn’t even realize I was pregnant because I wasn’t really even showing yet. They had me give a urine sample and then they checked to make sure I wasn’t dilated. Before they could even check the urine sample they realized I had dilated to 6.5 centimeters. I froze, but then everything seemed to move so fast around me. Phone calls, IV’s in my arms — they even tipped the bed back so gravity would help keep the baby in. Neonatologists were running around. My doctor and his team were running in and out. My mom called my boyfriend. Everything just became a blur.

What were you thinking and feeling at this moment?

It was all happening so quick that I didn’t even think about it for the first hour or so. It didn’t register. And then a neonatologist came in and said, “You are having a white baby boy and we need to try to stop this as they are weakest when they are born premature.” He then started sharing how dangerous it was if my son was born before 34 weeks. Things like blindness, mental retardation, and brain damage. He would be on a ventilator, not be able to eat, his organs may not function properly, and that was all IF he lived.

I got scared… really scared. But I said, “All right then. We’ve got to keep this baby in there.” I was determined. I chose steroid injections to help promote his lung growth, which was a new treatment at the time. They started magnesium sulfate, which is supposed to stop the contractions which makes you feel like you are on fire, but you have the shivers.

What was really crazy is I NEVER felt contractions. I just had a bad backache. I have since learned that this is common with pre-term labor. The worst part was any stimulation would make me have a contraction: watching TV, talking… any movement. They had to transfer me to a hospital with a neonatal unit as this birth was going to have serious complications. During the ambulance ride they were worried the stimulation would make me go into labor, but I didn’t.

I could only lie on my left side and couldn’t budge otherwise I would start having contractions again. After about 26 hours, I felt like I disconnected from myself. I really hadn’t slept. I couldn’t move and I couldn’t react. My blood pressure and heart rate had dropped dangerously low, which was a side effect of the magnesium sulfate, and then they checked and said the baby was coming. Alarms were going off, and before I knew it the room was full of people and they rushed in an Isolette (incubator) for the baby.

My boyfriend left to call family. By the time he got back to the room I was ready to push and my water had broke. I was panicking and asking if they could do anything else to keep him in. But there was nothing they could do. Nature was taking its course. I pushed for only three minutes and he was born. They scooped him up and ran away from me. I couldn’t see anything and was staring at all these people who were working on him and waiting for them to tell me how he was. I was focused on that little huddle of people. Waiting for a sound or a glimpse. I heard a little sound that sounded like a kitten, and I breathed. He is alive. They did bring him to me for just a moment. He was wrapped up in a blanket and all I could see was this little face that was the size of a lime or a kiwi. But I didn’t even get to hold him. I could only reach out and touch his cheek for a couple of seconds before he was rushed out — they literally ran him to the intensive care unit. All I could think was, He felt warm. He is alive and he felt so soft. He was 3 pounds, 2 ounces and 13 inches tall. I remember he had so much hair on his head.

Then all I could do was wait. My life turned into a waiting game. Hospital staff would come by every couple hours and provide updates like, “They have him on a ventilator.” About 12 hours later we got to go see him. He was hooked up to all sorts of tubes, IV’s, warming lamps, and he was naked. Not even a diaper on and he was really red. He was so tiny and alone in there. I remember looking for a place that didn’t have something hooked up to touch him. I could only touch his calf. I only got to stay for half an hour.

I remember feeling exhausted beyond anything. I was emotionally and physically drained. I had been awake for about 40 hours. You know what is funny? The minute he was born my cold went away. It’s weird how the body works. I wondered why I had him so early and I found out that I have an incompetent cervix and that it is tilted at a bad angle.

Look how little he was compared to her hand

How long was Zack in the hospital?

He was in the hospital for 69 days and came home on Good Friday. He was on a ventilator for his first four days of life and we couldn’t hold him. Once they removed the ventilator we got to hold him and it seemed surreal. He was so little… just 2 pounds, 7 ounces (like most babies he’d lost weight after he was born). I felt like I was just holding a blanket because he was so light. It was the first time we could see his face entirely without tubes and monitors. He just looked like a really tiny baby. And he looked just like his dad.

When Zack was seven days old, the hospital called and said, “We have bad news.” He got an infection and had to go back on the ventilator and had to have a blood transfusion. I remember when she called me at first I thought he had died. I was all by myself, and the nurse had to reassure me that he was ok and that they were just preparing me to see him later back on the machines.

How often did you cry?

In the beginning, I cried every day… many times a day. I believed that he would be ok. I had to in order to get through. To think he might be blind or he might die, I couldn’t have functioned or gotten through the day. I told myself, He has to heal. He has to grow. He has to mature. I cannot thank the nursing staff enough. I owe them so much. They are not just taking care of your baby, they are taking care of you too, and they do a great job of keeping you informed of everything that is going on. They are realistic, but also optimistic with you. They remind you he is a real baby and they help you to do what other parents get to do like feed them and change their diapers, which is so different than a normal baby. These little actions help the parental bonds. Even putting cloths on them. I remember the preemie cloths were too big for Zack. He could swim in his clothes.

It is a roller coaster ride. Definitely not a normal pregnancy and my postpartum hormones were raging. I had a sick and fragile baby who was separated from me. You never know if it will be a good day or not so good. I was definitely on autopilot. I knew I had to be patient and just wait for him to be ok. His biggest problem was Apnea and Bradycardia (his A’s and B’s), gaining weight, and holding his body temperature.

Mom and baby

There were other babies in the NICU and you see all the parents and babies. You get to know them by name and soon you start talking the NICU lingo with each other. This helped me not feel alone. No one else knows exactly what you are going through. One baby died after Zack came home, which made me realize how very lucky we were.

We were told that we wouldn’t be able to take him home until at least his due date, which was April 9th. He went home April 14th. I didn’t believe that I could actually take him home. He was so little. The whole ride home I watched him and kept my hand on his belly to feel him breathing. Every sound he made caused us to get so excited and made it so very real.

How did having Zack home change your life?

I became a germaphobe because I didn’t want anything to send him back to the hospital and I stopped sleeping because he might stop breathing. I was counting wet diapers and taking his temperature to make sure he was ok. It took awhile for me to feel like he was healthy. When I first brought him home I had to go back and forth to so many doctors and specialists checking his eyes and development. I had the cradle right next to the bed and my hand was on him the entire night to make sure he was breathing. It took me at least a month to relax and just enjoy him.

Has he had any preemie issues growing up?

Over the years he was always a little small for his age, but his dad was always small for his age, too.  He was always more susceptible to germs until he went to preschool and was exposed to colds, bronchitis, and even respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Otherwise, he tested well in all his percentiles.

Zack just turned 17 years old

He will be 17 years old this year. If I could go back and give myself advice, I would say, “You have to be optimistic.” And when bad things happen, you can’t pretend they are not happening. You have to expect that there will be struggles when a baby is born so little. There are going to be bad days and there will be good days. When you have the bad days, know that tomorrow or the next day will be a better day.

I remember thinking, He shouldn’t even be here now, so this is just bonus time instead of I don’t get to take him home or I have to wait. We got to see how he developed. In a way it was just extra time to get to know him.

How did this experience change you?

As a whole I wouldn’t have done anything different. There were times I wish I would have asked more questions and said things differently. This experience reprioritizes your whole life. What you thought was important becomes so trivial. It really puts things into perspective. Before I would get upset because I couldn’t find the right pair of shoes to match a skirt, or that my calculus teacher was super hard. After Zack, all that mattered was he was healthy and that I was taking care of him the right way. I didn’t even get a haircut for two years. This experience has made me a better person. We had a good outcome, so I wouldn’t change anything. If he had special needs I might think differently, but he is a healthy young man today. We are very lucky!

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