123 days in the NICU: Emma's story
November is Prematurity Awareness Month and November 17 is Prematurity Awareness Day. To help raise awareness for premature births and lifesaving care available to families with premature babies, we’re sharing this story from the Level IV NICU at MultiCare Tacoma General Hospital.
You can see more photos from Emma’s story @MultiCareHealth on Instagram.
Kristen Mulhern, a Tacoma emergency department nurse, was 24 weeks pregnant.
She was also counting down the days for a vacation to Mexico.
“I had a very normal pregnancy,” Kristen recalls.
With her trip a few days away, Kristen decided to go to her midwife’s clinic in Gig Harbor. Even though her pregnancy had been normal thus far, something seemed off and she wanted to be sure everything was okay before leaving for vacation.
At first look, the baby’s heart rate and movement looked fine. But a closer look revealed Mulhern, 24 weeks pregnant, was in labor.
“I was a ticking time bomb,” Kristen says. “They thought my baby would be born that day.”
Kristen and her husband Scott drove to their hospital in Tacoma but didn’t stay there for long.
“They said, ‘We can’t keep you here. You have to go to TG.”
First moments turn into 123 days in the NICU
Kristen arrived by ambulance to MultiCare Tacoma General on Tuesday, April 21. She gave birth to a baby girl five days later on Sunday, April 26.
“The doctors said, ‘Don’t expect her to cry because her lungs won’t be strong enough,’” Mulhern says.
But their baby did cry. Kristen and Scott saw it as a sign of hope and strength from their daughter, who weighted 1 pound, 15.4 ounces.
Two hours later, Kristen and Scott saw their baby girl for the first time in the NICU.
“I was in awe of her,” Kristen says. “There was this whole perfect baby.”
A whole perfect baby, in need of a name. Kristen and Scott wanted a strong name. They chose Emma, which means “God answered,” and Monet, which means “to be heard.”
“We believe there is a promise in her name,” Kristen says.
Armed with a strong name, Emma began her long journey in the Level IV NICU at MultiCare Tacoma General Hospital.
Setbacks, surgeries and milestones
At 5 days old, Emma got a rare E. coli infection that caused internal bleeding. Doctors were honest with Emma’s parents about the challenges that would come with increased pressure on the baby’s brain.
The news was devastating, but the Mulherns remained positive and prayerful.
“We took it one day at a time,” Kristen says. “We said we’ll be thankful for today and what we have. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow or next week.”
At 40 days old, doctors placed a shunt in Emma’s brain to allow for draining. It was the first of five surgeries Emma would undergo during her time in the NICU.
In addition to facing medical challenges, Emma checked off major milestones. When she was 63 days old, Emma was able to regulate her own body temperature and no longer needed to sleep in a Giraffe incubator. It also meant she could wear her first official outfit.
As Emma grew stronger, she needed less help with oxygen support and feeding. On Aug. 10, Emma’s original due date, she breastfed for the first time.
Doctors monitored Emma closely and discovered she had retinopathy of prematurity, a condition that can lead to blindness. When Emma was 97 days old, she had laser surgery on both eyes to remove abnormal vessels.
Finally, the Mulherns had an estimated day to go home: Tuesday, Aug. 25. However, a few days before the estimated discharge date, doctors discovered Emma had an inguinal hernia.
She needed surgery and more time in the NICU.
“It felt like she checked every box while she was in the NICU,” Kristen says.
Hopeful and at home
On Aug. 27, after 123 days in the MultiCare Tacoma General NICU, Kristen and Scott took baby Emma home to Gig Harbor.
“We said one, two, three, it’s time to go,” Kristen said. “We had thought about that day and watched other families take their babies home. There were lots of tears and hugs of joy that this season had ended and we survived it.”
Emma is almost seven months old. She weighs 9 pounds, 8 ounces and is meeting milestones based on her adjusted age as a preemie.
The Mulherns follow-up with doctors at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital to make sure her progress continues and remain positive for the future of their little girl with a strong name.
“God is good. Our little girl is living proof that His miracles happen today and they can happen any day,” Kristen says.
Emma has come a long way since she was born. Kristen and Scott know the journey is just beginning and have a message for any family with a premature baby:
“Regardless of circumstance, there is always something to be thankful for and there is always hope in tomorrow.”
About The Author
Jen Rittenhouse is the social media manager for MultiCare and Mary Bridge Children's Hospital. She writes stories that connect people with hospitals, health care and each other. You can reach her at [email protected].
More stories by this author