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Holyoke Family Selects Baby's NICU Nurse as Godmother

nicugodmother open graphFamilies often forge special bonds with neonatal intensive care nurses, many of whom become extended family for new parents whose fragile premature infants can sometimes spend months in the hospital before going home.

For Tom and Aileen Avigliano of Holyoke, that nurse was Stacey Thomas, RN, who became their daughter Harriett’s primary nurse in the Davis Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Baystate Children’s Hospital, where she was responsible for helping direct the young neonates care from day one through her discharge home.

Thomas said she has stayed in touch with a couple families over the years, but became very close to Tom and Aileen during their NICU ordeal.

“I was visiting them shortly after Harriett was discharged from the hospital. We were just hanging out together, having fun talking, and I was enjoying my visit with Harriett, when Aileen and Tom said they wanted to ask me something. When they asked me to be Harriett’s godmother I was floored. I had never been asked to be a godmother and I started to cry. I told them I would be honored,” Thomas said.

Baby Harriett’s journey

It all began for baby Harriett, now one year old, on Feb. 29, 2016, when she was born at just 25 weeks weighing a little over one pound and spending the first three months of her life in the NICU before going home on May 18.

Aileen was diagnosed with HELLP syndrome when pregnant with her first child, Scarlett, who will turn four on May 4.

“It was a surprise to find out that I had HELLP, and the only sign was swelling in my legs, which developed a week before having Scarlett. Tests showed that everything, otherwise, was fine and I delivered Scarlett at full term,” she said.

But that would not be the case during Aileen’s pregnancy with Harriett.

HELLP becomes a threat

HELLP syndrome is a life-threatening pregnancy complication that often begins in the third trimester of pregnancy. Women with HELLP may have bleeding problems, high liver enzymes which can result in an enlarged liver, and high blood pressure leading to stroke, putting both mother and baby at risk. For Aileen, it was much more than swollen legs in her second pregnancy that would become a major concern.

“I began to have pain on my side and back and was feeling sick to my stomach. I called my ob/gyn, who thought it might be the flu since there was so much around at the time. However, he recommended going to the Women’s Evaluation and Treatment Unit at Baystate Medical Center as a precaution,” Aileen said.

WETU nurses and nurse midwives evaluate how far along a woman is when she arrives there, and also specialize in obstetrical and gynecological urgent care.

“They did some blood tests and saw that my liver enzymes were elevated. Knowing my history with HELLP during my first pregnancy, they decided to admit me to the hospital
and keep a watch on how I was doing. I was fine on Saturday and Sunday, but on Monday afternoon, well, that is when things began to get worse,” she added.

It was Dr. Fadi Bsat, a maternal-fetal medicine expert in Baystate’s Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology who would have to deliver the critical news to Aileen and her husband – that her liver was in danger of rupturing, and that they would need to take her baby immediately by Caesarean at just over six months into her pregnancy.

What is HELLP

Treatment of complications from HELLP often involve delivering the baby as soon as possible to eliminate any harm to mother and child, even if it means premature delivery of the baby.

“HELLP syndrome is a severe form of preeclampsia, which is associated with serious adverse effects if not promptly managed. One of these complications is bleeding around the liver, which in medical terms is called subcapsular hematoma. While it is uncommon, subcapsular hematoma is life threatening, even when appropriately and promptly managed,” said Dr. Basat.

During a normal delivery, babies remain with their mother on the LDRP unit where they are born, however, the neonatal intensive care unit is located on the floor above.
“I did see Harriett quickly after my Cesarean, but I was so groggy that I can’t even remember. The next day I needed a blood transfusion as part of the complications from having HELLP, so it wasn’t until Wednesday that I really got to see Harriett,” Aileen said.

Shocked to see her baby

When she first saw little Harriett in the NICU, Aileen said she was “shocked.”

“I was nervous over what Harriett would look like….I had no idea what a premature baby looked like, let alone one born some two months early. When I saw Harriett, I was shocked, not at how small she was, but pleasantly shocked at how developed her tiny body already was, it was like seeing a mini-baby,” said Aileen.

Even Scarlett, who was just two years old at the time, wasn’t troubled when seeing Harriett in the NICU.
“Scarlett wanted to see her new baby sister, so Tom took her to the NICU to meet her. When she came running back into my room at the hospital, Scarlett’s only words were, ‘My baby is so tiny,’ and I thought it was so awesome that she didn’t even notice all the wires and IVs attached to Harriett. So, every weekend after that, she would come to the NICU with us, and even helped to give her sister a bath,” said Aileen.

About premature babies

Premature babies like Harriett – defined as being born too early, before 37 weeks, a full-term is 40 weeks – can have both short- and long-term health problems that can affect them throughout their lives. Almost 1 of every 10 infants born in the United States is premature. Important growth and development happens throughout pregnancy – especially in the final month and weeks. Because they are born too early, preemies weigh much less and may have health problems because their organs did not have enough time to develop. During their first weeks of life, complications may include anemia/jaundice, various infections, respiratory distress, hypothermia, gastrointestinal and metabolic issues, and brain and heart problems.

According to Dr. Bsat, baby Harriett had many of the problems that typically affect preemies at this early gestational age, including respiratory difficulties and difficulty feeding and maintaining a normal temperature. In addition, Harriett had a patent ductus arteriosus (PDA). The ductus arteriosus is a fetal vessel that typically closes after birth, once the baby’s lungs start to function outside of the mother’s womb.

“In Harriett’s case, this blood vessel remained open, which lead to abnormal blood flow between the two major blood vessels that carry blood from the heart to the lung and the rest of the body, and it affected her oxygenation,” said Dr. Bsat.

Medications are often the first choice of treatment to close a PDA, followed by surgery if the medicines don’t work, which was the case for Harriett. PDA can cause many symptoms, one of which is poor growth, which was affecting her development. While Baystate Children’s Hospital has a talented staff of pediatric cardiologists, infants and children needing heart surgery must go to Boston.

An Easter to remember

“I remember being at Boston Children’s Hospital for about a week during Easter last year, while Harriett was recovering from a surgical PDA ligation to close the open duct. Shortly afterwards we returned to the NICU at Baystate, where she would continue to grow and thrive,” Aileen said.

But another challenge lay ahead for them and little Harriett.

“After her surgery, Harriett was like a different baby. She was breathing better and making huge strides, then an infection set in and she began taking steps backwards. It wasn’t good. Our calls to the NICU each morning to find out how she was were torture, worrying what we were going to hear. They did a spinal tap on Harriett to determine what was causing the infection and she was put on antibiotics. Shortly afterwards, our morning calls turned to joy. Nurse Shannon Griffin told us Harriett was a different baby again….that the antibiotics had worked and she literally turned around in a day,” Aileen said.

What happened was after five weeks into her life, a urine culture from Harriett was positive for cytomegalovirus (CMV). Harriett’s liver was also inflamed, and it was not clear if this was caused by the CMV or from the surgery to close the ductus arteriosus, or another reason, explained Dr. Bsat. CMV can infect the baby’s liver, brain and other organs.

Visits from her parents

“Fortunately for Harriett, imaging of her brain did not suggest that it was affected by this infection,” said Dr. Bsat.

Throughout Harriett’s ordeal in the NICU, Tom and Aileen would visit their baby girl first thing in the morning before going to work – Tom has his own home improvement business and Aileen at the time worked for the Hampden County District Attorney’s Office in Springfield, where she was their financial analyst – at lunchtime and then again in the evening from 7 until 10 p.m.

“Few people really know what you go through….the stress of having a baby in the NICU. The nurses were a super support system for us and we knew Harriett was in good hands in the NICU,” said Aileen, who noted because they spent more time there in the evening, they became closer and got to know the nurses more, like Stacey, on that shift.

Like hanging out with friends

“Each evening became more like hanging out with friends and family. The nurses knew we were physically drained and very upset at times, and they assured us that was entirely normal for parents with a baby in the NICU. So, they would often talk with us about normal, everyday things to help keep our minds off what Harriett was going through. Stacey was Harriett’s primary nurse, and she became my go-to person. The doctor would tell me something, and then I would go to Stacey and ask her if I should be concerned, and she would answer truthfully ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ She was just always there for us, and when Stacey went on vacation to Mexico for a week, she would check in from there to see how Harriett was doing,” she added.

As for the christening held at St. Patrick’s Church in South Hadley on March 5, Stacey said it was an “awesome” experience.

“It was a beautiful church, the priest was amazing and made it very special, and the godfather was super nice. There was a nice big party afterwards, which celebrated both Harriett’s first birthday and baptism,” she said

The longtime NICU nurse, who has spent the past 17 years of her nursing career in the Davis Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Baystate Children’s Hospital, developed a love for neonatal nursing during a labor and delivery rotation as part of her nursing curriculum at the University of Rhode Island.

Loved NICU nursing early on

“I loved being in the NICU and I was lucky enough to work in one right out of college, which not many nurses are able to do,” Thomas said about the specialized care they provide.

“But, it’s not about just taking care of these young infants. It’s also about treating families and helping them cope with what can be a very traumatic and emotional experience. Parents will have good days and bad days and you need to be there for them and provide support. You also need to make them feel as if they are doing something for their child….like simply changing their diaper….until they are big enough to be held by them,” she added.

Both Aileen and Harriett’s godmother agree that to see this active 20-pound little girl today, you would never know what she went through during her first few months of life.

“She looks normal and healthy in every respect, and she has been cleared from many issues that can affect preemies such as eye, gastrointestinal and respiratory problems,” said Aileen.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” she said.