Audrey Baldwin and Deena Van Allen sparked an unlikely friendship amid unexpected circumstances about a year ago. They found comfort and reassurance in one another since their babies were both born prematurely within a week of each other. The newborns had spent over a month in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Novant Health UVA Health System Prince William Medical Center.
‘A long, horrifying road’
Each year in the United States, about 380,000 babies are born prematurely and the cause is often unknown.
At 27 weeks, Baldwin found out her amniotic sac was broken and leaking fluid. It was a small tear, and although it wouldn’t impact her baby immediately, it left her at a high risk for infection.
“I completely lost it when I found out,” Baldwin said. “I had a 1-year-old at home and had a normal pregnancy with her. I was really healthy and was very aware of everything I ate. I didn’t think anything would be wrong.”
Baldwin was put on bed rest and would stay at the hospital until it was time to deliver. She said the entire staff on the labor and delivery floor was so accommodating, as if she was at home.
“My daughter came to the hospital every night to have dinner with me,” Baldwin said. “The staff would bring her a high chair and coloring books and stickers.”
Baldwin also said the nurses spent hours with her, holding her hand and giving her tours of the NICU.
After three weeks, her daughter’s heart rate wasn’t regulating properly so Baldwin had an emergency cesarean section. Shay Baldwin arrived, weighing 4 pounds and 5 ounces. She would remain in the NICU for 43 days.
“It was a long, horrifying road,” Baldwin said. “But the nurses and doctors made it their priority to make sure we felt comfortable and educated. They were so excited to watch her grow and with each milestone, they acted like Shay was their own family member. Every day, every nurse, every situation – they had patience and care. You can tell how much they enjoy their job."
Almost like family
When Deena Van Allen went to find out the sex of her baby in January 2015, she was diagnosed with placenta previa.
“I’d never heard of complete placenta previa before, so I didn’t know what to expect,” Van Allen said. “I went on as normal. My physician said the placenta could drop or move, but for now, it was covering my cervix.”
Two weeks later, when Van Allen was 24 weeks pregnant, she began to bleed. She was in and out of Prince William Medical Center’s labor and delivery unit. Sometimes she would stay the night, other times she was able to go home.
At 28 weeks, Van Allen was admitted to Prince William Medical Center.
“I was in the hospital for four weeks and I can’t tell you how wonderful and patient the nurses are in postpartum,” Van Allen said. “My older son was 4 years old at the time and it was the first time I was really away from him. If things were quiet on the weekend, they would allow my husband and son to have a sleepover. The nurses became like my moms and were amazing.”
At 32 weeks, Arlo Van Allen was born via an emergency C-section. Arlo weighed 4 pounds and 9 ounces and was in the NICU for 35 days.
“The caring, supportive and amazing NICU doctors and nurses became our second family,” Van Allen said. “They educated us in ways we never thought we would have to learn. They held my hand and hugged me when I cried. We are so grateful for everything.”
Van Allen said she got to know all the NICU and postpartum nurses and remains friends with all of them.
‘There for each other’
Van Allen said she knew about Baldwin during her stay in the hospital. She didn’t know her name, but said she knew there was a woman on bed rest in the room next to hers. Both of their babies were due on the same day in May.
“I didn’t know her situation and she didn’t know mine,” Van Allen said. “We didn’t meet until both our babies were in the NICU. We exchanged numbers and from there it was a daily thing where we both checked on each other.”
“While we were in the NICU, we would Facebook message and text each other constantly,” Baldwin said. “If one of us wasn’t there, we would check in on the other one’s baby. We would share resources, hugs, tears and lunches.”
Both women said they couldn’t imagine not having the other one there for support in the NICU. Their babies experienced similar things, such as bradycardia (low heart rate) and desaturations (drop in oxygen levels).
“Every day was different,” Van Allen said. “Audrey’s day could be great and mine could be bad. Or both could have been terrible or both could have been great. Each step, we were there for each other.”
Today, both babies are doing well. It has been over a year since they were discharged from the NICU on the same day in May, and this year, they celebrated the milestone at the Prince William Medical Center NICU reunion.
“The NICU reunion fell almost exactly one year from Shay and Arlo’s discharge date,” Baldwin said. “So many emotions overcame us. We have visited and kept in touch with many of the nurses and doctors, but to see everyone together felt like a family reunion. We are so very blessed to have been supported by this team of heroes.”
“It truly warmed our hearts to talk to everyone who helped us on our journey,” Van Allen said. “There were tears of joy and happiness instead of tears of the unknown. The whole NICU experience changes you and I am constantly thinking of ways to repay that kindness.”