After spending the first 160 days of his life in the hospital, Cullen Potter has reached one of his first milestones: his “graduation” from the NICU.
Cullen — who was born at 22 weeks gestation on March 14, weighing 13.9 ounces — was released from the University of South Alabama Children’s and Women’s Hospital on August 21. For the special day, Cullen was dressed up in a cap and gown (borrowed from a Build-A-Bear doll) and carried through the hospital hallways by his nurse as “Pomp and Circumstance” played in the background.
The past five months have been an excruciatingly long wait for parents Molli and Robert Potter, who were initially told that Cullen would only have a 2 percent chance of living. If he did survive, they were told he could develop a slew of mental disabilities.
But Molli and Robert’s pain extends far past the last few months, as the couple experienced a miscarriage in May of last year, and lost another pregnancy just weeks later.
“We had planned after having the second miscarriage that we were going to wait for another year, and then lo and behold, God had different plans for us when we found she was pregnant again,” Robert, 32, says. “It was scary.”
Shortly after becoming pregnant with Cullen, Molli experienced complications and spent three weeks at a hospital near their home in Milton, Florida.
“We were terrified,” Robert says. “She just kept saying, ‘Not again, not again.’ ”
The couple — who share another son, Kayden, 7 — was told by doctors that they would not try to save Cullen if he was born before 24 weeks gestation. In a desperate bid to save their unborn child, Robert called more than a dozen hospitals to see which would be willing to save Cullen if he didn’t reach that point.
Just days after transferring to the University of South Alabama Children’s Hospital in Mobile, almost 70 miles away from their home, Molli underwent an emergency Caesarian section and gave birth to their son.
“I remember the first time I saw him, he could basically sit in my hand. He was just so tiny. It was just the most beautiful tiny little object I had ever seen in my life,” Robert says. “His skin was almost clear and he couldn’t open his eyes. He had a tube in his mouth that was almost as big as his whole mouth. But it was amazing he was there.”
Then, the waiting began.
“Every day that went on he grew more and more, and every day that passed, we had more and more hope,” Robert recalls. “They kept telling us he could have brain damage, or his organs could not be fully formed, but everything he could have had — and more than likely should have had — he didn’t. Not any of them.”
Finally, five months later, Cullen was ready to go home. And for Molli and Robert, the NICU graduation was everything that could have hoped it would be.
“It was the most joy I ever had in my life. It was the day that we were told would never happen just five months prior,” Robert says. “They said this baby was not supposed to be born, this baby was not supposed to live, but there we were watching him being paraded up and down the hallway by his nurse. We were finally going home and have our family together.”