The Mom with a Preemie in the NICU Just As Coronavirus Began to Hit Hospitals: 'It Became More Restrictive Every Day'
PEOPLE's Voices from the Coronavirus Crisis will share firsthand accounts of the people facing unique challenges during a global pandemic
Hannah Morey and her husband Chris Semmeles were expecting their third child, a daughter, in April. However, in March, Hannah went into labor five weeks early — just days after coronavirus had been declared a pandemic and hospitals in New Jersey (where they live) were preparing for an onslaught of cases. Baby Isla was born March 14, after which she entered the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) for 14 days; meanwhile the couple found the situation in the hospital – and at home – changing rapidly. She shares her story with PEOPLE.
Up until she arrived, it felt like the first two pregnancies; everything seemed completely normal. My second was two weeks early so I was kind of joking with friends, like, “There’s no way this baby staying until term.” But I thought maybe my third would be born three weeks early; as it turns out she was a little over five weeks early.
We weren’t [hearing concern from my doctors] yet. [The general message then was], “At this point pregnant women and their infants do not seem to be part of the affected population. There’s no need to worry.” But on the other hand, my mom, who reads a lot, had warned me, “Well, there’s no data either way. So don’t feel like you’re totally safe. You should definitely be taking precautions.”
Around March 12 was when people were really starting to get scared. I think that’s when the mad dash to the grocery stores, buying all of the hand sanitizer and stuff, began. That’s also the day I went to the doctor; I had some bleeding, so we saw a doctor and had an ultrasound and everything looked normal. I think I was 1 cm. dilated at that point. We went back home, and at about 11 p.m. I started getting faint contractions. Over the next two hours, they became stronger and I became alarmed, and was told, “Come in as soon as you can.”
My husband and I drove to the hospital with the two kids in their car seats at 1 a.m. And that’s when we were told they weren’t letting anyone into the hospital unless they have to be there, so absolutely no children. My husband had to stay in the car with the kids, so I went up alone. My in-laws came from Connecticut and met my husband in the parking lot and took the kids home. And then my husband, who was asked to wear a mask because he had a little bit of a sniffle … when he came upstairs, the nurse saw he was wearing a mask and told him to leave. That’s when I started to become more alarmed, I guess just because of the way it was at the hospital.
Still, though: At that point, I was tired and it was my third child so I was more like, “This is okay, everything’s going to be fine.” I was actually pretty calm at that point and I wasn’t too concerned about my husband not being there because I felt like there was enough time for him to transfer the kids to my in-laws and get back in the hospital. In order to gain re-entry, he had to go to urgent care — they didn’t ask him to get tested for COVID, but they asked him to get tested for flu so he could come back to the hospital.
I don’t think there any point where I really freaked out until after the baby was born; she was in the NICU and I realized I would not be able to take her home in two days. I was afraid they weren’t even going to let me hold her. I had to ask, “Can I please see my baby?” I felt like they were getting ready to just cart her away.
From then on, most of my anxiety occurred over time, going back and forth to the hospital and seeing how much more restrictive they became every day. All of a sudden, one day there was plexiglass surrounding the front desk. The next day they were taking temperatures and then the next day they were asking me screening questions in addition to taking my temperature. And everyone had to wear a mask and a gown to be in the NICU. Then my husband and I were not allowed in the NICU together; they were only allowing one parent at a time. Most recently I was told they were shutting down the general pediatrics to make room for COVID patients because there was an overflow. These things just became more and more serious, and I feel like that’s when my anxiety really began to build.
The healthcare professionals were amazing. A lot of the women were in the vulnerable age group, and they were there every day taking care of my baby. Some of the nurses were wearing masks, and they all had to wear a cloth gown as well as a plastic gown on top of their clothes that they would take off. They would keep the cloth gown in the area near the baby, so they only wore that gown when they were caring for that particular baby, and the plastic ones were disposable. Parents had to wear gowns and face masks at all times.
They had a washing station outside of the NICU, where they had soap and hot water and hand sanitizer and then you had to pick up the phone so they could buzz you through. Over time this hand sanitizer disappeared and I heard the nurses saying, “Oh, just place another order.” “Well, it’s not available now.” So that was a little bit scary.
And at one point my older children had runny noses and fevers. I took my oldest child to our pediatrician, who did a curbside visit and immediately just handed me a script for a COVID test, which was really scary. He also did a flu and strep test, because if either were positive, he could rule out COVID. It turned out my oldest son had the flu … but I felt obligated to tell the NICU. They told me to stay home for 24 to 48 hours. Even after 48 hours, though, they seemed a little bit reluctant to let me come back in, so I just waited another day and then came back after 72.
We’re home now, but it’s still not easy. Our parents are older or otherwise vulnerable, so they’re self-quarantining and can’t come [meet Isla]. We just don’t want any cross-contamination either way; I’d feel awful if one of our relatives got sick.
The grocery thing has definitely been nerve-wracking because grocery stores have a lot of people in them. Even today, I was picking stuff up and putting it back and everyone else was doing the same thing. And just not being able to really get out of the house and have playdates. We went for a walk yesterday around the neighborhood and I almost felt like, Should we not be out? It’s just such a weird time.
I was just laughing with my husband the other day, because I was reading about things you could do to help boost your immune system, and one of them was to make sure you get lots of sleep. I’m like, “Well, I’m not getting any sleep right now. Great.” And with breast milk — say I did get COVID for some reason and then I had to self-quarantine myself away from my family. Would I still be able to pump and give her the breast milk? So I’m pumping and hoarding breast milk in the basement. I guess we just take it one day at a time.
- As told to Alex Apatoff