The global pandemic turned the hopes and expectations of one young Missoula family upside down. They say the experience has fundamentally changed them, and not necessarily for the worse.
Leo Marlay Smith has a heck of a birth story. He arrived much sooner than expected when delivered late last month via an emergency c-section.
"Leo was born about 7 weeks early," says Leo’s dad, John Smith.
When Smith and his wife, Jolene Brink, learned last year they’d be parents, they never imagined their son would be born almost two months early. So, imagine their surprise when he arrived — all three pounds of him — smack dab in the middle of a global pandemic.
"Yup, we’ve been timing it really well," Brink says.
John and Jolene are both 33. They’ve been together over a decade. The couple moved to Missoula from Minnesota about 5 years ago and work at a local high-tech firm.
Brink and Smith are successful, established and say they’re deliberate with their long term goals. They planned on a natural birth for Leo, meaning if at all possible, no medical intervention or use of painkillers. However, that hope was dashed during a routine prenatal checkup in late March. That’s when doctors discovered Jolene’s liver enzymes and platelet count were dangerously low. Her blood pressure, meanwhile, was through the roof
"What Jolene was found to have was called HELLP Syndrome," John says. "It was a more critical version of Preeclampsia. The unfortunate reality at the time was just that the only way to solve for HELLP Syndrome was to deliver the baby by emergency C-section as soon as possible."
Brink was rushed to Missoula’s Community Medical Center where staff saved both her, and baby Leo’s lives.
"For the first couple of days I was so grateful that there was a hospital here that had the resources to take care of me as well as they did," Brink says. "A couple of days afterwards it was realizing, like, 'Oh my God – COVID is here.' And they’re doing absolutely everything they need to do to protect us, but it felt like being behind the front lines in the one place where we didn’t want to be."
Brink was hospitalized for five days, during which the couple noticed a series of nerve-wracking changes.
"By the day we discharged, patients were wearing masks, doctors were wearing masks," Brink says. "They were still allowing both parents into the NICU, but John, there was one night when you went to deliver my milk to the nurse and you noticed some PPE [personal protective equipment] sitting outside the door of the NICU. I think we just had a sense of, like, something is happening and we’re just watching it unfold."
One day John and Jolene stepped outside the hospital to briefly greet — with proper social distancing — a friend. When the visit wrapped up, their temperatures were taken at the hospital door. Jolene’s registered at 99.9 degrees Fahrenheit.
"There was some comment made about how, 'well, if your temperature is over 100, you can't go back inside," Brink says. "And I was like, 'no, you don’t understand, I’m going back inside because my baby is back there.' So John and I went back to our hospital room and cried and thought about what happens if we can’t get in."
The couple says they logically understood hospital staff were only trying to keep patients safe. But the incident served as a stark reminder of how little control they really had. Jolene says they leaned on each other like never before.
"Feeling, for the first time, this sense of family, right? Like it wasn’t just John and I. It was John, Leo and I."
That fresh sense of family bonding would come in handy. The day Jolene was discharged from the hospital, in fact, the moment she reached for the pen to sign the paperwork, a magnitude 6.5 earthquake shook the region.
"It all felt very powerless on different levels;" Smith says, "at the mercy of the doctors and surgeons and nurses while at the hospital, at the mercy of HELLP syndrome, hiding from the COVID-19 pandemic as best we could. While all that is happening an earthquake rumbles through and shakes the room. We’ve been wrestling, I think, somewhat with the feeling of being small and having a lot less control over the world than we thought."
About a week ago, John and Jolene learned they could no longer simultaneously visit the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit where Leo is being cared for. They say that was a crushing blow, but they adapted and now use video teleconferencing whenever possible.
"It’s just crazy how things start to normalize," Brink says. "We have a livestream that we hook up with our computers. When one of us is home the other one can check in at any point during the day. That’s been so helpful, just to be able to see each other even if you’re not physically in the same room."
In fact that’s how we connected late last week for this story. I sat at my kitchen table, John was home and Jolene was in a dimly lit NICU as Leo slept.
They’re still not sure when he’ll be able to come home, but say he’s flying past important milestones well ahead of schedule and helping the family just by being healthy.
When Leo’s able to safely come home Jolene and John agree that they don’t want to be overprotective parents.
"It’s been a heavy lift in the beginning and it’s gonna make a lot of things easier," Brink says. "I think it’s just gonna really help us have a lot of perspective about what to worry about and what to just let go. We’ve had to be a certain type of parent a lot faster than we expected to."
Their advice for expecting parents in these uncertain times? They acknowledge it’s going to be a challenge, but add it ultimately will be ok. Take it one day at a time, they say. You’re not alone.