At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2020, the world was beginning to shut down. But it was somewhat business as usual for the Pediatrix Neonatology of Nashville Midtown team at Ascension Saint Thomas Midtown in Tennessee as critically ill and premature babies like Elliott Vaughn were in need of lifesaving care.
Elliott was born at 24 weeks weighing just 1 pound, 12 ounces. With underdeveloped lungs, she would endure a five-month stay in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), making an already frightening time that much more challenging for parents Rebecca and Phillip as the pandemic unfolded.
Parental and Provider Collaboration
Rebecca was 18.5 weeks along when her water broke. Fortunately, she didn’t immediately go into labor and was put on bedrest until 23 weeks when she returned to the hospital to await Elliott’s arrival. COVID safety protocols with masks and visitor policies were already beginning to change daily.
A week later, Elliott was born. There were some concerns with her heart and retinopathy of prematurity, an eye disease that often occurs in premature babies, but Elliott’s underdeveloped lungs were the biggest health obstacle she faced.
“When you lose a significant amount of amniotic fluid, the lung development is somewhat compromised because you need the amniotic fluid to be there for the lungs to develop,” said Marta Papp, M.D., one of the neonatologist’s who helped care for Elliott.
She spent five months in the NICU, growing bigger and stronger every day. The first month was especially daunting for the family as visitation was restricted to mothers only due to COVID precautions, a crucial time in Elliott’s development when the presence of both parents was integral to her overall well-being. After expressing the hardship restricted parent visits had on them, one of the respiratory therapists graciously helped advocate for fathers to again be able to visit. A month later, they were thrilled to learn that dual visitation had been reinstated.
“Both parents were such team players,” said Dr. Papp. “They were just incredibly patient, gracious and very involved at the bedside all the time — reading, playing, learning to feed and managing the nasogastric (NG) tube.”
Rebecca credits the care team for their guidance in navigating the unknown.
“We knew nothing — this was a very new world,” she said. “It was our first child, neither of us had a medical background and no one in our family or our close friends had ever had this experience. So, for us, we totally put our trust in the doctors, nurses and providers, and we were willing to do whatever we were told to do to help Elliott have the best outcome possible. We were very much trusting Dr. Papp’s team to do what was best for her and ready to serve in whatever that role looked like for us.”
Elliott was discharged with supplemental oxygen, which she continued for 15 months, and the NG tube. “We don’t often send babies home with a NG tube, but we had such confidence in the parents,” said Dr. Papp. “At home, they were the same solid, incredibly dedicated, loving and caring parents, quickly learning and adapting — just wonderful.”
The family was equally thrilled to bring Elliott home after five long months, knowing their NICU stay could have been much longer. “We had a pretty fortunate situation for as premature as she was,” said Rebecca. “We were very grateful they trusted us with her to come home at that point.”
Reflecting on Challenges and Successes
Navigating the ever-changing pandemic continued as the family hunkered down at home to protect their fragile newborn. Looking back, Rebecca reflects on the impact it had on welcoming Elliott into the world.
“That season of 2020 really overshadowed everything that happened with Elliott and her hospital stay,” she said. “She received world-class care, and that is a success story in and of itself, but the hospital really cared for our family and saw ways they could step in and help support us as the parents.”
Today, Elliott is thriving. During the past two years, she has undergone feeding, occupational, physical and speech therapy, which she has phased out of since turning three in April. One of her favorite activities as of late has been learning to swim, and she started preschool last month.
“She is doing really great and has made a ton of progress,” said Rebecca. “She’s very appropriate for her age, has a lot of energy and can do just about anything that other kids her age can do.”
As a leading national provider of neonatal care, Pediatrix Medical Group cares for 1.5 million neonates annually. Learn more about our specialized neonatology services.