At 23 weeks (5 months and 3 weeks), she was put on bedrest because her cervix was softening. At 25 weeks she received her first surgery – an emergency cervical cerclage (stitching of the cervix to prevent delivery).
Fast forward to 29 weeks gestation and Jae-Anne Bell was about to be declared a mommy. What should have been a quiet night at home with her hubby, Khristopher, quickly changed when a trickle of amniotic fluid sent them heading for the hospital.
“We were in the process of preparing my hospital bag but we were nowhere near ready because we were hoping to make it to at least 36 weeks. So without any supplies, I was rushed to the hospital to be checked and sure enough, after much deliberation from many doctors, it was confirmed that labour had begun,” Jae-Anne recounted.
On October 31, 2020, at about 30 weeks and after a morning of advocating for her and her daughter’s care, Jae-Anne delivered her princess, Khae-Lynne Bell, after two swift pushes.
Thus began a tumultuous period of parenthood for the Bells.
For any individual, becoming a parent is terrifying; add to that the stress of being told that your baby – the tiny human you’ve bonded with and gotten to know over the many weeks, the one you’ve been anxiously waiting to meet – is unable to make the trip home with you after delivery, and it must be a thousand times worse.
That was the reality of the Bells and the crooks of The Story of Khae. Like Khae, thousands of babies across the world have to be admitted to a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) – a specialised area in hospitals that cater to the needs of children who are either born prematurely (before 37 weeks of pregnancy) or full term (after 37 weeks) but sick. In Jamaica, 10 – 15% of babies born end up in the NICU.
Today, as we celebrate NICU Awareness Day, The Village Ja highlights this preemie warrior, her parents and the struggles they overcame to be where they are now – having moved from a constant state of fear and panic to triumphant parents, enjoying the rigours of parenthood.
One day after delivery, Jae-Anne was discharged by the medical team to head home (which is usually great news under normal circumstances) but this gave her husband pause. In fact, Khristopher found it unconscionable that the health system would find it okay for a mother to be sent home, miles away from her child, mere hours after delivery. To him, a place should have been prepared for parents, especially mothers to be able to stay with their little one.
Still processing her birthing ordeal, Jae-Anne was initially delighted to be away from the hospital “but it all came crashing down when I closed the bedroom door at home.” The reality of being home without her baby hit like a tonne of bricks and the tears came flooding soon after.
Having a baby in the NICU is scary. Both her father and I felt completely helpless entrusting the life of our first child to strangers and machines. To make matters worse, COVID-19 restrictions meant that only one parent could visit the NICU per day at a time and it would be a whole 24 hours before either of us could see our daughter through the incubator for the first time.Jae-Anne Bell
“As her mother, I felt like a failure. I already didn’t know how to be a mom and felt worse at the thought that I couldn’t even keep her away from this traumatic experience.”
She described the NICU as a cold (in temperature and atmosphere), sterile space that would sometimes make her visits even more difficult to bear. According to Jae-Anne, there are three rooms where babies were placed according to the severity of the illness(es), with room 1 being the most critical.
“Sometimes a baby monitor would blare out an alarm and we all had to be rushed out of the room because a baby was in trouble. Many NICU parents will speak of the beeping of the machines that never stopped. We didn’t want them to stop of course but now when we hear similar sounds, it tends to bring us right back to the experience of being in the NICU with the constant reminder that these babies were having a hard time,” she said.
When you enter the NICU, most parents tend to keep a straight gaze, heading right for their child’s incubator or cot, not wanting to meet eyes with a crying or worried parent holding their baby’s hand. There wasn’t much talking going on. We were encouraged to talk or sing to our babies, but most of us just stared or reached into incubators and changed dirty nappies as required.
She explained that it was a heartrending experience to visit her daughter for the allotted two hours per day and have to leave her to go home. Recounting that she would sometimes think that her daughter would be heading home on a particular day and have to deal with the letdown of that not happening as quickly as she believed it could have, was difficult.
“It felt so inhumane to not be able to be together as a new family so that was a real challenge to endure. It felt so alien that after delivering this beautiful baby girl, we couldn’t learn to be a family together. It felt like we were living in this awkward in-between,” she recalled.
But despite the challenges, the couple never lost faith and loved their daughter from a distance. While they both thought about the possibility that she could die, they remained confident that she was strong and would make it home. Khris remained positive and trusted God that she would be okay. But Jae-Anne sometimes worried about her child’s fate and fervently hoped to not get “the dreaded call in the morning.”
“She was such a warrior during the whole process. Very alert and observant for a baby born 10 weeks too early. She handled the NICU like a champ so we couldn’t do any less for her. We had many, many persons praying for and supporting us and we know that without them, we wouldn’t have done as well as we did during the stay. We took it one day at a time because what else can you do really,” Jae-Anne told The Village Ja.
“‘Preemie strong’ is a saying in the NICU community and it’s truly a testament of the resilience of the babies. We were so happy for each mom who got to take her baby home and it was encouraging to the rest of us who held onto hope that we too would be going home soon. Witnessing each baby go from weak and fragile to strong enough to go home was encouragement as well. Many of the nurses helped to quiet our hearts as parents with their caring demeanour and encouraging words.”
For 40 long days the couple tag teamed visits to see their firstborn through an incubator, hooked up to an array of machines as she fought for her life. Her parents shared that Khae fought sepsis, several other infections, endured a spinal tap, learnt to breathe and had a blood transfusion in the NICU.
“These were of course all low points for us but we continued to pray that she would be ok and she was. There were several times that I thought I couldn’t do this but after some encouragement from either my husband, friends or family, we made it through each day. Khae spent 40 days in the NICU. I got to hold her on the 9th day of the stay which was so surreal. I often wonder “Why us?” but the purpose of this experience in the NICU continues to unfold every day.”
No news was greater than learning that she too would be among the parents whose child graduated from the NICU.
“When we got the call… we didn’t know our right from our left because it was all a bit sudden. We had sort of gotten used to the monotony of being back and forth from the hospital so the welcomed news was unbelievable to hear. I don’t know about Khris but until we strapped her into the carseat, I worried that they would change their mind and tell me this was all a big mistake. Every step with her towards the exit was a long and daunting one. Would we be able to care for her? Would something go wrong at home? Will she stop breathing? Do we know what to do? We were just so happy to begin our parenting journey that these questions soon faded away.”
Born 10 weeks early at 3.7 pounds, Khae-Lynne Bell exhibited the true characteristics of a warrior. Now the 25 pounds firecracker is “doing extremely well” and keeps her parents on their toes with her development.
“She is meeting all her milestones and is on the verge of walking and popping her first two teeth. She’s extremely smart, learns very quickly and is very expressive about what she thinks. She likes to do things on her own time whether that is later than we think or before we’d like her to, much like her early arrival,” Jae-Anne reported.
Parenthood feels like endless plot twists and we have to continue to learn on the go. We love being parents and being able to observe and influence this human being and to provide her with the support she needs to grow into a great adult. It’s beautiful to watch her personality and identity unfold every day. Being able to notice her milestones and to see how she learns new things is one of the most amazing experiences we’ve ever had; it’s also very tiring (LOL), but that’s the story of every parent and we wouldn’t give it up for anything in this world or the next.”Jae-Anne Bell
To keep up with Khae’s story, follow her journey on Instagram and share some words of encouragement for this NICU warrior.