NICU to Nursery: One Family's Journey Through Premature Birth
When Erin Hawley found out she was pregnant, she hoped for a picture-perfect birth story. She wanted to be fully present for all of it; to have a natural birth; to be able to hold her twins the second they were born.
But unfortunately, Graham and Charlotte’s entrance into the world did not fulfill any of those desires, and for awhile, Erin felt like she had failed.
“I was so unprepared for the feeling of having an atypical birth, not having that perfect story you think everyone has,” she said, nearly eight weeks after her emergency cesarean section. “When you don’t have that, you feel like you didn’t do it right. You feel like you failed. And I had that feeling a lot.”
But despite Erin’s story being different than many mothers’, she still felt an instant, almost unexplainable bond with her babies.
“As soon as I saw them for the first time, it was completely surreal ... We couldn’t hold them, but it didn’t matter. We knew that they were ours,” Erin said. “That protective instinct that you hear about, that was immediate.”
For Erin, who’s an anchor for KATV, and her husband Evan, who is an ophthalmologist at McFarland Eye Care, almost nothing about the pregnancy was standard or planned. To begin with, the possibility of twins hadn't even crossed their minds when they decided they were ready for kids.
“I think it was God’s way of trying to tell me not to plan things so much,” Erin said, laughing. “I try to plan everything so carefully and instead we got two babies. It was very unexpected. Once it sunk in, it was really exciting.”
As they prepared for twins, Erin’s Type A personality kicked into gear as she crowdsourced for information and utilized Facebook groups for parents who had multiples.
“She had the nursery ready three months early because she had read that ‘you never know,’ and that really came in handy because they were really early,” Evan said.
Twelve weeks before her due date, Erin was driving to work and was forced to slam on her breaks when another driver changed lanes abruptly in front of her. The anti-lock brake system kicked in and her seat belt tightened. Although she didn’t wreck, she called her OB-GYN to see if she should be concerned and he gave her a couple signs to watch for.
Two days later, Erin believed that one of twin’s amniotic sacs may have begun leaking and went to the doctor, but the first few tests they ran came back negative for amniotic fluid. Two weeks after the incident, they retested the fluid under a microscope, and it was in fact amniotic fluid, and had been the entire time.
“(My doctor) came back in the room and said, ‘You’re not going home today. We’re wheeling you down to the hospital and you’re going to check in,’” Erin said.
The goal of having her stay in the hospital was to delay labor and prevent infection. According to Erin, it was “nothing short of a miracle” that she did not get an infection during the two weeks the sac was leaking before she was in the hospital. During that time, she had been swimming at a public pool, doing pilates and more.
While a normal pregnancy lasts 40 weeks, the typical gestational period for twins is 36 weeks, and when Erin went into the hospital she was at 30 weeks.
“Each baby, in our case, had an amniotic sac of fluid; one of them was leaking and we didn’t know which one,” Evan said. “It was a slow leak, so hopefully it didn’t take away all of the fluid in that sac since it kind of rebuilds on its own … The longer they’re in that fluid, the better.”
Two weeks later, at 32 weeks, Erin’s water broke, which was likely the second amniotic sac. Within an hour and a half, she was in the operating room, and after multiple failed attempts to give Erin a spinal (epidural), it became an emergency C-section and she had to be put under.
“She didn’t get to have that moment where she got to see the babies right then,” Evan said. “I did, because I got to go back with her. I was at her head and watching the C-section happen. I’d helped do them before, but it’s different when it’s your wife and kids.”
“He told me later that he held my hand the whole time even though I was totally out,” Erin added. “I thought that was the sweetest thing.”
Graham and Charlotte were each 4 pounds at birth. Even though both babies struggled initially, Evan and Erin always knew they would be bringing their children home.
Charlotte stopped breathing shortly after she was born and was intubated for several hours, which, according to Evan, may have been because the anesthesia can trickle down to the baby. After they removed Charlotte’s tube, she and Graham both had oxygen through nasal tubes for a couple days.
When the doctors removed the nasal tubes, Graham did OK, but Charlotte got worse, Evan said. Graham likely did not struggle as much because his amniotic sac had not leaked and he was born first, making it less likely that his bloodstream absorbed anesthesia.
“It’s two steps forward, one step back with preemies, but (Charlotte) shouldn’t have gone back that much,” Erin said. “She was worse than when she started.”
Other challenges for the twins were weight gain and feeding. They were both initially fed through tubes and slowly transitioned to bottle feeding. It was especially hard for Charlotte because she struggled breathing, which caused her to burn more calories, making weight gain more of a challenge.
These medical difficulties put Erin and Evan through an emotional rollercoaster during the twins’ stay in the NICU. They were only allowed to hold each baby for an hour a day, which Erin said was especially hard on her.
“It was pretty excruciating,” Erin said, taking a deep breath and looking over at Evan. “It was almost the feeling that you know you had babies, but you’re just missing so many pieces; I really, really struggled during those weeks with that. I think that’s probably a very common struggle for NICU moms and dads … you imagine that moment of giving birth and then getting to hold your baby. When you don’t get that, it’s like a piece of you got taken away.”
Although the struggles she and Evan faced were much harder than they expected, Graham and Charlotte’s homecoming was also more joyful than they could have imagined. Graham was able to go home several days before Charlotte, who came home after exactly six weeks in the hospital.
“To get to take both babies out of the hospital — I don’t know that I’ve ever been happier than that,” Erin said, smiling. “I was so happy. We were so happy.”
Evan, smiling and almost seeming to hold back tears, looked down at Charlotte in his arms.
“It was pretty cool.”
As she and Evan adjust to life with two little ones, they are observing Graham and Charlotte’s unique personality traits.
“Even this young, they’re so different. He’s a hungry little velociraptor and would be perfectly happy if we would just let him eat all the time,” Erin said, laughing. “She likes to sleep and is usually very quiet. She’s a little snuggle bug.”
Since being home, the babies have not had complications and the follow-up doctor's appointments have gone smoothly. Their due date was Oct. 26, so once Graham and Charlotte passed that date, it was a kind of milestone that Evan said meant he and Erin weren’t worrying quite so much.
And even when the nights are long and the crying seems like it never stops, the couple pauses to just be thankful.
“I think having them in the NICU for so long has made us so much more grateful for every moment having them home,” Erin said. “Even when they’re screaming in the middle of the night and I’m sitting out here trying to feed two babies at once, I’m thinking that they’re here.
“I think we’re going to have moments kind of like we did during our pregnancy when we looked at each other and went, ‘Oh my gosh we’re having two babies!’ I think we’ll have moments where we’ll say ‘Do you remember when our two babies were in the NICU? And how hard that was? And how wonderful it is now.’”
Charlotte & Graham
Erin’s passion for children’s literature helped her pick out her little girl’s name, Charlotte Elizabeth. Charlotte is named after the title character in “Charlotte’s Web,” but it wasn’t until after she was born that it fully clicked with her dad.
“While we were in the NICU we were reading to them and decided to read them ‘Charlotte’s Web’ and got to the chapter where they introduce Charlotte, and Evan gets this horrified look on his face and goes, ‘Charlotte is the spider? You named my daughter after a spider?’” Erin said, laughing.
Charlotte’s middle name, Elizabeth, is also Erin’s and Erin’s mother’s middle name. They plan on calling her Charli as she gets older, but right now her dad affectionately calls her Sweet Pea.
Evan and Erin picked the name Graham for its classic charm.
“I like old fashioned names,” Erin said.
Sometimes they call him Grahamster and they’ve even jokingly nicknamed him Wilbur, to go along with his sister as a character from “Charlotte’s Web.”
His middle name, Miller, however, was more of Evan’s selection — it comes from Denver Broncos player Von Miller.