“Be thankful for what you have and be aware of what others may be struggling with,” is the advice Ashley Hart offers to moms on Mother’s Day.
After dealing with a difficult pregnancy, time in the NICU and surgery with a 5-month-old baby, Ashley said she has realized that many moms have experienced far worse.
Ashley, who lives in West Plains, Missouri, traveled quite a distance to see her OB/GYN in St. Louis. Normally, she made the more than three-hour drive alone. For the 20-week ultrasound, she was excited to bring her husband Willie and her 4-year-old daughter, Edie, along with her.
“It’s usually the fun appointment,” Ashley commented. “We already knew it was a girl, but you get to spend more time seeing the baby on the monitor and we thought it would be fun to include Edie.”
However, the appointment didn’t go as planned. Once the ultrasound was finished, the doctor came in and told Ashley her baby had an omphalocele – a birth defect where the organs develop on the outside of the body due to a hole in the belly button area. The intestines are covered only by a thin layer of tissue and can be easily seen.
“We were devastated by the news, but were also wrangling Edie who wasn’t aware of what was going on,” Ashley recalled. “Our doctor referred us to the specialty office [Mercy Maternal and Fetal Care Center] where we saw Dr. Webb.”
The next day after an extensive ultrasound, Mercy's high-risk OB Dr. Gilbert Webb reassured the parents the baby was normal aside from the omphalocele - often with the condition, babies also have other abnormalities.
“He prepared us for a long, tough pregnancy, and while we were upset, we did leave optimistic,” Ashley said.
It took some time to “swallow the tough pill” that they wouldn’t have a healthy baby, but the follow-up appointment four weeks later went smoothly and again left them optimistic.
The next appointment was a different story. The baby had developed fluid in her abdominal space so Ashley was quickly admitted and told she needed to deliver the 27-week baby.
“I was beside myself,” Ashley stated. “I was getting ready to deliver her so early and I was concerned she would have so much stacked against her.”
After five days of monitoring, the baby was holding strong. Ashley could leave the hospital, but the distance concerned the doctors. She made the decision to drive to St. Louis twice a week to be monitored and meet with the Fetal Care Team.
“The rest of the pregnancy was horrible,” Ashley added. “I was very depressed. I was making the drive, caring for my daughter and still trying to work full time, yet feeling like a burden on my co-workers.”
In May, after two months of making the long trek, Ashley decided to make a temporary move to St. Louis to be closer to the hospital and specialists.
At 37 weeks, full-term for a baby with an omphalocele, it was time to welcome their baby. But, as with the rest of the pregnancy, nothing was easy. Willie had a stomach virus and couldn’t be in the delivery room. The Fetal Care coordinator made sure he didn’t miss a minute by holding Ashley’s cell phone with FaceTime running.
Before the birth, doctors had prepared them for the issues that can arise, specifically with breathing. Though, much to their surprise, baby Lou arrived and didn’t need much help. The Mercy Kids NICU team used continuous positive air pressure (CPAP) initially and Lou only needed oxygen for a few days.
“We expected a long stay in the NICU, but she was doing so well we were able to go home after only two weeks,” Ashley said. “She was so small and had the protrusion from the omphalocele, but she behaved like a normal newborn.”
The Harts continued to follow up with Mercy Clinic pediatric surgeon Dr. Eric Coln once a month. At the five-month appointment, Lou was ready for surgery.
“The surgery went really well; she didn’t even act like she was in pain,” Ashley said.
Since the surgery, Ashley has traveled to St. Louis for a few follow-up appointments with Dr. Coln and nurse practitioner Molly Figgemeier. She has a one-year check-up coming up in June, on Lou‘s first birthday.
Ashley does want to have another baby. But now instead of worrying about whether she’ll have a boy or a girl, she’s more concerned if the baby will be healthy. The experience taught her to appreciate the good things in her life.
“As a mom, I used to complain about not getting enough sleep or having to deal with a kid’s throw up,” Ashley joked. “Now I don’t even think about those things.”
“In the end, Lou is a norma,l healthy little girl, but I know not everyone is so lucky,” Ashley said. "There are mothers who will spend the holiday in the NICU and others who will never bring their baby home."