BY KELLY GALLAGHER
Part 1: The Moments That Change Us
There are moments in our lives that change us in indescribable and powerful ways. Sometimes we do not know we have been changed until the moment has already left us. Each blissful moment that, for better or worse, encompasses a tiny piece of what makes our heart beat a little faster to remind us of how alive we are. Having a baby is one of those amazing links to the chain in which we build our path in life. Balloons, gifts, flowers and big hugs abound the hospital room- remind us of the celebration being had in the new life that was just born. But what happens when your baby comes before you are ready and needs more care than anticipated?
I never knew before the summer of 2014 that tucked in the corner of the 4th floor at Holy Redeemer Hospital, there would be a unit that was created for saving babies lives. But now I know.
The Holy Redeemer NICU became our home for a month that summer after our twin boys, Connor Joseph and Curran James, made their dramatic entrance into the world 8 weeks early. Weighing in at a hefty 2.11 and 5.1 pounds respectively, I often define my life from before and after of the day I delivered the boys. One moment I was heading in for my routine testing and the next being administered steroid shots and terrified. 48 hours later, in the OR with a team of strangers, I laid cold and afraid. Every ounce of my body, my brain and my heart rejoiced when they came out screaming. Before I could exhale, both were whisked away and hooked up to more tubes, machines and monitors than I could count. But even today, if I had to relive one day over and over again what would it be? Hands down- the day I brought two new lives into this world.
“…Where there is a will there is always a way.”
In the next few weeks, I made deals with God at their bedside that I am too ashamed to admit. I sobbed heavily, salt-filled tears that poured down my face as I questioned how my body could fail me. I held vigil at their bedsides awaiting morning rounds with the doctors to gain every inch of information I could to bring me one step closer to taking my boys home. Somewhere, through the fog, I celebrated with my husband. Our two beautiful twin boys who made us a family of 6. After four days, it was my turn to go home. My other two children missed their mommy and I knew they needed to see my smile desperately. I kissed the twins goodbye, sat down in my wheelchair and headed for the elevator. No balloons, no flowers and no smile. Those five minutes alone with a strange nurse and my husband were life-altering. I have delivered two full term babies at Holy Redeemer before. This was different. How could they expect me to leave without my babies?
I left my heart at Holy Redeemer as I got into my waiting car. I clung to the door and asked God for the strength to trust in the power of healthcare. I knew from my time there that the staff was top notch that was never an issue. But the nagging weight of the guilt I could not shake. There had to be a better way for moms to balance their baby’s need for care and the maternal bond that I felt I was leaving on the 4th floor.
It was those first few days that gave me the drive to make a difference and give birth to something hopeful: The Superhero Project.
Where there is a will there is always a way.
Part 2: Accepting Help Is a Humbling Experience
The next few weeks were some of the most trying times of my life. I would get up and drive 25 minutes to the hospital, spend 8 hours in the NICU with my boys, come home to feed and bathe my older two, then trudge back up to the hospital for another 4 hours. I must have logged hundreds of hours in that hospital chair. I remember sitting down the first night after I came home from seeing them. I was discharged the day before and the impact of the stress was sky high. I was exhausted from trying to act strong, overwhelmed from the inability to care for my boys at home and frustrated by the tears that would not stop flowing. I went into the bathroom, locked the door and cried. I wanted so desperately to feel sorry for myself and be angry for not carrying them to term. I felt out of control and unable to process the wide range of postpartum emotions I was dealing with. Why me? Why my boys? Why did we have to be the 1 in 10? It’s a question that I had asked several hundred times in just a few days, but I picked myself up that night. Slowly, but strongly. My boys needed me just as much as I needed them. I knew my options were to sit back and be a bystander or become the one who made a difference.
I opened the door and never turned back.
I got up that next morning and didn’t stop until the second my head hit the pillow. My entire attitude changed. I became a part of the “medical team.” Did I have my moments? Absolutely! My older two were being shuffled back and forth between family and friends. The sterile smell of the unit combined with the soft beeping of the machines became my lullaby as I anxiously waited for daily rounds to be completed. Doctors became friends and nurses became family.We shared stories, shed a few tears and always ended days with a smile. Well, most days. Within three weeks, it was Curran’s turn to graduate. Armed with a freshly opened infant carrier that had been sitting unoccupied for what felt like an eternity, we placed him in the car and waved goodbye. Actually, it was more like see you later.
You, see, Connor was still in the hospital and not cleared to go home. On top of now caring for a preemie at home and my two older kids, I now had to somehow work spending my day at Holy Redeemer with Connor into the mix. Those 4 days felt like 40. I could not have done any of it without my support system. Meals, cards, gifts and prayers made our life manageable. You can’t really comprehend the meaning of appreciation until you go through a trying time in your life. Accepting help is a humbling experience. It allows true love to break walls you did not even know existed. My walls certainly crumbled after that summer.
Accepting help also enabled me to have the strength to believe in the power of giving back.
I spent a few months pondering how I could help a few families who have to spend their first holiday in the unit where we spent their first summer. By Christmas, I had gathered enough donations from family and friends to deliver 15 baskets filled with gift cards, crocheted hats, snacks, journals, sanitizer, and love. My heart was full but this tiny ache was still there. It nagged at me. The little sleep in which I was being granted by my sleeping angels became disrupted by my visions of wanting change. What one thing would have changed the way I bonded with my boys during their time there? Although there is no way to replace physically being there holding them, was there something out there that came close? I began immersing myself in Google searches on the NICU and different breakthrough ideas that were being driven across the country. Without hesitation, I knew that the minute I stumbled upon the Angel Eye camera system equipment, I had found something that offered exactly what I was looking for. This was it!
This small piece of equipment was an opportunity to change lives for NICU moms at Holy Redeemer. I was sure it was a great idea. I knew moms would love it. But, how could I convince the hospital to take this kind of a jump. Would people connect with the idea and buy into it? At $2,500 per camera plus maintenance and training, this was not an overnight thing.
Little did I know the impact this idea would have on hundreds of people. This idea would pave the way for a new method of distributing family-based care in our hospital. This was no longer about me or my feelings about my experience with my boys. It was about every mom out there who has had to leave their baby in the hospital. The next week, I put up a Go Fund Me account and raised almost $3,000 in a little over a month. It was then I realized that my idea needed to become more than just that. But, where to begin? I had yet to approach anyone from the hospital. Would they kindly shut down my idea? How much red tape would I need to break through? Did I have the time or the strength to take this to the top? My superheroes at home gave me the go ahead. I was ready for the jump. I just don’t think I was ready for how hard I would fall for the idea that would take me on a path in life that I never knew existed. But sometimes in life, you need to fall to realize that getting up and moving forward is the only way to bring change. The Superhero Project was born and immediately began its mission. I was ready and willing to make this idea a reality. What I wasn’t ready for was the hundreds of people who would rally behind me and help me change lives one dollar at a time.
Part 3: The Power of Giving
When you are part of a team or unit, there is often a feeling of deep comfort and sense of relief that accompanies the realization that the weight of what you are trying to accomplish doesn’t rely solely on your shoulders. I am an elementary school teacher and have been involved in several committee and grade level teams. My life is filled with an amazing team of neighbors and friends who cover for each other and ensure that our kids are taken care of. From grade school basketball all the way up to college soccer, I’ve played on almost every sports team imaginable. These teams swept track meets, won nail-biting games at the buzzer and sat in freezing cold temperatures while huddling together for warmth in multi-game tournaments. All of these teams have shaped who I am as a person and reminded me that trophies don’t always account for placing 2nd and good guys don’t always finish first. When I sit back and lay these team cards out on the table and total up all the wins in my career, nothing comes close to the team I have standing behind The Superhero Project.
Hundreds of people, some I have known a lifetime and others who I have yet to physically meet, have come together to make the bond between families and their infants stronger. In a year of fundraising and almost three combined events, we have raised over $20,000 for critically ill babies in the NICU and their families. The sheer mention of this generous magnitude usually brings me to tears. This is a testament to the power of giving, the strength in numbers and the awe-inspiring notion that one person really can make a difference. Often, I put a simple post on Facebook requesting an item or favor. Within minutes, messages pour into my inbox fulfilling the request and donating additional items. To realize that people understand the passion behind my purpose has ignited me to network and deliver the message of hope to so many new families who are caring for a sick infant.
“…When you have a premature baby,
you cling to anything you can to create an identity for your child…”
Do you how good it feels to give back? My goal for creating an environment that allowed family-based care to take the forefront has been accomplished. The camera installation will prove nothing short of ultimate comfort for the families who have babies in the NICU. Our baskets will continue to provide small necessities and inspire moms to take a few moments to take care of themselves during the hustle and bustle of their busy lives.
As we get close to delivering our 100th basket and the Angel Eye cameras installation nearing completion in the Holy Redeemer NICU, I cannot help but reflect on the hundreds of people who have allowed this all to happen. If you have come to one of my events, you know how important I believe it is to acknowledge every penny that is donated. Did you know hundreds of those dollars have come from Holy Redeemer nurses themselves? The relationships that were built with these women over the course of several weeks in the summer of 2014 are solidified by the attendance of so many of them at my events. As they leave, many thank me for a fun night. How could I ever repay them for the gift of life in my sons?
Learning and growing from the curve balls we are dealt allows us to seize opportunities that once felt like obstacles. I think when something as significant as having your critically ill child lay in front of you happens; you are awarded an opportunity that puts many things perfectly into perspective. This experience has presented me a new gift to share and a passion for service that continuously burns in my heart. It has made me reflect on my journey, where I have been in life, and where I hope to go. In the end, we all have to find our place in this lifetime and allow our gifts to lead us to where we are supposed to go.
Where is it that I hope this project takes me? To be honest, I really do not know the answer. I know that every dollar, every basket and every thank you from a NICU mom is a reminder that what has been started is nothing short of amazing. Last week, I found my two small children on the floor huddling in the corner of their bedroom. They were counting change from their piggy banks and piling it into neat, organized piles. When asked what they were doing, they simply and innocently replied, “We want to give back. We are going to donate this money to the poor.” As my heart began to swell, I knew that the bigger picture was slowly sinking in.
As I move forward, my goal of partnering with other non-profits to inspire and innovate the NICU is beginning to take shape. When you have a premature baby, you cling to anything you can to create an identity for your child. For my sons and I, this identity came through hats and blankets. Crocheted and knitted hats have become a big part of my campaign. I have received almost 100 knitted hats so far and will continue to seek help in this initiative. Project Linus has graciously offered to provide blankets for families of our tiniest patients. Both will give families a feeling of comfort when wrapped in these items handmade with love.
Most people know I am someone that will rarely sit still. Once my camera project got the ok, I began searching for my next big idea. The Superhero Project, in conjunction with Denise Paul from Holy Redeemer and Kristin from A Day with Chase, will design a room on the maternity floor that is dedicated to families who are experiencing loss shortly after birth. This room will have the amenities and comforts of a nursery much like the one designed at home that these babies will never get to go to. A comfy over-sized chair, gentle washing station, a beautiful shelf filled with books, a camera with flash drives and other small sentiments will be readily available to ensure that every moment counts. These are some early ideas, but there is something else that will make this room entirely unique.
The Cuddle Cot is a small, almost invisible cooling device that is placed into a bassinet. This allows a baby who has passed more time to stay in the room with the family until everyone is ready to say goodbye. After speaking with several friends who have gone through this, the Cuddle Cot was not only a welcoming idea but rather a gift that could provide more time with their baby. Coincidentally, this special room will be called The Gift of Time.
Everyone in this world has a gift. Often, our gifts come to us at different periods of our lives and remain unopened until just the right time. My advice to each one of you is to find your gift and remain open and willing to accept it. Use it to seek a better understanding of yourself and others. The Superhero Project has been my gift to many parents and families over the course of the last year. Yet somewhere deep inside, I know it was God’s gift to me as well. Just a little present I finally opened up.
To find out more about The Superhero Project, check us out on the web at www.superheroprojectinc.org, on Facebook and on the cover of the Spring edition of LifeLinks magazine. Kelly can be reached at email@example.com