I felt like everyone here was invested in me and the best outcome for my baby.
As the youngest of nine children and the youngest grandchild, it’s not surprising that Eileen Wedegartner of Pepperell, MA, has a keen sense of how valuable it is to be surrounded by a caring support network. And in late 2009, the value of such support, from both family members and people she had never met before, would reveal itself in poignant ways.
Eileen, 35, and her husband, Ian, were enjoying life and thinking toward the future during the late fall of 2009. Already blessed with a healthy young son, Charlie, Eileen was nearly six months pregnant with their second child.
“There was nothing wrong in the pregnancy,” said Eileen. “I was in great health and things were progressing as they should have been. There were no concerns.”
Concerns, however, would start to grow one morning in November – first, for their unborn baby and not long afterward, for Eileen.
She admitted that she was feeling a bit out of sorts that month, but wasn’t overly concerned. “I had a bad week – but when you’re pregnant, who doesn’t have a bad week?” she said, laughing.
On Friday afternoon, November 20, at the very end of her second trimester, her water broke. She telephoned the obstetrician on call at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) and also spoke to her sister, Kathleen Murphy, who is a nurse practitioner in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at BWH. They both advised her to come in immediately, but also tried to comfort her – telling her that it might only be a little bit of leaking. Eileen wasn’t convinced. “I just knew that it wasn’t a little bit of leaking,” she said. “It was bad news.”
Ian ordinarily wouldn’t be home on a Friday afternoon, but happened to be there that day. He described himself as being “very focused” when he drove Eileen to the hospital, while Eileen described his driving style as “flying.” She warned him to slow down – not because she was worried about an accident, but because she was worried about being forced to go to the nearest hospital if they were pulled over. “I wanted to go to a very specific hospital,” she explained. “I wanted to go to the Brigham.”
When she came in, it was confirmed that she had experienced a premature rupture of the membrane surrounding her baby, an uncommon condition that is particularly serious when it occurs preterm. The obstetrics staff tried to prolong Eileen’s pregnancy, but, as is typical in such cases, her labor commenced within 48 hours. Ian and Kathleen were by Eileen’s side when Claire Wedegartner, weighing only two pounds, was delivered by cesarean section on Sunday morning, November 22.
Thus began Claire’s 103-day stay in the NICU. Eileen said that Claire ended up going through virtually every health condition listed as a potential complication for a premature baby while she was there – infection, brain hemorrhaging, abnormal blood vessel development in her eyes, and a heart defect, which required surgery at Children’s Hospital Boston.
Eileen was able to return home about a week after Claire’s birth, but made the long drive back and forth from Pepperell to Boston every day to check in on her daughter. And when Eileen or Ian weren’t at the hospital, they received constant updates from Kathleen and were comforted knowing that Claire’s brother was always there to keep her company – in a photo with the family dog, Pandora, hanging in Claire’s incubator.
By mid-January, as Claire’s health improved, Eileen returned to work. Two weeks later, as she was about to head out the door for a conference, Eileen felt an intense pain in her chest. She initially convinced herself that she was having an anxiety attack, but the pain didn’t go away.
She went to a local community hospital, but each medicine they gave her failed to get rid of the pain. The staff subsequently ran some tests, eventually determining that she had experienced some type of cardiac event. The hospital, however, didn’t have the resources to take care of her condition, so she was transferred to BWH.
Eileen was diagnosed with dissections (tears) in her left coronary artery, a condition that ultimately leads to artery blockage. A surgical team from the BWH Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory performed an angioplasty to open up the artery and implanted four stents (short tubes) to help keep the artery open. Everything seemed fine.
As the cardiac team was attending to Eileen, in stepped yet another sister, Mary Aquilino, who is a registered nurse in the Cardiac Surgery Intensive Care Unit at BWH. Mary received updates from the nurses who were helping to take care of Eileen, and the nurses, in turn, brought back words of encouragement from Mary.
In the midst of all this anxiety, Ian was happy to have Eileen’s sisters around. “Having her sisters there gave me comfort,” said Ian. “These weren’t just any people talking. These were her sisters, and they’re professionals.”
The next day, while talking with her sister Mary on the phone, Eileen suddenly felt dizzy. She quickly hung up the phone and passed out. After being resuscitated, Eileen was brought into the catheterization lab once again. There it was determined that she had suffered a cardiac arrest from yet another dissection, this time in her right coronary artery, and she was treated with another angioplasty.
As Eileen recovered, she was less concerned about her health as she was about Claire’s health and getting back home to her husband and son. To help boost her spirits, nurses from the NICU and the 9th floor of the Shapiro Cardiovascular Center collaborated to arrange daily reunions of mother and daughter until Eileen was well enough to go home.
Eighteen months later, Claire’s family and physicians are very pleased by her progress. Aided by an affinity for mom’s chocolate chip cookies, her weight is steadily ramping up, and she’s already quite tall for any child her age. And with bright, curious eyes and a boisterous laugh, she walks around and grabs any reachable item with ease.
Eileen also has recovered well, and although she is thankful that she and Claire need to return less and less frequently to the hospital for follow-up appointments, she reflects fondly on the quality and breadth of care that she and her daughter received at BWH. From the valet who took care of her car even though the garage was full, to the security guards, dietitians, financial counselors, family counselors, and social workers, she was happy that caring went well beyond the operating room.
“Knowing that you’re with doctors you can trust and nurses that are going to be there to answer all your needs is phenomenal,” she said. “But it goes well beyond that.”
“It’s not just about fixing you and sending you home. I felt like everyone here was invested in me and the best outcome for my baby. And it wasn’t just the doctors and nurses – it was everyone we came into contact with. For a patient, that means everything.”
Patient Story Video: Eileen, Ian and Claire
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