By Sammie Ann Wicks
It was a night in 2014 like any other, with no hint of trouble, as a young mother-to-be went about her daily tasks and then retired, oblivious to the life-changing event—and the reality that a crisis was lurking only moments away.
“I was sound asleep, and was having this dream that my water broke—and then I woke up and realized it was actually happening,” says Heather Pendergrass, recalling the January night of her twins’ birth just 27 weeks into her pregnancy—a risky 13 weeks early.
However unexpected, Pendergrass realized time was of the essence, and alerted both her doctor and her husband, Mark.
“My doctor told me to get straight over to Chandler Regional (Chandler Regional Medical Center), and he immediately let them know we were on our way,” says Pendergrass. “My husband drove me, and we went right into triage.”
At first, she says, hospital staff did everything they could to postpone the premature birth.
“In the beginning, I was just having a few contractions, and wasn’t really in full labor, and they were trying to stop that (for the babies’ sake),” says Pendergrass, “trying steroid shots and other things, but it just didn’t work. The babies were coming.”
Pendergrass was then moved quickly to Chandler Regional’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, where nurses were waiting to start procedures critical to supporting the babies’ lives.
After only an hour of labor and 24 hours after her water broke, Pendergrass’s twin boys, Aiden and Logan, were born on January 10 with the constant assistance of attentive NICU nurses. But the young mother says the greatest challenges were yet to come.
“Babies born so early like mine have to learn how to breathe on their own, and have to have feeding tubes while they develop outside the womb,” Pendergrass says, adding that, at this early date, even a mother’s instincts have to be suspended.
“When you see such a young baby struggling, or having issues, your first normal instinct is just to pick them up and hold them,” she declares, “and you can’t do that here—you have to reach through the holding unit’s holes with gloves. So while I may have wanted to, I couldn’t just pick up my twins. That was hard.”
Even with this temporary separation, Pendergrass says babies’ instincts still are in play.
“They somehow still know their parents, still know the rhythm of their mother’s heartbeat, even their mother’s voice they heard in the womb, and that’s so comforting.”
In the early weeks of a preemie’s life, she says even speaking to the babies must be done in a special way. “You have to be careful to speak very softly to them,” she says. “You don’t want to overstimulate them, because that can affect their oxygen levels.”
Even given their premature arrival, Pendergrass says her sons did not experience the more typical brain bleeding, and did not need blood transfusions or have other issues that could have occurred.
“We’re just blessed that the boys did not suffer any chronic lung disease, and in fact now have outgrown any issues they might have had initially,” says Pendergrass, noting that many other premature newborns often have a harder time.
She is quick to say she could not have made it through her ordeal without the unflagging dedication of the NICU nurses, doctors, and supporting staff.
“The people doing this work are simply unbelievable human beings,” Pendergrass says. “We had amazing nurses working with us throughout the whole thing, and believe me, you need that. It’s the hardest roller coaster ride you’ll ever go through, physically and emotionally. Emotionally may be the hardest part, because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Another mother of a preemie describes NICU nurses as “angels on earth. These people don’t eat lunch, they’re always on their feet, always committed, always doing the best thing. There are not enough words to say how wonderful they are.”
So touched by her experience at the hospital was Pendergrass that she ultimately decided to become a volunteer there, helping other premature babies and their anxious moms.
“I’d been with the Human Resources department of a major bank for 20 years,” says Pendergrass, “but after this amazing experience, my husband and I were talking and asking ourselves, ‘How can we give back?’ The answer was being of service to the NICU.” Her wealth of knowledge garnered during her own time there, Pendergrass says, gives her a unique opportunity to help other mothers in similar straits.
“I’ve been where the moms have been,” says Pendergrass, “and I’m a unique story, because I’ve already had NICU babies, and I can relate to the women because of my own experience.” She adds the hospital offers excellent training to would-be volunteers at the unit.
“They give you an excellent orientation about how to deal with preemies,” she says, “so that when you’re actually there, you know what to expect and what to do to best help the babies.”
If she is now able to be of help to other preemie mothers, Pendergrass never fails to remember what got her through her own experience.
“My husband and I had only been married less than a year when all this happened,” recalls Pendergrass, “but from the beginning he was amazing— he was my rock, very calming. He still makes me a better person.”
The Pendergrasses have another child, two-and-a-half-year-old Ethan. Like any struggle in life, the new NICU volunteer says that, difficult as it was, her entire experience led her to greater self-knowledge and growth.
“I personally think there’s a reason for everything,” says Pendergrass, “and because of what I went through, I can now give that back. The experience I had with my boys made me what I am.”