Brooke Brown was born in the emergency department of Cherokee Indian Hospital in 1983. Her mother went into premature labor unexpectedly, and Brooke entered the world nearly 12 weeks early.
Weighing only 1.11 pounds, she was transported to Mission Hospital to receive specialty care. At the time, Mission’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) was still in its own infancy. It had been established by Charles Yoder, MD, just a few years prior. But the care Brown received during her stay in the NICU strengthened her into a happy, healthy baby—and later it planted in her a lifelong passion for prematurity awareness.
A Change of Plans
Through the years, Brown maintained her connection to premature babies and their families. She even volunteered at a NICU in Atlanta when she was in college. However, it wasn’t until the birth of her daughter that the issue took on a deeper meaning for her. Brown was set to deliver her first child, Celeste, in early March of 2014, when a routine obstetrics appointment on New Year’s Eve changed everything.
“I went into that appointment thinking everything was fine,” said Brown. “Celeste’s father, Shawn, joined me, and we made plans to get dinner afterward. But when the doctor looked at my blood pressure readings, she told us, ‘you’re not going home tonight.’”
Brown, who was in Sylva for the appointment, was sent to Harris Regional Hospital for observation. However, when the doctors there determined that Brown would have to deliver her baby early, they sent her by ambulance to Mission Hospital, home of the only Level III NICU in western North Carolina.
It was a surreal experience for Brown. Thirty years earlier, she had taken an ambulance ride to Mission as a newborn, with her dad and a nurse hand-pumping oxygen for the whole two-and-a-half-hour trip. This time, it was her own baby who was at risk, and Brown was very aware of the fear involved. “At that point, I was starting to panic,” she said.
Extended Family of a Different Kind
The experience was a shock to Brown, but once she was ushered into the labor and delivery unit, she quickly adapted to the situation. The lighting was softer, the nurses had a comforting demeanor and some of Brown’s family were starting to arrive at the hospital. Though the evening’s events were unexpected—and certainly not ideal—the labor and delivery went well. It was in the early hours of 2014 that Celeste made her entrance into the world at 3.3 pounds. She would then spend the next six weeks in the NICU where one of her doctors was none other than Dr. Yoder, who was Brown’s neonatologist three decades earlier.
Mission’s NICU has changed quite a bit over the past 38 years, and Celeste’s experience there was much different than her mom’s. When Dr. Yoder first arrived at Mission in 1978, there was no NICU department at all—nor were there any other neonatologists. In fact, premature babies didn’t even have their own nursery; they were treated in the pediatric intensive care unit. This was common practice in the 1970s when the field of neonatology was still relatively young.
“It was very challenging,” said Dr. Yoder. “There were times when a preemie might have a bed next to a six-year-old. And for the first three years, I was on call 365 days a year.”
The NICU grew quickly, however. It had already expanded into its own department and acquired a few additional staff by the time Brown was there. Today, it’s a 51-bed nursery with eight neonatologists, eight neonatal nurse practitioners and a multidisciplinary care team that includes neonatal nurses, pediatric respiratory therapists and many other infant-focused specialists.
Despite its growth, Dr. Yoder said the NICU has maintained one thing consistently over the decades—family-focused support. “For some babies, this is their first home,” he said. “Because of that, we want to make things as easy on families as possible. To some families, our staff becomes almost like an extended family of sorts—often establishing lifelong friendships that last long after a baby’s stay.”
Dr. Yoder estimates that he’s treated 20,000-plus babies throughout his tenure. He said that increases the odds that he sometimes ends up treating the offspring of his former patients. Even some of the nurses on his staff were once patients of his.
Dr. Yoder doesn’t remember every baby he’s seen, but he said Brown and her daughter did stand out to him. “I remember [Brown] very clearly because she had the most beautiful complexion I had ever seen on a baby,” he said. “[Celeste] had the same beautiful complexion, so when I was told who her mother was, I immediately remembered.”
A Special Bond
Brown can testify to the strong bonds formed in the NICU. Last year, for her second Mother’s Day, she received a special keepsake from a NICU nurse who had bonded with their family while Celeste was in the unit.
Brown has also maintained a connection with Mission through a special service she provides. In honor of Celeste, who was Mission’s New Year’s baby for 2014, Brown now assembles and delivers a gift basket for the New Year’s baby every year. Each basket includes some of Brown’s favorite baby products, as well as a Little Lotus® baby swaddle that she purchases through a company that donates portable, reusable incubators to hospitals in third-world countries. She finishes off each basket with a purple ribbon and a personal note.
The purple ribbon is a symbol of prematurity awareness. Due to her own experience, this has always been a cause close to Brown’s heart, but since Celeste’s birth it’s even more important to her to share the message. “We would not change our story, as we are using it to share positivity with the world,” she said. “By sharing it, we hope we can help a family by giving them hope or encouragement—or even a simple smile.”
800 Ill and Premature Newborns
That’s the number of children who receive lifesaving care each year at the Mission Children’s Hospital Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) in Asheville, home to the region’s only Level III NICU. The 51-bed unit provides care for all high-risk newborns with prematurity, infections, respiratory distress syndrome, surgical and genetic diagnoses, and sends babies home 5 days earlier than the national average. Learn more at missionchildrens.org.
Sign up for our free weekly pregnancy and parenting emails at mission-health.org/womens. For more information about maternity services provided by Mission Health, visit mission-health.org.
Charles Yoder, MD, is a neonatologist at Mission Children’s Hospital. For more information on our NICU services, visit missionchildrens.org.
By Jennifer Sellers