At 17 weeks pregnant, Ashley Donnelly’s water broke. She wasn’t even halfway through a full-term pregnancy. At her Ob/Gyn’s office, and then with her maternal fetal medicine team, the experts gently prepared her for the worst. “I could see it on everybody’s faces,” she says. “They couldn’t believe I was still pregnant.”
There was nothing to do but stay careful, stay hydrated, and stay hopeful – for a happy outcome that seemed beyond imagination. Amazingly, her baby held on.
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At 26 weeks, Jackson Donnelly was born. He was exactly three months early, and weighed just 2 pounds, 9 ounces. For the first hours of his life, a team of Connecticut Children's Neonatology specialists worked to help him with his breathing and lung function to provide adequate oxygen to his little body, while dad Jeremy watched and willed his son strength.
Then, a nurse brought Ashley in from recovery, wheeling her right up to Jack’s incubator. “Hi, Jack,” Ashley said. Immediately, his oxygen levels and heart rate increased. For the first time, he opened his eyes.
Jeremy wrote a note on Facebook introducing Jack to the world. “This little guy is my hero,” he said.
“Every minute was a gift”
Everyone knew Jack’s birth would be delicate. Like all extremely premature babies, he required intensive medical care to prevent long-term damage to his brain, lungs and other organs.
Connecticut Children’s is consistently ranked among U.S. News & World Report’s best Neonatology programs, a recognition of its leading research, technology and treatments. Thanks to Care Alliance partnerships with adult health systems, this expertise is close to home for families: Connecticut Children's specialists are embedded in 14 Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICUs) and delivery units in hospitals throughout the region, from Putnam to Danbury and beyond. These neonatologists work with families like Jack’s – as well as with labor and delivery teams – to coordinate challenging deliveries and newborn care.
For Jack, that meant being born at Hartford Hospital, one floor above Connecticut Children's Level 4 NICU, the highest possible level of NICU care. Immediately upon entering the world, he was surrounded by a care team – including neonatologists, advanced nurse practitioners, physician assistants, respiratory therapists and nurses – trained specifically to care of infants like him.
For five months, he needed every one of those supports...
Until you experience the tenderness, the effort, everything that goes into what these doctors and nurses do all day, you can’t describe it. It is incredible.Jack's Mom
“There were some weeks when we thought, Is he going to make it? Every day, every minute was a gift,” says Ashley.
It was an exhausting, emotional five months for Ashley and Jeremy. They watched their baby boy battle for his life, with the help of a ventilator to support his lungs and feeding tube to provide him with nutrition to grow. They traded off being by his side with being at home for their two other children – Jonathan, then age 4, and Julia, then age 2.
It was also filled with moments of beauty, like the care they felt from Jack’s NICU team, led by neonatologist Shabnam Lainwala, MD.
“I can’t even imagine what we would’ve done without Dr. Lainwala and Jack’s nurses,” says Ashley. “A lot of credit goes to them for getting us through. Some days, they were there taking care of us as much as they were taking care of Jack.”
It took 150 days. But slowly, steadily, “on his own terms,” says Ashley, “Jack did it.” He still needed supplemental oxygen and a feeding tube in his stomach. But he was strong enough to go home.
His care team was with him every step of the way. Connecticut Children's neonatology team helps families not only prepare to leave the hospital, but also navigate their baby’s unique care needs once they’re home. That includes everything from nutrition and lactation support to the Neonatal Neurodevelopmental Follow-Up Program. To monitor his breathing and digestive system, Jack also received ongoing care from the divisions of Pulmonary Medicine and Gastroenterology.
“We had so many follow-up appointments, and so much support,” remembers Ashley. “The number of experts, the hard work, the circle of care around Jack – I have never seen anything like it in my entire life.”
“The best care in the region”
By the time he was 1 and a half years old, Jack no longer needed supplemental oxygen or a feeding tube. By the time he was 3 years old, Dr. Lainwala congratulated him on his final Neurodevelopmental appointment – he was officially a NICU graduate. Today, at 3 and a half, he’s the picture of health.
“He’s running around, he’s strong, he’s healthy,” says Ashley. “You would never know.”
She and Jeremy have two theories for why Jack has thrived. First: his own determination. Second: the care he received.
“People ask, where should I take my child? For us, it’s Connecticut Children's, hands down,” says Ashley. “That’s because of the personalized level of care that they give each patient. But it’s also state-of-the-art care – the best care in the region. It really is an amazing place, and I think about how lucky we are to be so close.”
Every now and then, while she’s out running errands, Ashley will run into one of the specialists who took care of Jack at Connecticut Children's. Recently, that was in the aisle of a home decor store, with one of his former respiratory therapists. They caught up on Jack’s latest leaps and bounds, and reflected on how far he’d come – from the heart-wrenching first weeks through the five long months he spent in the NICU. For a time, it seemed beyond imagination that he’d get to be the healthy, active little boy he is today. But his family kept imagining it anyway. Today, it’s come true.
“Until you experience the tenderness, the effort, everything that goes into what these doctors and nurses do all day, you can’t describe it,” Ashley says. “It is incredible.”
Almost as incredible as Jack himself. When Ashley and Jack’s respiratory therapist finally said goodbye, they parted with a few familiar words: “He’s such a miracle.”