Hello, my name is Laura Stennett and I’m from Alaska. I discovered that I was pregnant with my fourth child around a year ago, and that’s when our story, as a family started.
My husband and I were a little nervous because we were told around the 26 weeks mark that our baby had a single umbilical artery and diagnosed with Intrauterine Growth Restriction; a condition in which an unborn baby is smaller than it should be because it is not growing at a normal rate inside the womb. The rest of the pregnancy was monitored closely, and we experienced no major issues.
When it came to the birth, Willow Michelle Stennett was delivered by a scheduled caesarean section at 37 weeks on Feburary 12, 2016 weighing 4lb 12oz. She was so tiny, but she was perfect and after two days we were discharged from the hospital.
During the first week at home, I started to become concerned at how much Willow was sleeping, she was also skipping feeds and getting hardly any nutrition. I made an appointment with the consultant who suggested other ways of feeding Willow, including; finger feeding and a speciality nipple. I tried these methods, but nothing seemed to work. For the next few days, I ended up dripping milk into the corner of Willows mouth with a syringe.
Willow was weighed at one week old; she had gained only 0.2 of an ounce. The nurse did not look optimistic and called for the doctor. I felt an instant lump in my throat. Many tests were carried out and Willow needed a Naso-Gastric feeding tube to ensure adequate nutrition. The doctor mentioned that it sounded like Willow had a heart murmur and would need to be checked by a cardiologist. My heart sank.
We checked into the Children’s Hospital in Anchorage, Alaska. Fortunately, we only live a few minutes away from the hospital; many children in the state have to fly in for an appointment with the cardiologist. Willow was diagnosed with a moderate sized Ventricular Septal Defect; a hole in the heart, and a common type of heart defect. My husband and I assumed that, due to the commonness of the illness, Willow’s treatment would be uncomplicated. However, the hole in the heart was large, and our baby would need open heart surgery. We were distraught. This also meant that we would need to travel to another state for the operation.
Weeks went by, which seemed like forever. In the meantime, another hole was discovered in Willows heart, and her right and left ventricles had also become enlarged. Our baby was becoming sicker and sicker in front of our very eyes; surgery was of urgency. Financial expenses started pilling up; the cost of living, the cost of surviving and medical bills that were not covered by insurance. I had attempted to get back to work a couple of weeks after Willow’s birth, but this was clearly not feasible. I was providing half the household’s income and when that was no longer the case the realization was terrifying.
We, as a family, received such an outpouring of love and support from our community. I was brought to tears of hearing how our community had pulled together to help us financially. It was overwhelming. Friends, co-workers and strangers would bring food to our family; others went grocery shopping and would leave crates of food, drink, and diapers on our doorstep without the expectation of gaining anything in return. Local businesses and individuals contributed to fundraising events for Willow. Hundreds of people showed up to support our family and our precious little girl. The support took some pressure away and allowed us, as a family to focus on what was important: getting Willow better.
No longer did we have to worry about the finance of booking flights, hotel rooms, and medical bills that were not covered by insurance. It was a tremendous relief.
We then travelled from Alaska to the Children’s Heart Center in Charleston, South Carolina at the end of June. Willow had open heart surgery in the early morning of June 30th. It was tremendously difficult to see our daughter suffering; she was hooked up to so many machines and monitors. Not being able to hold or comfort my daughter was the most heart-breaking moment I have experienced as a mother.
Five weeks on, and Willow is now a healthy baby. She no longer needs her feeding tube (which sustained her for five months). Willow is gaining weight and is a happy baby, she continues to work with an occupational therapist to address physical delays, but she is doing wonderfully and will not have any long term issues. We will continue to visit the cardiologist for future check-ups, but thanks to the doctors, my daughter’s condition is cured. One month ago, I had a very sick baby; thanks to modern medical technologies and expertise we have our beautiful daughter in our arms.
The biggest blessing for me has been in learning what an impact a small gesture can have on those who are going through a hard time in life. There are a lot of people who have gone out of their way to let us, as a family know that we are not alone. Positivity was a key element in our family’s ability to remain strong through this nightmare. I had no other choice but to remain positive, or I would have broken down. Willow needed me to be strong enough to get her through and together we did. It helped me to talk to other moms whose babies were also sick, some even sicker than Willow; talking to others has helped me to remain in a place of gratitude and not self-pity.
Everything has changed for me. My life perspective is so different now. I am so much more appreciative of the little things in life. After months of living in constant fear, I have learned to slow down a little, reflect and be happy with what I have. I am so blessed in so many ways. I have four beautiful, healthy children. We are not wealthy, but our lives are rich.
Thanks for reading our story.
Willow has attracted an online following through her Facebook page, which was originally created as a way to send mass updates to friends and family. To like the page, please follow the link:
Laura has been inspired to want to do something to re-pay the kindness and generosity of her community. Laura is a professional photographer, the most meaningful thing she has to offer are her skills with the camera. Each month, Laura will offer a free photo session to a child fighting some kind of serious, life-altering battle. Please visit her page here: