When Katie and Tom Timmers became parents unexpectedly when Katie was just 28 weeks, 4 days along in her pregnancy, it was a surprise. Like many women who give birth to preemies, she had no major health issues and no idea that she might deliver early.
“I started getting swollen at about 24 weeks along,” she said. “But I’d never been pregnant before and there were four other women in my office who were pregnant at the same time and dealing with swelling themselves, so I didn’t think it was abnormal. Swelling was just one of those typical pregnancy symptoms, right?”
When Katie realized that the swelling she was experiencing wasn’t an isolated symptom, however, she decided to call her doctor to schedule a checkup to make sure nothing was wrong. Her gut feeling paid off. When she went to her appointment, her blood pressure was very high. At the very least, according to her doctor, she’d be on bed rest – but they’d get blood work done to find out exactly what was going on.
“I went home, prepared to be on bed rest,” said Katie. “But as soon as the results came back I got the call that I needed to go straight to the intensive care area of maternity because I was so sick. Tom will tell you that when I called him at work he made it home in about three minutes because he ran every red light.”
The Timmers suddenly found themselves the center of attention in a flurry of activity. Doctors, nurses, and specialists from the NICU and Maternal Fetal Medicine were in an out of their room, drawing vial after vial of blood, asking questions, and sharing statistics before coming to a conclusion. Their baby, Dominic, was fine but Katie had HELLP Syndrome.
It was December 17, a Thursday. Doctors set a goal for Katie: stay pregnant until the weekend. They optimistically gave her one steroid shot but by 5 p.m. of that same day her platelet count had dropped so low that it was dangerous not to deliver. The emergency c-section, performed under general anesthesia because of Katie’s condition, took less than a minute.
Dominic entered the world weighing in at 2 pounds, 9 ounces and breathing on his own. Katie was unconscious during his birth but remembers waking up and giving him a kiss before he was taken to the NICU.
“I didn’t actually see him in person until the 19th,” she said. “That’s when they were able to get me into a wheelchair and bring me down to the NICU. He was intubated under the bili lights and they were still trying to get his PICC line in. I was still in terrible pain from the c-section and all I could do was cry.”
For two weeks after Dominic’s birth, Katie would still wait up feeling phantom kicks – jerked awake by the sensation that he was still in her womb. All she and Tom could focus on was how he was doing and how they could help. She needed to pump because he wasn’t strong enough to nurse (and she would pump every three hours for the next six months).
“He actually did very well for his gestational age because he was so big,” Katie said. “He was only intubated for a very short time. He never had any brain bleeds or serious complications. His PDA was repaired with medication instead of surgery. We were just so fortunate.
“But at the same time you have that experience of going to see your baby but being unable to hold him. I remember stroking his hair and being told that I was touching him incorrectly – it was just one more thing on top of everything else.”
Dominic came home on February 9, one full month before his due date. While he had a heart monitor and a few medications, the transition home was comparatively smooth for the Timmers. And yet by day three Katie hadn’t slept at all.
Looking back through the lens of two diagnosed bouts of post-partum depression, she thinks it’s likely that she was suffering from PPD after Dominic’s birth but that his prematurity masked it. She couldn’t focus on her own well-being during that time because all her mental energy was devoted to his care.
“He has a cough… is he sick? He’s throwing up… what’s wrong? Is this normal?” Katie said. “You’re so focused on your preemie that you can’t focus on anything else. I’d sit in the NICU for hours. I didn’t want to eat, I was sleeping a lot, but at the time I was worrying about him so I couldn’t worry about me.”
Less than a year later, Katie was experiencing very bad anxiety, obsessing about not being able to do anything right. She worked with a therapist who suggested she might have PTSD and used cognitive behavioral therapy to help her move past her feelings. But when she got pregnant again, she was terrified.
And while she did not come down with HELLP a second time and was able to give birth via VBAC to Noelle, born at term at 8 pounds, 10 ounces, things were not rosy.
“The day we were being discharged, I lost it,” Katie explained. “Noelle was crying, and Dominic was there at the hospital while we were trying to pack up. Then at home with two kids I didn’t want to hold my baby – I just wanted to run away. I let that feeling go on way longer than I should have but when I did see my doctor I was able to get medication and I kept seeing my therapist. Eventually we were able to get my post-partum depression under control.”
With her third child, Celeste, also born at term, it was a foregone conclusion that PPD would be a part of her journey. Things didn’t feel right but by now Katie could identify those feelings for what they were and seek the appropriate treatment.
“I think it’s really difficult in general when you’ve had a preemie, and that was our only experience before the girls,” she explained. “So people expected me to be so happy that I went full term but I just wasn’t. I felt like I was obligated to be okay but I couldn’t help how I felt. That probably was why I took so long to see my doctor after having Noelle. Having prematurity in the background honestly made it harder to cope with PPD after the birth after my other kids.
“I don’t know if anyone can have a normal, happy pregnancy after prematurity and with PPD you just feel very alone on top of whatever else is going on. You feel like you’re on an island, watching your life move forward but you’re stuck where you are.”
Katie and Tom’s journey of premature birth and pregnancy after prematurity wasn’t easy but they were lucky to have people there for them. Katie’s mother, while not local, was a nurse so she was able to share more about Dominic’s issues with her than she might otherwise. She also had a coworker who’d also had a preemie and a neighbor who had suffered from severe post-partum depression. And the Timmer’s became one of the first families Graham’s Foundation was able to support.
“When we received our care package in the NICU, the organization had only been active for a few months,” Katie said. “There was a baby blanket, some pamphlets, and the grams-to-pounds conversion chart – pretty basic stuff – but just getting the box meant a lot. Suddenly I knew there was this local group of parents who had gone through the same struggles we were facing and that they cared enough to send us a gift.”
Because of that gift, the Timmers became active in Graham’s Foundation, attending events and volunteering their time administratively. They’ve watched the organization evolve to include a thriving online community and an active parent-to-parent mentor program.
“Parent support is so overlooked,” said Katie. “That’s why we continue to be involved in Graham’s Foundation. “People always ask what they can do for a family with a preemie but the answer is don’t ask what you can do, just pick something and do it. That’s what makes Graham’s Foundation so special – right from the start they saw a need and began supporting parents, first locally and then nationally and internationally.”
Today, Dominic is a healthy 7-year-old first grader and an all-around awesome kid, according to Katie. The Timmers are looking forward to the opportunity to share more about their story and why they support Graham’s Foundation at the upcoming ‘Tinis for Preemies evening at the Carranor Hunt & Polo Club in Perrysburg, OH on Friday, March 3.
For more details about the event, click here.