On July 16, 2016, Aaron Bankhead, 26, and his girlfriend Ashley Hernandez, 24, drove to the emergency room at their local hospital. Hernandez was 24 weeks and six days into her pregnancy, and was having some light spotting. The couple wanted reassurance that everything was OK.
Instead, one day later, Hernandez gave birth to the couple’s first baby ― Austin James. He weighed 1 pound, 14 ounces.
For months, Bankhead and Hernandez shuttled between their home and the hospital, spending hours sitting by Austin’s side and coping with the setbacks that can come with being born so early. Heart surgery. Two collapsed lungs. Five blood transfusions. The couple had to wait 25 days until they could hold their baby boy in their arms.
Along the way, they began documenting their journey on Instagram, nicknaming Austin the “Preemie Prince.” In honor of Prematurity Awareness Month, Bankhead spoke to The Huffington Post about his family’s long experience in the NICU and what he wants others to know about what it’s like to parent an extremely preterm baby.
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Ashley’s pregnancy was “normal” all along, so when she told me she was having light spotting, I wasn’t particularly worried. We went to the emergency room anyway, just to be sure, and saw a nurse who ran a few tests and was like, “Everything’s fine.”
The doctor came in and looked at all the tests and agreed that everything looked fine, but she was just going to check if Ashley was dilated at all. When she did, her face immediately went white.
She started shouting out in the hallway to get a bed ready in labor and delivery. That’s when she told us that Ashley had dilated to 5 centimeters.
They rushed us over to labor and delivery and got Ashley hooked up on steroids to help his lungs, they gave her magnesium, and they had her on all these IVs and monitors ― it took about 30 to 45 minutes to set up. The goal was to keep the baby inside of her for as long as possible, even though she was having contractions. Every hour he could be in there growing made him stronger.
Ashley was wearing a pad, which they were checking a lot to see how much she was bleeding. We stayed in the hospital overnight, and the next morning ― when one of the nurses came in to check her pad ― there was a lot of blood. The doctor came in and said, “You’re going to have your baby today.”
Ashley kept asking, “What can I do to hold him in? Is there anything I can do?” The specialist told us she would rather have a healthy 25-week baby than a baby who is 25 weeks and 5 days and is sick.
They left us in the room for about an hour to talk it over, and we both cried and prayed. We came to an agreement that we were going to ahead and deliver him. We knew we were in one of the best NICUs in California. We trusted them.
The doctor came in and broke Ashley’s water (they decided that the baby had descended far enough that they didn’t want to do a C-section) and about 10 minutes later, she was in active labor.
It was surreal. She was crying nonstop. I was crying. The room was full of people ― I counted three doctors, then seven other nurses and respiratory therapists. They wheeled in the incubator and got it warm. They were going over their plans for what everyone was going to do.
Before Austin was born, they explained to me and Ashley that neither of us would get to see him right away. The told us that they’d immediately intubate him, and that they might even have to revive him.
Once they did that, I’d be able to follow them into the NICU, but Ashley probably wouldn’t be able to see him until they both recovered three or four hours later.
But when he was born, he gave this little cry. I remember that I just started crying and laughing ― it was uncontrollable. I was like, “Did you hear that?! Did you hear that?!” It was incredible.
They put him on the table and I was able to snap a picture of him ― and his eyes were wide open. At 25 weeks! At that point, I was still crying and I was so scared, but something in me was like, “I think he’s going to be OK.” When I saw his eyes, I knew it.
For the first 48 hours or so, he was doing amazing. They had him hooked up to a breathing machine (the oscillator), and he was doing great. But then after that, his breathing got really bad. They had his oxygen setting extremely high, and they let us know that he had a small opening in his heart that the would have to operate on.
A week-and-a-half after he was born, Austin had to have heart surgery. After that, both of his lungs collapsed. In the NICU, it’s definitely one step forward and then two steps back.
On August 10, he finally got off his big breathing machine and moved onto a less intense ventilator. That was the first day that Ashley was able to hold him and do kangaroo care. He was still so small ― he was barely over 2 pounds ― and it was very emotional. Ashley was worried because she was crying so much. She didn’t want to get him wet.
She sat down in a chair and the nurses laid him on her bare chest. She just sat there and tried to be as still as she could, because every time he got moved, his breathing got worse. She held him for an hour. The next day, I got to hold him for the first time.
After two weeks, I had to go back to work. I’d go to work and Ashley would go to the NICU. She’d be there for eight to 12 hours a day. It was really hard on her. They had a community approach in the NICU, where they’d keep six to eight babies together in a “pod.”
On the one hand, it was great because we made some life-long friends. But Austin’s breathing was so bad that they had to keep him in, basically, the really sick baby area, and that was really emotional for Ashley.
She’d text me or call me crying saying, “They just admitted a new baby who wasn’t breathing, or who they needed to resuscitate.” She’d just be sitting there with Austin while they rushed around. It was really traumatic for her.
After work, I’d get to the hospital around 7 or 8 and stay until 1 in the morning. There was one point, probably in mid-September, when I remember saying to Ashley, “I’m not sure how much longer I can do this.” It takes so much out of you.
Some days he’d be doing so well, and then others would be really hard. I’m at my job 50 hours a week, and she’s there at the NICU all day with him, and I just wanted us all to be home together. We said even if he has to come home on oxygen, we just want him home.
When we brought him home on October 7, they had a graduation ceremony. His doctor and primary nurses all came, and they turned on “Pomp and Circumstance” while they walked us all throughout NICU. It was the most amazing feeling I’ve ever felt.
Ashley and I are both college graduates, but I’ve never been to a graduation like that. The other parents came out from their babies’ bedsides and everyone was clapping and taking pictures. It was such an incredible moment.
When we brought him home, he was 5 pounds, 2 ounces. It hit us in the car on our way home. We were like, “There are no nurses around.” He was still on oxygen, and he had an apnea monitor, and he was on five different medications.
So the first few days, we were kind of freaking out. We were just scared that he was going to get sick or that we were going to do something wrong, but they sent an at-home nurse who came after 24 hours and she reassured us that we were doing great. And after a while, we got into a routine with his medication.
I find myself just staring at him. I know all parents do that, but after you’ve been through so much, you’re just in awe. He is incredible. He’s very mellow and to me, he is really funny. Like, when we were in the NICU and a baby started fussing next to him, he’d kind of open his eyes and give you this look of, like, “Please, stop.” That’s why we have so many good photos of him. He’s always looking right at you.
A lot of people say things, and I know they mean well, but they hurt. They’ll say, “Oh, he’s so tiny!” That feels emotional, because everybody wants to have a big chubby baby.
People will say, “I’m sorry.” And I want to say, “Why are you sorry? I’m so proud that my son is here. I’m so proud of him. Tell me congratulations.”
This account has been edited and condensed.