The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Life!

April 9, 2014

A perfect fit

Local woman turns craft into clothing for preemies

When Elizabeth Walker of Clear Creek walked into Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Charleston the last Friday of March and boarded the elevator for the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit on the second floor, she was returning to a familiar place.

Nearly 11 years ago, Walker’s son Connor, now 10, was born at the hospital via emergency C-section. His first months of life were spent in the level IV (highest level) NICU, with an interdisciplinary team of doctors tirelessly working to keep him alive.

On her visit, Walker was carrying an offering she was happy to hand to the NICU nurses.

For the past two years, Walker has been crocheting clothing for the premature babies who spend their first days in the NICU.

The cheerful threads of yellow, purple, blue and pink, and the gender-neutral white yarns, are artfully crocheted into gowns, booties, hats, onesies, diaper covers and pants which are so tiny that it’s hard to imagine a baby who’s small enough to wear them.

But, Walker said, Connor could’ve worn them when he was in the NICU — and Walker and her husband, Carlos, would’ve been thrilled to have had them.

“A loaf of bread weighed a little more than Connor,” she explained. “We could’ve put him in a hotdog bun.

“I do this because when Connor was in the NICU, if he’d died, there was nothing we could’ve buried him in, because he was so small,” she said. “We could’ve gotten doll clothes, but I felt that would be inhumane.

“He would’ve lost a little of his human dignity, but you can’t really find anything that small unless you go to doll clothes.”

NICU babies — often “micropreemies” who, like Connor, are born very, very early — are too small to regulate their own body temperatures, and so they wear only diapers inside of isolettes that help them stay warm.

The only items a micropreemie can wear before moving from the warming isolette are hats and booties.

Finding baby clothes that are small enough to fit — for both babies who survive and those who don’t — is virtually impossible, reported Walker.

Connor was in the NICU when a woman Walker had never met gave a gift that has remained unforgettable, she said.

“There was a grandmother who knitted a pair of booties for all of the babies in there, and having that little pair of booties that actually fit him when he was so little meant the world to us.

“So once I started crocheting, I got the idea that I can do the same thing,” Walker added. “It gives parents a little ray of hope.”

Walker donated items last year to the NICU, and she said she hopes her gifts make the NICU experience brighter for the families there.

“Until you’ve done the NICU, it’s really hard to understand exactly what it’s like,” she explained. “It’s terrifying.

“You never know day to day, hour to hour, what’s going to happen.

“It can feel like you’re alone.

“When you don’t know, from day-to-day, if your baby is going to survive, any little bright spot in the NICU is a good thing.”

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Connor was delivered via emergency C-section on May 2, 2003, at Women’s and Children’s, weighing a pound and three ounces, and measuring 11.5 inches long. He was immediately whisked away from Walker by a team of experienced doctors and nurses, and an extremely experienced neonatologist intubated him in an effort to help him survive.

The tiny baby was placed in an isolette — a shielded crib in the NICU — where he was “hooked” to machines that helped him breathe, helped maintain his body temperature and administered fluids.

The wires and tubes spread from his body to a plethora of machines that beeped, hummed and gave digital displays of Connor’s breathing and heart rate.

Walker’s first days in the NICU were a haze of stress and terror, she said.

She wasn’t alone — there were five rows of isolettes where other parents sat vigil as their own newborns clung to life — but the experience was a lonely one for her and Carlos, she recalled.

“When Connor was born, most people never even acknowledged we’d had a baby (until we brought him home),” she said.

He suffered a pulmonary hemorrhage — bleeding from his lung — when he was 36 hours old, and the Walkers had to leave as doctors surrounded their fragile son, ultimately saving his life.

“We called it the ‘NICU Two-Step,’” she recalled. “It was always one step forward and two steps back.

“These parents, a lot of them, are probably barely holding on.”

Even the sounds of the dimly-lit NICU constantly reminded parents of the precariousness of their situations.

“All of the babies were on monitors,” she recalled. “If you heard the beeping at your baby’s bedside, you’d look.

“After a few days, you learned what the ranges were, why this one is beeping,” she said. “Sometimes you’d have to pat the baby’s bottom to get him to breathe better.”

Leaving Connor in the beeping NICU long enough for Walker to sleep, eat or shower was the hardest.

“You have no idea, when you leave, if your baby’s going to be alive the next day,” Walker reported. “You don’t want to leave, but you have to leave at some point.

“Leaving your baby, day after day, is probably the worst thing I’ve ever done.”

Sometimes, babies were gone from their isolettes when Walker returned to Connor.

On other occasions, parents were asked to leave.

“There was a day, when we came in, and they kicked all the parents out except for the family (of a baby in a nearby isolette), so that baby’s family could have the last moments with it.

“When they let the parents back in, that baby was gone,” recalled Walker. “It really makes you think about how fragile your baby is.

“You know your baby’s sick, otherwise your baby would go home with you.

“It makes you start thinking, ‘That could be my baby.’”

Thankfully, Walker said, Connor survived, day after day.

When he was 33 days old, Walker held him for the first time.

When he weighed two pounds, Walker was allowed to dress him but couldn’t find clothes small enough to fit his tiny body.

That’s when a nurse gave Walker the pair of booties that had been knitted by the unknown grandmother of one of the NICU babies — the first item of clothing that Connor could wear.

“When you have your baby, you want to dress them in all these cute things,” she said. “When you’re pregnant, you think about holding your baby, nursing them, dressing them, counting their fingers.

“A lot of those things, you don’t get to do for a long time (in the NICU).

“So when we got those booties, they meant so much for us,” she said. “I can’t describe how much it meant to us to have something that fit our kid, and somebody was thinking about your kid, that we didn’t even know, that didn’t know him.

“But she took the time out of her day to make something for him,” said Walker. “It meant the world to us.”

After 110 days, Connor was discharged from the NICU and went home with the Walkers.

Facing his first days outside the NICU that fall, Connor’s health was extremely fragile. He wore a heart monitor, had six different medications and was still using an oxygen tank to help him breathe.

He wasn’t allowed outside the house because his immune system wasn’t strong, said Walker.

“If he’d picked up a cold, it likely would’ve killed him,” Walker explained. “He could only leave to go to doctor’s appointments.

“When I went to the grocery store, I went late at night after he’d gone to bed.”

That winter was a happy one, recalled Walker.

“I was happy that I had my baby home and that he had survived,” she recalled.

But during the cold months, several years before a homebound mom would have MySpace and Facebook to connect socially without leaving her house, Walker had some “alone” time between feedings, medications and diaper changes.

That’s when she taught herself to crochet.

“It was just something to do to pass the time,” she recalled. “Just to relax.”

During that winter, Walker developed an appreciation for the rhythmic process of creating via crochet, she said.

“Every since I started, that’s what I do for my ‘down time,’” said Walker, who is now mom to both Connor, who turns 11 in May, and Hudson, age 5. “If we’re watching TV, I’ve got a ball of yarn and a hook, and I’m crocheting.

“If we’re in the car, I take it on long trips.”

It wasn’t until two years ago that the busy mom, who studied early childhood education at West Virginia University and recently began homeschooling Connor, who has special needs, and Hudson, noticed patterns for preemies on a website.

“I thought, ‘You know, I may not be able to make enough to take to the NICU for every baby that’s there, but if I could make these things and donate them, and they can help some of the babies, it can let some of the families know somebody out there is thinking about them and their baby and hoping for the best possible outcome for them.”

Walker took her first donation of crocheted items in November.

“There were four gowns (which can be used for burial) in the micro-preemie size, and the nurse was so excited to have something that small,” she described the first time she made her donation.

On Friday, she took a mixed bag of 70 crocheted  gowns, onesies, pants,  sweaters,  diaper covers, booties and hats.

She said she hopes the clothes bring hope to parents whose babies are in the NICU.

“I want those parents to know they’re not alone, and there has been babies, just as little as their babies, that came out the other side, that are still here today, still doing good,” said Walker. “There are people who care.”

—  E-mail: jfarrish@register-herald.com

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