When you look at Eli now, it’s hard to believe how hard he had to fight during the first months of his life. With a full head of auburn curls and a glowing smile, he is catching up on milestones, charming friends and family, and interacting with the world around him – even the family dog. He is a healthy, normal little boy who happened to start life as a micro-preemie.
After three years of failed fertility treatments and two miscarriages, they had finally made it to what felt like the safe part of Elaine’s pregnancy. They had a scary start with this pregnancy as well when they thought they were also having another miscarriage at 7 weeks when Elaine started bleeding. Thankfully, an ultra sound proved everything was fine at the time. Twenty-one weeks into her pregnancy, Elaine and Patrick Poblocki were just starting to relax. Doctors were pleased with Elaine’s health, and she was just barely beginning to show. At 21 weeks, they visited the doctor for an echocardiogram – a routine practice for babies conceived via IVF – and that’s when their world turned upside down. Doctors gave them the devastating news that Elaine was already dilated and completely effaced, and the next weeks were filled with bedrest, hospital stays, and worry as doctors tried to keep her from delivering their son.
Elaine anticipated spending months in the hospital, and even invited a friend to teach her to knit while she passed the time. That knitting lesson never got finished – and her friend got a hands-on lesson in being a midwife. At just 23 weeks, Elaine was rushed to an emergency c-section. The doctors chose to put her completely under for the delivery, and she had to find out after the fact that her son was able to cry when he was born. When she and Patrick finally got to see baby Eli, he hardly looked like a baby. Tubes, wires, and goggles covered him inside the plastic isolette. It was hardly the journey to parenthood that they had envisioned. Without much opportunity for physical contact, Elaine found that it took her quite some time to actually “feel like a mother”. After all, she couldn’t do the things that new moms traditionally do. In fact, she was actually very ill herself, battling an extensive infection that doctors discovered after delivery.
The one thing she could do – and the one thing that helped her feel like a mom – was pump. Breastmilk was deemed to be the best possible nutrition they could provide for little Eli, so Elaine rallied and started to pump. She kept a newborn schedule – pumping every three hours around the clock – for six long months, ultimately producing enough milk to nourish her son and two other babies. While the schedule was brutal, it was often the only physical way for Elaine to mother her son, and she found it tremendously healing.
Meanwhile, Eli encountered one hurdle after another. Each treatment seemed to bring other unintended consequences. At one point, he sustained damage to one of his vocal chords, an injury that doctors suggested might delay his speech. They also promised that eating would be a challenge, and in the world of the NICU, where parents rarely receive an absolute statement, that one proved to be true.
In fact, Eli’s nourishment was Patrick and Elaine’s final hurdle as they fought to bring their son home. He simply couldn’t get enough to eat without external support, and the doctors felt it was time for a g-tube – a tiny valve that would deliver nutrition right to his stomach. Elaine in particular struggled with this decision. It destroyed her to think of putting this piece of medical equipment in her perfect baby boy. She worried that it would impede his development, and prevent him from becoming what she wanted most for him: a normal little boy. Ultimately, it became clear that in spite of a rotating schedule of cuddlers, the NICU just wasn’t developmentally appropriate for their not-so-little baby. Once the g-tube was in place, they were finally free to return home as a family of three.
Not that life settled down. They literally did not sleep the first night they were home. They stayed busy setting up IV poles to help hold his feeding pump and assembling medical equipment – at some point during the night Eli’s pump quit working. Fortunately, they were able to “fix” the pump well enough until they could get an emergency replacement. Every three hours, Eli needed to be fed and Elaine needed to pump, and by the time they finished all of Eli’s medical care, it was time to start over again. On top of that, Eli maintained a laundry list of appointments with one specialist or another. It was exhausting and overwhelming, but slowly Eli began to outgrow his necessary supports. One by one, medications were discontinued, and doctors began to check in less frequently. Patrick and Elaine learned to look forward to these milestones as gifts.
Having a child in the NICU is an overwhelming experience. In the midst of everything, Patrick and Elaine never lost sight of their ability to function as a team. They made time for little dates – things like grabbing a Starbucks on their way into the hospital or watching marathons of HGTV together while Elaine pumped. Since both of them like to be active, they made of a point of making sure both parents were able to walk the dog, run, and exercise as needed. And as Elaine has grieved some of the things she missed due to Eli’s premature birth – the experience of feeling and looking pregnant, getting to exclusively breastfeed her baby, hearing her son’s first cry – it’s Patrick who has reminded her that the goal wasn’t a pregnancy. The goal was having a child, and they have done that together.
As Elaine and Patrick reflect on Eli’s journey, they emphasize the importance of taking one day at a time. For the parents of a preemie, the future begins to look like a gauntlet of unknowns. Doctors throw out worst-case scenarios and dwell on unknowns. Other families in the NICU experience setbacks. It’s hard for parents not to look around and be terrified. In order to avoid becoming overwhelmed, Elaine opted not to join a micropreemie support group until after they took Eli home. Instead, Elaine and Patrick focused all their attention on the moment at hand, and it helped them maintain their sanity through the hard months. When Eli was on the ventilator, they focused on doing the best they could as the parents of a baby on a ventilator. When he got the g-tube, they focused on doing the best they could with that. When he finally came home with IVs and medical equipment, they threw themselves into Eli’s medical care.
In addition, they learned to rely heavily on family and friends. Even in the early rounds of IVF and during Elaine’s miscarriage, their employers and co-workers surrounded and a supported them. While Elaine was recovering, and when she had to return to work in order to save her FMLA for Eli’s return home, both sets of grandparents stepped up to the plate, spending long hours in the NICU, meeting Patrick and Elaine for weekly lunch dates, and helping them manage the demands of caring for a preemie. Friends took the time to be trained to be Eli’s NICU cuddlers, and their community created a GoFundMe that allowed Elaine to take an additional year off work to continue caring for Eli.
And Eli is thriving. Against all odds, he is meeting developmental milestones and closing the gap between his actual and adjusted age. He still works hard at feedings, and he still has milestones to catch up on. But at a recent doctor’s visit, his pediatrician told Patrick and Elaine that “other than that piece of plastic in his stomach, your kid is boring.” After months of just wanting a “normal” baby, those were the best words they could have heard.
Elaine and Patrick, meanwhile, find that they are so much more grateful for the little things. They unapologetically rock Eli to sleep every night. They are more patient with messes and noise. Elaine is thrilled to get up with her son instead of the pump during the night. They are much more tolerant of the hard parts of parenting. They willingly give up their time – and their sleep – for their son. Things that might be daunting to the average parent are routine to them.
Still, Elaine wants to make sure her son isn’t defined by his early delivery. So many people were convinced tiny Eli would “have problems”, but as time has gone on, he’s made it clear he won’t be defined by statistics. He now enjoys table foods and a sippy cup, he just doesn’t get enough volume to meet his liquid needs. He’s becoming mobile, crawling super fast and took several steps independently. Eli can even climb up and down the stairs. The birth to three recently gave him credit for having 25 words!! He made it through cold and flu season with only one infection and one head cold. It’s very likely that his premature delivery won’t have any lingering effects.
Eli’s parents can tell you about a lot of amazing things: the community that showed up to care for them when they needed it, the medical science that helped their son survive and thrive, the doctors and nurses who cared for him in the NICU. But Eli himself is the most amazing part of the journey, and he’s made everything else worth it.
Writer Info: Poblocki family story written by Laura Simon.
Joella Thombs is an award-winning newborn photographer in Wethersfield, CT. She owns Josephine Photography which has been specializing in maternity and newborn portraiture since 2013. You can view more of her work on her website, www.josephinephotography.org, Facebook, www.facebook.com/josephinephoto and Instagram, www.instagram.com/josephinephotographyct