Celebrating motherhood this Mother’s Day will have a new meaning for Kiersten Scheule and Lizzy Phillips.
Amid a pandemic, the two found themselves close to their due dates and fearful for the health of their babies.
Hours after Scheule gave birth to her daughter Elin on April 28 at Northeast Georgia Medical Center Braselton, nurses entered her hospital room in full personal protective equipment.
Scheule said she looked up from feeding her baby and noticed how solemn the group looked.
They told her she was COVID-19 positive.
“I was in complete shock,” Scheule said. “I did everything right. They all looked as shook up as I did.”
Scheule was moved with two other mothers, who also tested positive, to separate isolated rooms. Luckily, she could still nurse her baby, but she was asked to wear a mask and wash her hands and breasts frequently to protect the newborn.
When Scheule first arrived at the hospital, she received a rapid test for COVID-19, which came back negative within a matter of hours. The screening that proved positive was a send-out test, which often takes around a day or more to show results.
Scheule said the news especially surprised her because she had been quarantining herself at home since early February. Before she left to give birth, she made sure to love on her whole family.
During her delivery, Scheule said she had trouble breathing with her N95 mask on.
“My baby and I ended up in serious distress with low heartbeats,” she said. “There was this panic. They needed me to push hard, but my blood pressure was going down.”
Scheule then asked the doctor if she could remove her mask. He allowed her to do so, but she still couldn’t get enough air to her lungs. The nurses gave her oxygen, which Scheule said gave her enough relief to successfully deliver the baby.
When Scheule found out she had COVID-19, her mind automatically shifted to thinking about the doctor, nurses and family with whom she had physical contact.
“The whole night I felt terribly guilty that I took my mask off during labor and exposed the nurses and doctors,” she said. “The next morning my doctor spoke with me, and he was wonderful and calm. He told me none of them were upset with me.”
Megan Cargile, nurse manager of labor and delivery services at NGMC Braselton, said although patients are required to wear masks, they won’t be forced to keep them on if the object impedes the person’s healing process.
Like most babies who are tested for the virus, Scheule’s newborn’s results came back negative.
Dr. Holt Harrison, OB-GYN at the Braselton hospital, said one of the biggest fears he sees with mothers coming into the hospital is the worry of passing COVID-19 to their baby.
So far, cases of babies contracting the virus in the U.S. have been rare, he said.
Fortunately, he said the “current belief is that breast milk doesn’t transmit the virus.”
“We are still encouraging breastfeeding, even if positive,” he said.
In the past 10 days, Harrison said 30% of the mothers who have delivered babies at the Braselton hospital have been asymptomatic coronavirus carriers.
In his experience, he said pregnant women don’t seem to be more susceptible to the virus than others.
When the outbreak reached Georgia, Harrison said he was worried the virus would act similar to other respiratory illnesses like H1N1, which have more serious negative effects on pregnant women.
“At the beginning, there was a lot of fear from patients and providers,” he said. “As we have learned more about this, there’s been a growing sense of calm about risks with pregnancies specific to COVID.”
The hospital system is now offering COVID-19 positive mothers more options. They have the choice of either nursing their baby, while following certain hygiene protocols, or having their support person feed the baby. They can also choose to keep the newborn in a separate room or 6 feet away from their bed.
Before, Dr. Keshma Saujani, chief of OB-GYN services at NGMC and obstetrician with Longstreet Clinic, said nurses and doctors followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines, which have shifted between allowing and advising against COVID-19 positive mothers from having skin-to-skin contact with their newborns.
“I think it’s important for them to have choices,” Saujani said. “No one really knows what is the best. As we learn more information, everything is evolving and the rules are changing. But, they get an opportunity to choose from this menu.”
Giving birth before the shelter-in-place
Phillips of Flowery Branch had a cesarean section on March 13 at NGMC Gainesville.
Two nights before delivering her son Liam, Phillips said she started to hear about COVID-19 spreading in Georgia.
“It really sunk in that this was going to be a thing,” she said. “My parents live overseas in Sweden, and my mom was able to get here before I had him. A week later, we got news that Trump was shutting borders from Europe.”
Hours after Phillips gave birth to Liam, she said the hospital implemented its new policy of only allowing one support person to stay with mothers and their babies. Phillips’ husband remained with her for three days to take care of the newborn.
“I feel very blessed, because the day I had him, they were allowing one visitor at a time,” Phillips said. “My mom and my father-in-law got to meet him.”
Despite arriving at the hospital during the beginning of the outbreak in Georgia, Phillips said she never felt unsafe.
“They handled everything so well, and all the nurses were careful,” she said.
Now at home with her son, the two have stayed in quarantine for over a month. Phillips doesn’t enter grocery stores, preferring to order food for pickup.
“Not all of my friends have met my son yet,” she said. “It’s not worth the risk to me for something to happen to him with no immune system yet. We’re being really cautious.”
The nurses behind the masks
As NGMC Braselton’s nurse manager of labor and delivery services, Cargile oversees 85 employees, 65 of whom are nurses.
Although protocols like wearing more protective gear have been added to her day-to-day, Cargile said the level of care nurses give to patients hasn’t changed.
NGMC Braselton opened a new postpartum unit on its labor and delivery floor on Monday, May 4. Michelle Zimmerman, a public relations manager with the hospital, said before the labor, delivery, recovery and postpartum care for each patient were all done in one of the floor’s 10 rooms. Now, the department has a separate space and 20 extra beds for postpartum care.
“We’re still here for our community,” Cargile said. “It is still safe to come to the hospital and have your baby. It’s the safest place to be during this time.”
Saujani said she has been thoroughly impressed with the labor and delivery nurses in the health system.
She said they are constantly making sure those in the department stay safe and have even taught other physicians a thing or two about proper COVID-19 procedures.
“I think that is one of the reasons why the labor and delivery in the hospital has remained pretty good,” Saujani said. “The staff are not getting infected or the physicians. They’re following the rules, and they know the rules.”
During the pandemic, Harrison said he has never seen a nurse hesitate to engage with a patient, COVID-19 positive or not.
“There’s just this unbelievable resolve that they have,” he said. “It’s such a great thing to see people devoted to their calling and willing to put their own health at risk to make sure other people are well cared for.”