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Salina and Jasmine, searching for a merry Christmas in the NICU
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Salina Earls sits inside the Northeast Georgia Medical Center's neonatal intensive care unit Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019, with her daughter Jasmine, who was born early at 24 weeks and has been at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville ever since. - photo by Scott Rogers

Years from now, when Salina Earls flips through her journal to read about her daughter’s first Christmas, the pages will focus on nurses instead of gifts.

She’ll read about test results rather than family traditions. She’ll remember the tinsel she used, but to decorate a hospital room and not a tree.

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A Northeast Georgia Medical Center neonatal intensive care unit nurse prepares tiny Jasmine Earls, who stretches an arm and leg, to be removed from her incubator so mom Salina Earls can hold her. Jasmine, was born Nov. 9 at 24 weeks and has been at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville ever since and will remain through the Christmas holidays. - photo by Scott Rogers

She'll think back to when her daughter was tiny and vulnerable, a one-pound person in a medical snow globe needed to keep her alive.

When the holidays roll around, most parents want to be at home with their children, enjoying time together. But for parents with children in the neonatal intensive care unit, that's not a possibility.

Earls wasn’t even supposed to be in the NICU with her daughter. She wasn’t due until February. But her daughter, Jasmine, was born Nov. 9 at 24 weeks and has been at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville since.

“At first, I was spending all day up here,” Earls said while standing beside the OmniBed that held her daughter. “One of the nurses, she was like, ‘It's OK to go home. If something happens, we'll call and tell you.’”

Since the day Jasmine was born, Earls has kept a journal. She’s recorded important things she’ll want to look back on and remember, especially as Jasmine gets older and curious about her earliest days in the world. 

Journaling is picked up by many parents of children who have a long stay in the NICU.

“Every day she comes in, she writes in her book what's going on with her, who her nurses are, what events happened that day, maybe how she feels about things,” said Debbie Brunson, a NICU nurse at the hospital. “We want the parents to do that because it helps them with their journey. It helps them express their feelings.”

Earls has had a lot of time to think about her feelings as she’s sat in the NICU holding Jasmine or looking at her through the clear panels surrounding her bed. 

“You might not think it's stressful, not being around your baby, but it's a way different thing,” Earls said. “Not having her around is hard on me because you feel like you're not being a good mom, because you just had a baby.”

So to make sure she feels like a mom and her daughter feels it, too — especially around Christmas — Earls decorated the room. She strung shiny red and white tinsel along the walls and put a couple oversized candy cane decorations up. She has a few stockings hanging on the wall and made a banner by hand that displays Jasmine’s name. Jasmine is even laying on a sheet that has Christmas lights all over it.

“They told us we could decorate and put whatever we want in the room, and I got super excited,” Earls said. “It’s Christmas, and that's the easiest thing to decorate for. So I went to the Dollar Tree and got as much stuff as I wanted and put it up.”

Earls has been able to sit back and enjoy the decorations as Jasmine takes her time to grow. She was just 1 pound, 14 ounces when she was born.

“The crazy thing is I didn't know I was going into labor,” Earls said.

She said she “felt a little funny” the day before she was admitted to the hospital, but thought it was just a stomach ache. She went to her doctor at the Longstreet Clinic, then was sent to the Women and Children’s Pavilion at the hospital.

She thought it would be something simple, but she didn't leave the hospital for another week. When the doctor checked her, Earls said he could feel Jasmine’s head.

“He was like, ‘She’s not coming completely, but we can feel it,’” Earls said. “And I was starting to freak out a little bit.”

She called her grandmother, her aunt and her friend to let them know what was going on and they all got there as soon as they could. The father is involved in Jasmine’s life, but not in Earls’ life anymore.

“I was there for like a week, and that was the hardest thing ever, just laying there,” Earls said.

But bedrest was what she and her baby both needed.

Earls said the birth went well, but what she found out a couple days after Jasmine was born was that they had to give her CPR.

“I think all together I may have pushed eight or 10 times,” Earls said. “So they had cut the umbilical cord, pulled the baby over and I wasn’t able to touch her or hold her or anything.”

They moved Jasmine to the NICU and Earls to a recovery room. When she was feeling well enough, they took Earls to see Jasmine in the NICU.

“So I came down here and they pulled me beside the bed and showed me her and she was super small,” Earls said. “And at first I didn't know how to feel or how to react to seeing her … but as long as she's doing OK, then I should be OK.”

And she was doing OK, and for the most part has been doing well ever since. Jasmine weighs 2 pounds, 13 ounces now and is growing every day.

“I think she’s handling it well,” Brunson said. “I think she’s been very nervous at times, but I think that's normal. I think it's especially nerve-wracking to be a mom back here and listen to all the monitors go off, listen to the conversations out here and to be holding your baby and hear a bell going off.”

That’s a constant in the NICU. Bells — not the Christmas kind — and alarms going off. A baby crying every so often. But it’s something Earls has handled well.

“She’s done great,” Brunson said. “She's here every day, stays for several hours, which is wonderful and is good for the baby.”

Each time Earls holds Jasmine, she tucks her inside her shirt to get the skin-to-skin contact that’s so important for new babies and parents. It helps Jasmine, but it also helps Earls remember she’s a mother now. It’s been hard for her leaving Jasmine at the hospital so she can go home and sleep 

“You can come in, wash your hands and hold her for a little bit, but you have to put her back,” Earls said. “You can't take her home.”

That part of the NICU is the hardest, especially around the holidays. But she’s been doing the best she can. On Christmas, she's hoping she'll be able to go to work in the morning — a routine she’s excited to restart — and then be with Jasmine at the NICU for the rest of the day.

Santa Claus has already made his rounds at the NICU and the family has already purchased way too many gifts for their newest member. 

But for Earls, that’s not what matters this holiday season.

“As long as I know that she's OK, I’m happy” Earls said.

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Salina Earls holds her daughter Jasmine inside the Northeast Georgia Medical Center's neonatal intensive care unit Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019. Jasmine was born at 24 weeks and will spend the Christmas holidays inside the NICU with Earls. - photo by Scott Rogers
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