Jayla Jenkins was born a fighter.
She entered the world 18 weeks ahead of schedule on March 17, 2022, weighing just 14.6 ounces.
Her mother, Audreona Scott, of Winder, recalls visiting the emergency room with what she thought were Braxton Hicks, not realizing she was in labor. She was 22 weeks along to the very day.
From there, she was transferred via ambulance to Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville. No sooner than the ambulance entered the parking lot, Jayla’s twin brother, Jayden, was born.
Inside, Scott remembers being rushed to the delivery room.
“(The doctor) was like, ‘Hold tight, we’re going to do everything we can to save your baby.’ I was thinking, ‘OK, I’ll be able to carry (Jayla) for at least another week or two until her lungs develop.’ Well, Jayla had another plan for us.”
About 15 minutes later, Jayla made her debut, feet first.
“She was ready to see the world,” Scott said. “From the moment that she came out, she was very feisty, kicking her legs and arms. She came out with a bold attitude for being very tiny.”
Jayla spent the next 183 days overcoming obstacles in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit. Jayden, however, died a few hours after his birth due to significant complications.
“I remember saying, ‘Do whatever it takes to save my baby. I know God didn’t bless me with two for me to lose both of them at the same time,’” Scott said. “We pretty much stayed in prayer.”
Scott remembers being told Jayla had an 8% chance of survival; the odds stacked against her included the possibility of hemorrhaging from the trauma of her early arrival, potential development issues and cerebral palsy.
“We just took everything a day at a time,” Scott said.. “No matter what the outcome was going to be, I was going to do whatever it took to make sure she had a fair chance at life. I said, ‘There’s no way that she’s not going to pull through this.’ I just knew it.”
And that she did.
Jayla formally graduated from the NICU Sept. 16, and is adjusting to life beyond hospital walls.
As of Monday, she is just shy of 10 pounds.
Jayla isn’t out of the woods just yet, and still has some obstacles to overcome, including pulmonary hypertension, for which she is on a small amount of oxygen, though she’s otherwise able to breathe just fine on her own, Scott said.
Jayla has two to three medical appointments each week, from a pediatrician to a cardiologist, pulmonary specialist and occupational and physical therapist.
“I’ve been busy, but it’s all worth it,” Scott said, adding she’s grateful for her mother and grandmother’s help and support. “The decision I made was bigger than me. With me taking this journey, now they know and have the material to work on other babies that are her birth weight and her age, and they’ll have an opportunity at life if their parents decide to go through the process.”
Jayla is the first infant of her size to receive a Amplatzer Piccolo Occluder, a medical device developed to close open blood vessels leading from the heart, which is a common congenital complication for premature infants, according to neonatologist Dr. Cynthia Cabrera.
Performed by Dr. Allen Ligon at Children’s Hospital of Atlanta, the three-hour operation was successful, but was a very high-risk procedure, Scott said, as Jayla was just over 1 pound at the time.
“I told (Ligon), ‘I know you can do this. I’ve read your story, and I just have strong faith and believe that this surgery is going to be successful.’”
‘A big milestone’
According to Cabrera, medical director of the NICU at NGMC and one of three neonatologists overseeing Jayla’s care during her stay, Jayla is the health system’s first 22-weeker to graduate from the NICU
“To be able to be discharged from our unit was a huge milestone not just for Jayla, but for the unit and even for our team,” Cabrera said. “She was so little. We tend to get a little emotional when we talk about her, because as well as she did, she did teach us a lot as well. One of the biggest things was how to be a team. … Everybody just came together to take care of her. The physicians, the mid levels, the respiratory therapists, along with the nursing staff and some people that don’t get enough credit — the physical therapists, the speech therapists, our family support people, the dietitians. It takes a whole team to get a baby to go home, much less a 22-weeker.”
The collaboration extended beyond the hospital and into the Midwest.
Known in the medical realm for its numerous success stories involving premature infants, NGHS reached out to physicians at the University of Iowa’s children’s hospital seeking guidance and protocols to implement into Jayla’s treatment plan.
“For us, it was definitely a big milestone — professionally and for the unit and even for our staff,” Cabrera said. “When we come together, we can achieve great things. This would not have been possible without collaboration. From the physicians’ (point of view), we were always walking on eggshells. We were always waiting to see what was going to happen. Survival of 22-weekers is just so little, and much less in a unit that doesn’t do it on a daily basis. But maybe that’s what made her succeed.”
According to Cabrera, Jayla’s eyes were fully developed when she went home, which is typically “a big problem with premature babies” and often requires surgery. Jayla also experienced no bleeding in her brain, “which is one of the biggest complications in extremely premature babies.”
“We worry about babies in the first month of life that are that small,” Cabrera said. “There are so many different complications that can happen, that can make things turn for the worst. I’m not going to lie, we were always feeling like, ‘What is going to be around the corner?’ But luckily, things turned out pretty well.”
She added: “I can’t say this is going to be the outcome for every 22-week baby that is born; it’s not even always the outcome for older babies. But there is hope, and there is the possibility of improving care every time we have a success story like this.”
Because the hospital had never cared for such a small and delicate infant, caring for Jayla pushed the physicians and staff to think outside the box.
“Even the diapers — I don’t think we had diapers that were her size,” Cabrera said. “But we made do with whatever we could think about to make her able to grow. That’s what our main goal was.”
For the medical team, the loss of Jayden heightened the sense of urgency to leverage their resources to equip Jayla to grow and thrive.
“With (Scott) having lost one of them, we definitely wanted to do all we could do to help Jayla in being able to go home with her mom,” Cabrera said “We were very cautious. We didn’t celebrate until she went home. … We would talk about her on a daily basis — how she was doing, what was the next step. And she kept moving forward.”
For Scott, coming home was bittersweet.
“I think in the beginning I was running off adrenaline, and when that wore off, everything started to hit me,” she said. “When I actually went home, I think that’s when the emotion really hit me — I had stuff for twins. That was hard; I think that was the hardest part. But I look at the beauty of it — it took a life in order to save a life. Whatever was done wrong with him, they were able to do it correctly on her.”
To carry Jayden with her, Scott wears a necklace bearing his footprints. She made sure to wear it the day she brought Jayla home, she said, so that, in a sense, the siblings could leave the hospital and greet the world together.
“That kind of makes me feel like he’s with us on this journey. In a way he is; he’s watching over her. I just look at it like she’s got a guardian angel.”
Scott expressed her gratitude for the support of the hospital staff, most notably the nurses, whose shared tears and consoling embraces made her feel like part of a close-knit family.
“The love and the kindness that they gave to me and my family — I will forever remember that for the rest of my life,” Scott said. “They played a major role in this. I couldn’t have done this alone. To me, they are our heroes. It’s been a lot of sad days, but it’s also been a lot of happy days. There’s a saying that they would tell me: ‘Take it minute by minute, second by second,’ and I made sure I did that.”