From NICU to Playdates: Friends bonding over common experience could lead to better science
As they watch their wide-eyed, chubby-cheeked toddlers squeal and explore the pint-sized play space at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, it’s hard to imagine a scene more removed from the day Laura Jacko and Lauren Kowal first met two years ago.
They and their husbands were riding the same elevator en route to a transitional pod for the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital. Both were first-time mothers whose babies had been born prematurely within two days of each other.
Kowal, a legal assistant from Tarentum, Pennsylvania, experienced a relatively uneventful pregnancy until she reached 30 weeks. Then her blood pressure began to rise, and she developed headaches. Her doctor diagnosed her with preeclampsia, a condition that can lead to serious or fatal complications if untreated; she was admitted to the hospital and induced four weeks before her due date.
Her daughter, Arya, struggled to breathe at birth. Magee staff took her to the NICU to put her on a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine to assist her respiration, but one of her tiny lungs collapsed, and she had to be intubated.
“I really wasn’t allowed to hold her for the first four days of her life,” recalls Kowal. “That was hard … any little move or thing that would happen, it would freak me out.”
When she bumped into Jacko on the elevator, she was sobbing. Though they were strangers, Jacko asked Kowal if she was OK, and whether she needed to talk to someone.
“Our kids are on the next step to going home,” because they were being moved to the transitional unit, Jacko reminded her, adding, “you’re in the best place you could possibly be.”
Jacko spoke confidently from experience. From a young age, like her mother and many other women on the maternal side of her family, she has had endometriosis. For years, she also struggled with pelvic floor pain that was so severe there were days she couldn’t even wear pants. When she sought help, doctors kept suggesting that a sexually transmitted disease was the underlying cause, even though tests repeatedly proved them wrong.
And then Jacko arrived at Magee. When she described her symptoms to Dr. Richard Beigi, he answered: “I know exactly what you have.” He gave her a name for her condition: vulvodynia.
“To be living in pain constantly, and to finally be taken seriously — it changes your life,” says Jacko.
Pelvic pain is an extremely common condition, affecting one in 10 women — the same rate of Americans who are affected by diabetes. Yet very little research is devoted to the topic, prompting Magee-Womens Research Institute to launch the Chronic Pelvic Pain and Endometriosis Center, so patients like Jacko can find answers that dramatically improve their quality of life.
“Magee’s taken really good care of me throughout my life,” says Jacko. “Women deserve answers to be able to protect themselves.”
So when she became pregnant, Jacko knew there was no place else she wanted to be. Unlike Kowal, her pregnancy was difficult from the beginning, ending in a premature rupture of membranes. Her son, Percival — nicknamed Pierce — was born six weeks prematurely, two days before little Arya.
Pierce had a feeding tube and was treated with bili lights for jaundice, but was ready to leave the NICU’s individual, private pods for the transitional pods after a week.
It was then that Jacko and her husband, Dan, rode the elevator with Kowal and her husband, Dave.
“You just looked so sad,” Jacko tells Kowal today. “I wanted to make sure you were OK. It’s hard when you’re transitioning from the pods in the NICU. You get such a round-the-clock care in your own little spot,” whereas the step-down area is more open, because babies are healthy enough for it.
“I was just in a place where nobody could tell me anything,” Kowal recalls. “But somehow, Laura broke down that wall for me.”
The two couples struck up a friendship, and began to look for each other at the hospital. They discovered that they had much in common, from their love for “Game of Thrones” to the fact that both husbands work with their hands (Dave is a carpenter; Dan is a jeweler). When it was time to go home, they exchanged phone numbers, and their friendship blossomed.
“We got to just eat dinner together and hang out in a space that wasn’t a hospital. That’s when I first thought, ‘OK, we’re going to be friends.’ ” says Jacko.
“Something that was so scary — it went from having so much anxiety to meeting Laura and catching up and talking about everything and anything,” says Kowal. “It turned into great friendship both for her and me and for our husbands.”
The relationship with Magee endures as well. After Pierce’s birth, Jacko went to work for Magee-Womens Research Institute as a major gifts officer. And data from both women, and their babies, may also now be part of the Magee Obstetric Maternal & Infant (MOMI) Database and Biobank, the largest database of its kind in the world, which helps researchers answer questions that are critical to the health and wellness of women and their babies across the lifespan.
For example, the MOMI database helps science better delve into possible links between preeclampsia and an increased risk for the mother to experience heart disease later in life. This research, in turn, allows MWRI to help develop programs such as a blood pressure home-monitoring program to detect problems in the health of postpartum women in time to allow potentially life-saving interventions.
Kowal, who is now expecting her second baby, does not want to give birth anywhere but Magee.
“They know how to talk to you; they know how to help you stay calm, and that is key,” she says.
Moreover, she is eager to contribute to research.
“I’m always about anything that happened to me being turned around to help future women,” she says, adding, “I’m hoping the research can help me when I get older, too.”
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