After years of difficulty trying to start a family, Karl and Stefanie Smith were overjoyed to hear that Stefanie was pregnant with twins. From the beginning, Stefanie’s pregnancy was followed carefully, with many visits to the perinatologist for ultrasounds and other tests. “We were doing everything right,” said Karl, “and the babies were developing wonderfully.”
Then, at a twenty-four week check-up, the doctor discovered Stefanie’s cervix had already begun dilating. Just nine days later, she was rushed into a room where she was surrounded by almost twenty nurses and doctors and prepped for an emergency C-section. On June 25, 2009, the couple’s twins were born too soon – fifteen weeks early. Jack Andrew and Abigail Renee each weighed less than two pounds. The tiny babies were immediately placed into separate incubators and whisked away to the NICU. It would be hours before their parents would see them again.
Karl says they soon learned that although their experience was harrowing, it was not uncommon. According to the March of Dimes, about 12 percent of births (or one in eight) are preterm.
The neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Bon Secours St. Mary’s Hospital was an atmosphere unlike anything the new parents had ever experienced. Warm, yet somber smiles were delivered in an environment of curtains, flashing lights, beeping alarms, and oxygen masks. The healthiest babies were at the front of the NICU. “Our babies were the farthest back, closest to the doctor’s station,” said Karl.
As the days passed, Jack and Abby took one step forward and two steps back. On July 8, Abby had a very bad night. “The next day, we sat with our beautiful daughter, staring at her tiny perfect fingers and precious little nose,” said Stefanie. “She was the sweetest, most beautiful baby we had ever seen.” That evening, Abby took her final breath with both her parents holding her tight. Ten days later, fluids started to build up in Jack’s tiny body. His health was deteriorating, and the next day he was in surgery. Unfortunately, Jack’s immune system could not recover. On July 20, snuggled in his father’s arms, Jack took his last breath. “We no longer had our babies with us, but we would forever be parents,” said Karl.
Surrounded by family, a network of friends, and wonderful doctors and nurses, the Smiths realized that even though their circumstances were heartbreaking, they were fortunate. Many other parents of babies born too soon did not have the same resources. With this in mind, and after talking to the nurses and doctors in the NICU, the family decided to honor the memory of Jack and Abby by creating the Jack & Abby Neonatal Foundation to provide support and aid directly to families in similar situations.
Today, the Jack & Abby team works with social workers and nurses in Richmond-area NICUs. Because some parents have a child in the NICU for three to four months, the foundation provides everything from gas cards and hotel stays to funding for preemie-sized car seats. “We have also donated toward a room at the Bon Secours Reinhart Guest House, purchased a refrigeration system for donor breast milk, provided holiday dinners for families and staff at numerous NICUs, and supported remembrance services,” said Stefanie. “Most recently, we sponsored a seminar to educate caregivers when there is a fatal diagnosis while still in utero,” said Stefanie.
According to Stefanie and Karl, the next objective for this parent-powered foundation is to work with community partners and local health systems to create more educational programs for women most at risk for preterm labor. “While helping families who are in the NICU is so important, we want to make progress toward addressing prevention as well,” said Stefanie.
7th Annual Race for the NICU
Saturday, June 25, 8 a.m.
Innsbrook North Shore Commons
It’s a family festival with inflatable fun, face painting, and Jonathan the Juggler. Register for the 5K walk/run or sign up your kids (ages three to twelve) for a half-mile kids’ run. Strollers are welcome and the race will go on, rain or shine. As part of the butterfly release at the start of the race, you can also sponsor a butterfly for a NICU baby you want to remember.
Jack and Abby Smith would have celebrated their seventh birthdays this June. Honor their memory and help other Richmond-area families with babies in the NICU.
Visit jackandabby.org to register.