Elmo mother delivers daughter at 25 weeks
The four elder McMahon children bounced around their living room in Elmo, tumbling nearer each moment to the cords and machines attached to their baby sister, who was getting a diaper change on the living room rug.
At nearly 5 months old, baby Meela McMahon looks more like a newborn, with her large eyes, occasionally purple fingers and a remarkable maturity to her face. A large white sticker covered each cheek, holding an oxygen tube in place under her nose. A long green cord connected her to a heart monitor that beeped from the corner.
Above her, mom Kayla McMahon, 28, admonished her lively brood while deftly cleaning the section of intestine protruding from the baby’s belly, a scar stretching from hip to hip beneath it.
Born over three months early, Meela arrived in June at just 25 weeks, making her the youngest survivor in the history of Kalispell Regional Medical Center’s neonatal intensive-care unit.
McMahon began experiencing problems 13 weeks into her pregnancy, at which point her doctors labeled her high-risk and placed her on bed rest.
Lying stationary on the couch with four children under the age of 7 at home, a husband working 12- to 14-hour days and a new house under construction presented a challenge, to say the least, McMahon said.
“You’re trying not to get up, but your 2-year-old is on the kitchen counter with a butcher knife trying to open Popsicles,” she said. “Obviously you get up and run to take care of it,” she said.
After 10 weeks, the doctors put McMahon on hospitalized bed rest in the room next door to the operating room at Kalispell Regional, hoping to force McMahon to get the rest she needed to make it to full term.
Overkill, McMahon thought, until Meela made her surprise entrance three weeks later.
McMahon awoke in convulsions at 4 a.m. on June 23. Continuous bleeding had caused sepsis. The baby wouldn’t wait any longer.
Physicians rushed McMahon into the operating room for an emergency cesarean section, and when the spinal block failed to work, they had to put her under.
Weighing 1 pound, 14 ounces, Meela arrived at 5:01 a.m., lifeless and blue.
“When she came out, she had no signs of life at all, including a heart rate,” said Dr. Kristin Veneman, a neonatologist at Kalispell Regional. “She had nothing, and she had nothing for the first few minutes of life.”
McMahon’s husband arrived soon after Meela was born, but at that point, all the nurses could tell him was “well, it’s a girl.”
“I remember the nurse looking at me and saying, ‘it’s been four minutes,’ and she still was lifeless at that point,” Veneman said. “But then after that, by five minutes, she was breathing and moving and turning pink.”
Meela successfully took her first breaths, but her battle for life had just begun.
In the NICU, Meela’s diagnoses filled up an entire page, totaling around 50 different issues.
Over the course of her first 90 days, Meela spent 51 days on a ventilator, required 12 blood-product transfusions and underwent two emergency bowel surgeries.
According to Veneman, Meela’s medical team also had to resuscitate her several times.
“It can be a minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour struggle,” Veneman said. “We always tell parents the NICU is a roller-coaster, but this one was one heck of a roller-coaster [with] just how many times we thought we were going to lose her.
“She was fighting, that’s for sure,” she added.
A few years ago, Veneman said a baby as premature as Meela would have been airlifted to another hospital for treatment and likely wouldn’t have survived.
Today, however, the hospital has a NICU staff that includes pediatric surgeons and anesthesiologists, as well as a specialized ventilator that increase high-risk babies’ chance of survival.
Additionally, Veneman helps coach parents in skin-to-skin care and infant massage, key factors in the progress Meela began to show.
“I was so scared to touch her and do anything at first,” McMahon said. “I had to beg my husband, beg him to go look at her. He was so scared.”
The scariest moment through it all, McMahon said, was taking Meela home.
Suddenly, Meela’s life rested in her hands, McMahon said, as did the daily medical tasks previously overseen by a team of medical professionals in a sterile, safe environment.
“Coming home with a baby with a colostomy bag, just the colostomy bag is challenging,” she noted, “and then her monitor and her oxygen and her bottles that you have to mix up.”
Bringing the baby home also meant introducing her to her older siblings.
With the baby hooked up to a number of vital chords and machines, McMahon couldn’t carry Meela with her to fix her bottle or use the bathroom.
She said she quickly discovered it took but a moment for a pair of little hands to unplug a heart monitor, pull off an oxygen tube or tug the baby off the couch.
“It’s a good thing you got some rubber ribs,” McMahon said, looking down at Meela on her lap. “You’re just a tough cookie.”
Following an emergency trip and a 30-day hospitalization in Denver two weeks after Meela first came home, the family had to adjust to a new and odd kind of normal.
McMahon said she has learned there are many different shades of blue, some more concerning than others, and few things are scarier than silence.
Meela, who now tips the scale at roughly 6 pounds, visits her doctors at Kalispell Regional at least every two weeks as they monitor her growth and development while keeping an eye on some key areas of concern.
Though Meela still has at least a couple of major surgeries ahead of her, McMahon said overall she’s a pretty healthy baby.
“She’s got a lot of catching up to do,” McMahon said. “Besides that, so far, fingers crossed...everything looks pretty positive as to she should grow up and have a normal life, surprisingly enough.”
McMahon called Meela her own personal miracle baby, but she said she never forgets those she thanks and credits with her daughter’s survival.
Every time they go to town, McMahon makes a point to take Meela back to the NICU to visit the nurses and doctors responsible for saving her life.
“It’s awesome how well they work together and all that they can do for these tiny, tiny babies,” McMahon said. “They just get all teary-eyed and happy to see their little work of art.”
Kalispell Regional’s NICU sees several preemies between 27 and 28 weeks each year. Babies under 26 weeks are far more rare, and a 25-week survivor was a first.
“All the nurses definitely agree that they have a Meela-only spot in their heart,” McMahon said, looking down at her baby. “You’re kind of an unforgettable, kiddo.”
To follow Meela’s story and progress, visit https://www.caringbridge.org/visit/meelamcmahon.
Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Adrian Horton contributed to this story.