The NICU warrior princess: from Sierra Leone to Naperville

December 22, 2023 | by Kate Gawlik, RN
Categories: Healthy Driven Moms

Pictured above: Kangaroo care allowed Hawa to hold Aissatou, nurturing a bond between the mother and daughter with health benefits for both, as well.

Thinking about the tasks a mom does before giving birth, the list usually is comforting and nostalgic, like packing the last few items in a bag and giving the dog extra hugs. Traveling while in a state of toxemia, at 23 weeks pregnant, for more than 24 hours from Sierra Leone, West Africa, to Chicago is not something any woman wants to experience before giving birth.

But this is the story of Hawa Bah Koroma and her daughter, Aissatou, along with her husband, Umaru Napoleon Koroma. There’s is journey of thousands of miles, health crises and challenges, and an appreciation for Edward Hospital that cannot be matched.

“What does Edward Hospital mean to me? I don’t even know how to put it in words,” Hawa says. “They are my miracle workers. I’m holding my baby today with God’s help through them. The feeling is indescribable, and I will always remember Endeavor Health Edward Hospital. They are the reason why we both are here.”

Diagnosing preeclampsia

Days before her flight to Chicago, Hawa didn’t feel well. She was exhausted and felt so sick.

ldquo;This was my first pregnancy, and my plan was just to rest — the doctor didn’t make any other recommendations, and I didn’t know better at the time,” Hawa remembers. “But when I got to my auntie’s house, after more than 24 hours of travel, I could not feel the baby move and felt so sick. My auntie knew of Edward Hospital because she gave birth to three of her children there, so she took me right away.”

The Edward Hospital ER staff quickly realized how severe Hawa’s preeclampsia was with elevated blood pressure, abnormal lab work and signs of respiratory distress.

Preeclampsia can be a life-threatening condition that affects some pregnant women. Symptoms include high blood pressure, multi-system organ failure, headaches, difficult breathing, swelling of extremities, blurred vision, epigastric pain and rapid weight gain. According to the March of Dimes, preeclampsia and its related complications account for 10-15% of worldwide maternal deaths.

Preeclampsia that is not treated either with medications, bedrest or an induced pregnancy, depending on the severity, can evolve into eclampsia, HELLP syndrome (hemolysis elevated liver enzymes and low platelet count), placental abruption or a stroke. For the baby, growth restriction, pre-term birth or death are a risk.

Hawa was admitted to labor and delivery for observation from the ER; the baby’s heartbeat was detected and being monitored. Her feet and body were swollen, and soon after, her breathing was labored.

Hawa received various medications, including magnesium to give neurological protection from preeclampsia. Her medical team also wanted to start steroids to help strengthen the baby’s undeveloped lungs. Hawa made it for two more days, with steroids onboard, until the doctors decided the baby had to be delivered to save Hawa’s life.

She explains, “I don’t remember anything from the delivery day and the day before. After the delivery, they told me the baby was in the NICU, and I had no concept of what a NICU even was. I had to wait for my auntie to be with me because I was so afraid. She saw the baby before I did and explained to me that the doctors and nurses were doing their best to save my baby girl. Auntie showed me pictures, and I could not imagine ever seeing anything so little.”

Hawa eventually visited her daughter after recovering from acute respiratory failure after the c-section. Umaru arrived soon after the delivery and traveled back and forth between Sierra Leone and Naperville to be with his family.

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Pictured above: Laura Flynn, RN, has worked in the Edward Hospital NICU for 26 years. She was one of Aissatou’s primary nurses, providing regular hands-on care.

A NICU journey

A 24-week infant faces many challenges, and Aissatou’s progression to discharge day was not without them. She was born without any signs of life, weighing only 445 grams, which is less than 1 pound. She struggled to wean from the ventilator, she needed a PDA (patent ductus arteriosus) ligation surgery to close a blood vessel near her heart, and she had feeding intolerances.

When discharge day came months later, Aissatou surpassed expectations, needing supplemental oxygen for a few weeks, with a G-tube in place for feeds, and no other equipment for home.

“This baby spent five months in the NICU and did not develop any of the common complications that can affect a baby born at this age and size,” says Deanna L. Holleman-Duray, MD, an independent neonatologist and Medical Director of the Edward Hospital NICU.

“She never had an infection, no NEC (necrotizing enterocolitis), she did not have an intraventricular hemorrhage, and what is incredibly amazing is that she never developed even a hint of inflammation on her retinal vessels, which is virtually unheard of considering her hospital course.

“We do many things well in our NICU, but we have a special expertise and skill in taking care of tiny babies born extremely early and getting them through their hospital stay with minimal to no complications. I am super proud of our doctors, our nurses and our ancillary staff. We provide exceptionally unique NICU care worth traveling 5,000 miles across an ocean.”

The family felt supported by staff who became more than hospital workers just doing their job.

Hawa says, “Nurses are how I coped. They are amazing and so friendly. Nurses Petra Kozbie l, and Laura Flynn with Sara Halloway from respiratory therapy will forever be in my heart. When you sit there, you know you are in the NICU, but they make you laugh and you talk and you kind of forget. It was a tough journey, but there were a lot of shoulders to lean on.”

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Pictured above: Baby Aissatou brightens any room with her smile, especially at the NICU follow-up clinic with mom, Hawa, and physical therapist, Julie Loos. Her progress from a 445-gram, 24-week infant amazes the NICU team.

Aissatou means “unconquerable,” and her family calls her a warrior princess. It’s likely she gets that strength from her mom, with help from her dad and auntie, who supported this miracle along the way.

“Aissatou is one fiesty woman. She is a happy child who laughs a lot. She is so strong. A fighter. We love watching her develop and play,” Hawa says.

NorthShore University HealthSystem, Swedish Hospital, Northwest Community Healthcare and Edward-Elmhurst Health are now united under one name, Endeavor Health. We’re setting a new standard for healthcare that’s focused on you, because your best health is our endeavor. Learn more.

At Endeavor Health, we’re fully equipped to care for newborns who require special attention, such as extremely premature infants, infants on ventilators and newborns with congenital conditions. Learn more.

Learn more about our pregnancy and baby services.

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