Cincinnati couple copes with the loss of baby as mom works on the front lines of infant mortality

CINCINNATI - The linens in the incubator needed to be changed. Nurse Christy Kelley, just back to work and raw with bereavement, stepped to the humming unit and looked inside. A frail newborn lay there, needing her.

Until that moment, picking up a baby was second nature for Kelley. She had done it a dozen times a day working in Good Samaritan Hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). But standing at the incubator, Kelley froze, with the still-fresh visions of her sweet little boy, wired and intubated, fighting for every breath until death--with shocking speed--claimed him.

Benjamin Grayson Kelley was one of 95 babies who died before their first birthdays in Hamilton County in 2013. The number is the lowest on record, a rare hopeful statistic unveiled last week by Cradle Cincinnati , a year-old nonprofit aimed at reducing infant mortality.

Yet Hamilton County’s 2013 infant mortality rate of 8.9 deaths for every 1,000 births remains far higher than the national average of 6.1 deaths for every 1,000.

Cradle Cincinnati, made up of area hospitals and public-health organizations, has launched a redoubled campaign to encourage simple practices to improve infant health: encouraging mothers to give themselves at least 18 months between a birth and the conception of another child; smoking cessation; and always placing a baby on the back to sleep in a separate crib without toys or blankets.

Two-thirds of infants die in Hamilton County because they were born prematurely. Cradle Cincinnati and maternal health advocates say the number indicates deeper systemic problems affecting women’s health-- including poverty, domestic violence, drug use, obesity and poor housing.

Yet, in the battle against infant mortality, a profound reality cannot be avoided: Sometimes the odds are just too long.

A tough pregnancy

Jefferson and Christy Kelley married in 2011. He is an information technology professional with Prosource in Cincinnati. She has been nursing in the Good Samaritan NICU for 13 years. The couple settled in Cheviot, ready to build a family. Christy got pregnant in spring 2013, and the couple planned to name the child after a friend of Jefferson. But the journey was bumpy from the start.

At seven weeks, Christy went on bedrest. At 13 weeks, she was cleared for work. At 16 weeks, her water broke; she went on bedrest again.

At 24 weeks, she was admitted into her own hospital to await delivery, where she held on until 26 weeks and three days. On Aug. 15, at 8:41 a.m., Benjamin arrived by C-section: weight two pounds six ounces, length 13 1/4 inches long--big for a preemie.

He went immediately into the NICU. From the hustle and the processes, the Kelleys understood that Benjamin was in danger. Christy was confident; she knew everyone who was working in the unit that day. Plus, experience had shown her there was no telling how things would turn out. Some babies walked the line then survived and went home. Others who looked strong and fought all the way didn’t make it.

Benjamin’s respiratory system was not fully developed, a nearly universal problem in premature births. Someone put a tube down Benjamin’s throat and squeezed a bag to drive oxygen into his leathery lungs. A nurse wheeled his isolette to Christy’s bedside; leaning down to Benjamin’s ear, the nurse whispered, “This is your mommy,” and Christy would never forget watching Benjamin’s eyes open wide.

Jefferson went outside for a breath of summer air for only five or 10 minutes. When he came back to Christy’s side, the news had gotten worse. Benjamin’s blood-gas reading was not good; the ventilator was not helping him. Christy saw the looks on her co-workers’ faces and she knew. Benjamin’s nurse got him out of his bed so Christy and Jefferson could hold him. Benjamin deteriorated before their eyes. His heart rate dropped to 25 beats a minute.

The NICU staff took him off the ventilator. The noise of a busy hospital melted away as life ebbed from the Kelleys' baby boy. Jefferson held Benjamin when he died at 9:48 p.m., after 13 hours and seven minutes of life.

That night, kept in the hospital for her own recovery, Christy couldn’t sleep for the unbearable sound of babies crying.

Going forward

Six months later, Jefferson, 36, and Christy, 40, sat in a booth at First Watch in Anderson Township and recalled their journey since that terrible day. As close as Christy is every day to the realities of infant mortality, nothing educates like the experience itself.

“Until it happens to someone you know, you don’t realize that it can happen to anyone,” she said.

Family and friends have surrounded the Kelleys with love and support. Early on, Jefferson’s mind kept spinning back to those 13 precious hours. A week after losing his son, he returned to work, hoping for distraction. Co-workers, even the company’s chief executive officer, expressed sorrow. They were great to the Kelleys, but Jefferson said, “It

felt like a cloud was hanging over the whole building.”

Christy figures she cried for a week solid. Once the black tide of bereavement receded, she had to face going back to work. She didn’t know whether she could even get back through the doors at Good Samaritan. About a week before her first scheduled shift, co-workers met her at the unit and walked her through it. The thought that she could hold a NICU baby again seemed impossible.

Her first day back, Christy worked half a shift, and except for changing a diaper and feeding one patient, she avoided touching the babies. On the second day, she noticed the linens in one incubator had to be changed. She stood at the machine, watching someone else’s infant breathe, wiggle, live.

She took a deep breath and scoped the baby up, held the child close, felt the warmth, cried. She changed the linens, returned the baby to the bed, then she finished her shift, went home and came back to work the next day.

The Kelleys are six months past the traumatic birth and death of their son Benjamin. (Photo by A. Saker)

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Connect with WCPO Contributor Anne Saker on Twitter: @apsaker

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