Women never forget the birth of their first child. But Lacey Brown (29) has more reason than most to recall the date when her lovely one-year-old, Jack, entered the world.
He had a condition called gastroschisis, where the guts and bowel develop outside the child’s body. Based in Belfast, but from Michigan, his mother Lacey recalls his traumatic birth on April 30, 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Baby Jack’s condition meant that her five-and-a-half-pound son would need immediate surgery. The doctors allowed Lacey a minute’s cuddle and then her newborn son went straight into surgery and his mum didn’t get to be close to her baby boy for two days.
Dad Eric (30) says that he’ll always remember the way his son started out. “They immediately put his bowel into a plastic bag, to avoid infection.”
It was a horrific situation for the young parents as the new father couldn’t remain in hospital after Jack was born because of the pandemic.
His wife reveals that she felt very upset at this point: “I was going to be alone, Eric couldn’t stay. And my family couldn’t be there either.”
The hospital staff had asked for the rules to be relaxed, to allow new parents to stay with their babies, but with no luck.
“It just wasn’t possible, and we were very sad, but the staff tried their best to help cheer us up,” says Lacey.
Although Lacey was treated during her challenging pregnancy in a Catholic hospital, she was offered the option of a termination.
One in around 2,500 babies suffer from this condition, and a percentage of babies don’t make it through. It’s on the increase, although doctors don’t yet understand why.
Lacey recalls: “At 15 weeks, the condition was confirmed. They brought up abortion, but as it was a Catholic hospital, we’d have had to go elsewhere. They would have referred me, but we said absolutely not.”
Both Lacey and Eric are Christian, members of the Wylde Wood Baptist Church at home in the US. They say that there were definitely times in Jack’s journey that challenged their faith.
“It was very hard. I guess not being with him and Lacey after he was born,” says Eric.
“Then wondering what after-effects he’d have. In fact, he’s come through really well, but we were told there might be complications.”
The devoted dad says he was brave enough to watch his son’s surgery on video, organised by the staff while he was in another part of the hospital. The surgeon had to reinsert the organs via a long incision.
“It was pretty full-on, but I think I was euphoric, high on everything that happened, so could watch as they replaced Jack’s intestines. It wasn’t easy viewing, though.”
The doctors also eventually gave Jack a belly button, something he didn’t have. In Lacey’s early appointments, she’d come through the moments when her doctor had said her early scan wasn’t clear and that they needed a specialist view.
“At my second appointment, where they were checking me out at around 11 weeks — we hadn’t even told family or friends at that point — the radiographer said she’d call the doctor if necessary,” she says.
“She paused afterwards; said she would have to get a doctor as she couldn’t get a clear view of the baby’s development. She said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m sure there’s nothing wrong,’ and of course at that point I began to get really worried. I work in healthcare, in administration, and knew what this might mean.”
Lacey saw the doctor, got the possible diagnosis and then began her gastroschisis journey. “The condition was confirmed at 15 weeks, and we began to get all the information we needed, and support.”
What really helped, apart from her husband and their church family, was a charity called Avery’s Angels. The Browns are setting up a branch in Northern Ireland, where just under 80 babies a year suffer from gastroschisis.
As Lacey explains, Avery’s Angels was founded 13 years ago by an American woman whose baby son sadly died of the birth defect.
She reveals: “They offer mums support, and you speak to somebody who’s been through the same experience. It really helps.”
The Browns needed to talk as even after Jack came home after several weeks, they had to be careful he didn’t develop infection and to feed him his mum’s milk in the tiniest of bottles. Anxiety could have been built into their parenting as they had constantly to check for signs of digestive distress.
Fortunately, their upbeat approach was justified. Although baby Jack was thought to be at risk from several complications, he has emerged pretty much in good health, although he sustained a gastric hernia which will need treatment down the line.
The Browns are enjoying their new life in Northern Ireland, although are sad they may have to wait to visit family. Eric tells Sunday Life: “People are so friendly here; we love living here in south Belfast.”
Lacey works remotely in her healthcare role for the company back home and Eric, whose background includes marketing, has started a new job.
The family have ambitions to open a cafe in or near the Ormeau Road whose cafe culture we’re sampling during the interview. It will, they say, be part of their mission here and will be a way of helping young people, who might otherwise get sucked into drug culture and other problem areas, get a different focus on life.
Lacey, Eric and Jack are looking optimistically towards the future. Jack has a new cousin in the States, and they’re hoping their family will get over as soon as it’s safe.
“We Zoom regularly, but it’s not quite the same,” admits Lacey.
Most of all, they’re looking forward to their son’s normal development and a future free of doctor’s appointments.