Caron Hodges' pregnancy was moving along as planned four years ago. The first-time mom and her husband had yet to complete the nursery. Birthing classes were scheduled. At 30 weeks, she still had more than two months left before she would welcome her baby boy - plenty of time to prepare.
"Then, one night, I woke up," Hodges said. "I knew something was wrong."
She was rushed to UNC Rex Healthcare's emergency room where she learned that she was suffering from a placental abruption. Her baby was delivered by emergency C-section. Baby Carter, who weighed in at just three pounds and five ounces at birth, would spend 24 days at Rex's neonatal intensive care unit before Hodges and her husband could take him home.
"I can still remember the feelings that I had on the way to the hospital - sheer fear," Hodges said. "I was very anxious. It was such a shock. Everything had been good up to that point."
Four years later, Carter is a happy, healthy and very active little boy. And Hodges has worked hard to help other moms and dads with preemies at Rex as an active member of Rex NICU's Parent Advisory Council.
Through the council, Hodges helps plan events, fundraisers and activities for families who have been at Rex's NICU, which was recently upgraded to a Level IV NICU, allowing it to care for more sick babies. She also works to develop resources for parents with infants at Rex.
"It gave a format for us graduate parents to share our stories and our experiences," Hodges said.
As soon as Hodges was wheeled into the operating room for her C-section, the rollercoaster of emotions and worry began. They lasted long after Hodges left the hospital with no baby in her arms.
At first, she was terrified her son wouldn't survive. As her husband watched over Carter in the NICU, she was left alone in her hospital room, recovering from her own surgery. She felt like a failure. Friends and family didn't know how to react. Should they celebrate the birth? Or should their reaction be more solemn?
"When I was able to go and visit him, it was very sad," said Hodges of her son, who was tucked away in an incubator and hooked up to machines. Nurses worked to help him learn to eat, breathe, suck and swallow on his own.
Hodges felt alone, but she wasn't. According to the March of Dimes, one in 10 babies is born too soon. In fact, the pre-term birth rate is higher in the United States than in most high-income countries, according to the group. Once she met other moms who had gone through the same experience and started sharing her story with those who are struggling now, she began to felt relief.
"That's when my healing process began," she said.
Hodges got involved in the advisory council in 2011. Since then, the group has helped to create a dad-to-dad video for dads and a mom-to-mom video for moms with a child in the NICU. In 2012, she helped organize a family reunion for families who have graduated from the NICU. The next one will be this fall. Families come back to share their experiences and also meet up with the nurses and doctors who made all of the difference in those first days. There's also a private Facebook group for graduates of Rex's NICU.
"They really come together and support the family as an extended family," Hodges said of Rex's staff.
Hodges also visits the NICU to share her story with the moms and dads spending countless hours with their preemies. Sometimes she brings Carter so they can see that there is plenty of hope for the future. Babies as tiny as Carter was can grow up to be happy and healthy kids.
"For me, the big thing was really hearing from somebody else who had been through it," she said. "I wasn't a failure as a mom because I delivered my son premature."
Said Hodges: "If I can help one mom see she's not a failure, my work is done."
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