This Thanksgiving season, Sarah Johnston reflects on her journey of becoming a mother for the first time and the unexpected challenges she and her husband faced about four months ago. She hopes her story will resonate with soon-to-be mothers and help them understand that even after all the pregnancy books have been read and the birth plan is written, things may not go as planned.
She went through the UC San Diego Health Midwifery Program and did extensive research on natural childbirth.
“I really wanted to have my baby without medical intervention and felt confident knowing the UC San Diego Health Birth Center is cradled in the hospital setting,” said Johnston.
At almost two weeks overdue in her pregnancy, Johnston tried every approach to start contractions and avoid induction.
In the middle of the night, Johnston woke up to horrible cramping and wasn’t sure what it was: she was in labor.
After a call to the midwives, Johnston and her husband grabbed their bags and rushed to the hospital.
“I didn’t think I was going to make it. I was in such terrible pain during the car ride. When we finally got to the hospital, I was so relieved. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Johnston.
She had to stop several times on the way up to UC San Diego Health’s Birth Center to work through her intense contractions. When she arrived and was checked by a midwife, she was stunned to learn she was already dilated nine centimeters.
“I could not believe it,” said Johnston. “I went into labor just after 1 a.m., and after pushing for just 15 minutes, I delivered my son Liam at 3:55 a.m. He was 8 pounds, 11 ounces, and we were overjoyed bonding with our newborn while watching the sunrise – it was just perfect.”
But less than 24 hours after his birth, things quickly changed when Liam’s oxygen levels dropped and he was admitted in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for monitoring.
“I had a low-risk pregnancy and a quick, uncomplicated delivery in the Birth Center. I didn’t understand why we were now faced with a critical situation in the NICU,” said Johnston. “It was an emotional time for my family. We were now watching our newborn being hooked up to monitors.”
After days of evaluation and testing, it was determined a blood vessel in Liam’s heart closed prematurely before birth, so his heart was pumping overtime and severely enlarged.
“The doctors described it as an inflamed, injured muscle that was not able to oxygenate his blood correctly,” said Johnston. “Only time will heal Liam’s heart condition.”
The new mother describes the following days as an emotional roller coaster.
“This was not at all how I envisioned my birth story to end up. We were now in the middle of the overwhelming environment of the NICU watching our son in an oxygen tent. Despite knowing he was getting the best available care, we experienced disappointing set-backs and frustration as we tried to process what was going on,” said Johnston.
Johnston says she and her husband got through that difficult time thanks to a comprehensive medical team that made them feel part of Liam’s care.
“From the midwives to the NICU nurses to the lactation consultants, we were given the support, strength and knowledge we needed to build up our hope and confidence,” said Johnston.
After spending 11 days in the NICU, Johnston and her husband were able to take their baby boy home.
“It was the longest 11 days of our lives, and we couldn’t wait to carry him around the house without being connected to wires,” said Johnston.
Specialists say it will still be several months before Liam’s heart heals completely, but Johnston says he is doing really well and meeting all his milestones, and cardiologists don’t think there will be long-term effects.
“We are forever grateful for our experience. We now have such a positive outlook on everything. In the end, we have our sweet Liam who reminds us every day what matters most in life. We are a stronger family unit from all we have been through,” said Johnston, who is now part of UC San Diego Health’s Patient Advisory Council. “Our experience is a big lesson that even with the most natural births, things can go wrong, and thankfully, we were in a Birth Center where medical help was steps away.”
Johnston encourages new mothers to go through all the emotions necessary to accept their birth experience.
“Every mother has their own birth story that deserves respect. I got to walk in our house for the first time with my baby in the car seat just like I dreamed – it was just a little delayed,” said Johnston. “We have so much to be thankful for this holiday season.”
Pregnancy and Childbirth
Newborn and Postpartum Care
Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU)