Caitlin Brohm wants to make sure that parents and caregivers know what she learned after the loss of her infant daughter, Hazel Grace, due to a virus – HSV2 (herpes simplex viruses).
“Even if you don’t take your baby to public places, the people who you let visit you can still get them sick,” Caitlin said. “I don’t blame anyone because no one would knowingly transmit an illness to our newborn but you can’t be too careful. Literally isolate your baby for a month or 2 while they build their immune system or you could be standing by their isolette in the NICU and then their grave.”
Caitlin said she and her husband, Cory, were very careful, only letting close family and friends visit them once they brought Hazel to their home in Ashland. But even that wasn’t enough.
Dr. John Bower, an infectious disease specialist at Akron Children’s, called HSV2 a silent virus, as 70 percent of the time when a baby gets it there is no history of maternal infection. He agrees that parents should exercise good judgment as far as keeping others from touching, kissing or holding a baby. But even the most proactive parents can find their babies coming down with something.
“The reality is, there is no such thing as a bubble,” said Dr. Bower. “Viruses and bacteria can still reach infants no matter how cautious a family is.”
But some simple steps can help keep infants healthy. Dr. Bower said it’s important to stay alert to good hand hygiene when caring for an infant, even in the middle of the night. And remember, he added, that people, especially children, can be contagious without showing any signs of illness. So every visitor – adults included – should keep from touching, kissing or holding a young infant because this age is more at risk for serious problems from common infections.
Marybeth Fry, family care coordinator in the Akron Children’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), said she understands that it’s tempting to want to introduce people to a little one or take baby out. But she cautions parents of newborns against that.
“While babies are irresistible, they have immature immune systems and haven’t been fully vaccinated, so they are incredibly vulnerable,” Marybeth said. “They do not need to be exposed to colds and viruses to build up their immune systems. They have no reserve to fight them off.”
Even adults who appear to be healthy should be kept away those first few weeks, she added, as illnesses that could be minor inconveniences for older children and adults can be fatal for babies.
“The cold sore that an adult has is a nuisance,” she said. “The cough and sniffles that a school-aged child has can be managed with good self-care. But for an infant, exposure to these viruses can land them in the hospital. Please do not kiss a baby that isn’t yours and please don’t touch their hands or faces. Doing so puts them at risk.”
Hazel’s short life and lasting memory
Hazel was born Sept. 4, 2019, after a fairly normal pregnancy.
“She was a happy, healthy baby,” Caitlin said. “She had the longest fingers and the most delicate little face and body. She was absolutely beautiful and loved to have her hands touching her face.”
Settling in that first week at home, Hazel was a normal newborn. But on Sept. 12, the first night Caitlin was on her own with the baby without help, something seemed wrong.
“I thought Hazel wasn’t eating a lot and she was fussier than normal,” she said. “The next morning I called my mom because Hazel had some blackish patches on the tips of a few fingers. It got worse a few hours later and she was really cold.”
That morning, Caitlin called the pediatrician’s office and got an appointment. There they discovered that Hazel was not getting enough oxygen, so they began giving it to her as Caitlin and her mother waited for a transport team to take them to the hospital in Akron. Once the team arrived, they got Hazel started with an IV and oxygen, and drew blood to test. Cory and all of Hazel’s grandparents met Caitlin and Hazel at Akron Children’s, where Hazel was taken to the NICU. The baby was diagnosed with staph MSSA (methicillin-susceptible Staphylococcus aureus) and HSV2.
Caitlin credits her mother and other family members and friends with helping her stay strong as Hazel’s health declined.
“My mom was my rock,” she said. “Neither one of us is a stranger to hospitals or being sick, but I had never been there for someone else, I was always the patient. I especially had never thought that my full-term baby would be the one out of all the babies on the NICU to not leave. That was hard when there were babies that were half her gestational age and had a better outlook than Hazel did.
“Our friends spent a lot of time with us and with Hazel while we were there in the NICU,” she added. “We wouldn’t have been able to make it this far without friends and family that have agreed to carry this weight with us through this life.”
With Hazel very sick, the hospital’s Palliative Care staff helped support the family. Caitlin was also comforted by the nursing staff.
“The nurses and the amazing staff at Akron Children’s and the Palliative Care team made it easier for us,” she said. “We knew Hazel was being taken care of and they took worries like income and work off our plate so we only had to worry about Hazel.”
In addition to wanting to share the message of keeping babies out of public to prevent illness, Caitlin also was so moved by her experience at the NICU that she wanted to give back in some way.
“Reading was really the only way we could interact with Hazel,” Caitlin said. “I didn’t get to hold her once the transport team picked us up in Ashland until the last day when we removed her life support. She was just too fragile.”
It was while reading one day that Marybeth gave 2 additional books to Caitlin, who noticed the sticker inside each that showed they had been donated by a family that had also spent time in the NICU. That inspired Caitlin to do the same in memory of Hazel.
“I wanted to give every family that was in the NICU that precious time with their infant – time where reading to them is treasured and those books are kept forever,” she said.
Hazel passed away Sept. 28. Caitlin returned to Akron Children’s a month later with 50 books, the first of what she hopes will be several donations of new books for families in the NICU. She also had the chance to thank several of the providers who cared for Hazel.
“Any parent wants their child to change the world,” she said. “Hazel did in her 25 days with the community she brought together and the prayers she encouraged. Leaving books for people that didn’t know her or our story means that they will know her name. People can be blessed like we were by books that were given in honor of a child that had been in the very same wing as Hazel was. I think it builds a community – kind of an unspoken one – but think of all the people that will have books that were donated in Hazel’s name even if we just do it a year.”