COVID KID: Wyatt Michel Lamezec, now 7 months old, arrived under circumstances his parents could not have predicted. (Photo by Mike Lamezec)
All expectant mothers hope for a comfortable, happy pregnancy and a complication-free childbirth and newborn experience. And while most understand the reality may not align with expectation, no one prepares for the possibility of bringing a child into the world amidst a global pandemic. We spoke to five women living through this historic experience, including one who gave birth while sick with the virus herself. They all have faced different challenges, but they all have managed to redefine “normal,” finding surprising bright sides (little secret: “no visitors allowed” at the hospital isn’t such a bad thing) and feeling grateful for the support, blessings and plain good luck they have received along the way.
Being pregnant and having a baby under ideal circumstances is hard enough: fatigue, hormonal changes, sleep disturbance, swelling, joint pain and various other side effects. The added stressors and disappointments brought about by the COVID-19 crisis only compound the discomfort. The fact that pregnant women are especially vulnerable – those who do contract the virus are at higher risk of severe illness, death or preterm birth – adds more stress. Given hospital policies and precautions, the number of support people permitted in labor and delivery rooms is restricted.
All of the usual activities and excitement surrounding a typical motherhood journey – childbirth prep classes, hospital room tours, coffee with girlfriends, baby showers, shopping for cute baby clothes and baby supplies – must be modified or forgone altogether. Many moms-to-be have had a virtual or drive-by baby shower as an alternative to the traditional luncheon and game-playing gathering.
Fortunately, the maternity unit at Southern Ocean Medical Center in Manahawkin and the hospital as a whole are adequately staffed and follow all safety protocols established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the N.J. Department of Health, according to Nurse Manager Jennifer Rocheskey in Maternal Child Health. That includes increased daily COVID-19 testing of team members in all units and greater surveillance of team members, in order to better identify those who are positive and asymptomatic to ensure they rest at home.
“For the team (on maternity), some of the greatest challenges are when you want that skin-to-skin contact, to hold a mother’s hand, give her a hug or share a smile,” she said. “In health care, the physical, emotional and spiritual contact is just as important as all our medical interventions. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have all been adhering to PPE (personal protective equipment) guidelines that include masking, eye protection and handwashing. All our patients and their support people are also required to wear a mask throughout their stay. It is those physical barriers to human interaction that have forced all of us to find new ways to ensure we are meeting the needs of the entire person and her family. Through support, laughter, compassion and empathy we are striving every day to bridge that gap.”
Additionally, patients are offered iPads so they can see and talk with their relatives and friends and share their happiness and joy during their stay, giving Mom and baby a sense of connectedness, Rocheskey said.
“There is the possibility I could end up delivering our daughter on my own,” said Mallory Shtybel, 32, of Ocean Acres, whose second child, Kendyl Marianna, is due any day. (Feb. 25, if not sooner.) Her first-born, Kennedy Rose, is 8. “This is my husband, Andrew’s, first baby, and it pains me that he cannot be present for ultrasounds or doctor visits. My husband also cannot see his family from Ukraine, and they cannot visit us when the baby is born due to travel restrictions. They also could not attend our wedding in August 2020.”
Shtybel has her heart set on a vaginal birth after cesarean, so she specifically researched VBAC-supportive hospitals. She will deliver with Dr. Yvette Bridges, head of the VBAC Committee at the Mainland Campus of AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, in Galloway Township.
When COVID-19 first hit the United States, Shtybel was working inside a large hospital where she felt as if she had a ringside seat to the crisis. It was “traumatizing,” she said.
“In May 2020 when we found out we were expecting, we had already pushed back our wedding to August 2020 due to rising numbers (of positive cases) and the unknown of what was coming,” she said. “It was just the beginning of what would become our new ‘normal.’”
AIR TIME: Mallory Shtybel had a drive-by baby shower: Guests pulled into the driveway, dropped off gifts and left. (Photo supplied)
By fall, she was interning at a different hospital and watching numbers rise again. “Wearing a surgical mask over an N-95, with a face shield, is very difficult for a pregnant woman already struggling to breathe,” she noted. By November she and her family decided she should stay home full-time, where she has “rarely left the house out of fear.”
At 18 weeks, Shtybel was diagnosed with symphysis pubis dysfunction, which makes walking and other movement painful. She has been “basically bed-bound” since the 30-week mark. Accommodations have had to be made for housework, meal planning and pet care.
Because mental health is an important daily consideration, she is thankful for counseling via telehealth, online and Zoom support groups.
Shtybel has received her first Moderna COVID-19 vaccine and anticipates getting the second one before Kendyl’s birth. “This has brought some peace of mind, but I am still diligent in practicing social distancing, mask wearing and hand washing,” she said.
She is also glad for the extra time to savor with her daughter before the baby arrives.
Chelsea Kulp, 32, of Manahawkin had her first child, Amelia, on Aug. 10 at Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune.
When the pandemic emerged in March 2020, she was 17 weeks pregnant. She and her husband, Charlie, were coming home from their two-week “babymoon” in Hawaii, just in the nick of time. They landed at JFK Airport early in the morning of March 6, and by noon Kulp was notified of her company’s work-from-home order.
From the start, the virus has been a constant source of anxiety.
“We were worried about the bike shop (the Kulps own Shore Brake Cyclery in Brant Beach) and what the summer would look like, especially with a new baby on the way and me being out of work for an extended period with limited or no pay.”
Kulp could stay safe at home, but Charlie was dealing with customers at the bike shop, so they had a system for when he got home, whereby “his clothes went straight into the wash and he would jump in the shower before interacting with me,” she explained. “It may have seemed excessive, but it kept both of our worries at bay. No one knew much about the virus, and we certainly did not know its impact on the baby while pregnant, so we were extremely cautious about everything.”
Amid so much uncertainty, “I remember March being just hard, mentally. I worried about everything and everyone, but I tried hard to stay grounded and just reminded myself that we were doing everything we could to stay safe. I knew worrying as much as I was wasn’t great for the baby, either.”
After a psychologically trying month of March, the warmer April days were a relief.
Luckily for them, bicycle shops were included among businesses deemed essential, so Shore Brake was open for repairs and services. “We have been extremely fortunate that so many people got back into riding this past spring and summer.”
Also, both sets of grandparents-to-be came down to LBI for the summer, so Chelsea and Charlie expanded their pod to include them.
While the pandemic had a major impact on her pregnancy and childbirth experience, “I wouldn’t say it was bad, just different from what we envisioned,” she said. “Throughout my whole pregnancy, I tried to look on the bright side of every situation, to find that silver lining. I allowed myself to be upset with how it was and how I wished it could have been” – for example, the change in plans from a shower at The Arlington in Ship Bottom to a virtual shower – “but then moved on. I think going through it made me stronger, made us (Charlie and me) stronger and closer.
“It will be a time we will never forget. I hope we can tell Amelia about it. I wish early on I had started writing about it – how we felt, what was happening – for her to look back on one day.”
Under the circumstances, she continued, “I felt like I was able to enjoy the small moments more. Besides those first few weeks, I was able to be calm and slow down. I was able to work from home without driving an hour to and from the office. I was able to go on daily walks with (the dog) Cody and really enjoy the time when it was just me, Charlie and Cody. In many ways, the experience of being pregnant during a pandemic was a blessing in disguise – without discrediting how also tough it was. It was still tough.”
Kulp’s sister and sister-in-law pulled off a very special baby shower via Zoom. Beforehand, they sent to all invited “guests” a package of “party essentials.” The virtual platform also allowed extended/non-local family who would not have been able to attend in person to join the Zoom shower and celebrate from afar.
“The other best part: I was able to immediately rest afterwards. There was no big cleanup and moving things from the venue to cars and then unpacking at our house.”
Charlie was “present” for Kulp’s doctor visits and ultrasounds via Facetime, so he was able to see it all in real time, including the extra-special 3D imaging at the 20-week visit, albeit from the car in the parking lot. He attended only the first ultrasound in person; the rest were via the phone. Normally there is a strict no-phone policy, Kulp said, but due to COVID, the medical office allowed Facetime and video recording.
BUMP IT UP: Chelsea Kulp looks radiant in nature, not showing the concerns going through her mind. (Photo by Ann Coen)
MOMMING: Chelsea and Amelia enjoy some glorious sunshine, happy to get out of the house, where it’s easy to start feeling isolated. (Photo by Charlie Kulp)
“When it came time for Amelia’s debut, Charlie was the only one allowed at the hospital – no visitors, and Charlie couldn’t leave, either. This was a blessing, too, because it allowed us time, by ourselves, to be with Amelia. Her birth did not go as planned, either. We ended up having an emergency C-section, and Amelia spent a few days in the NICU for observation.” She was born on a Monday and home by Thursday.
For Kulp, the hardest part of the whole experience was postpartum.
“Everyone tells you it’s tough, but until you live it, you never fully appreciate their words of advice. The first few weeks are hard, pandemic or no pandemic. But having the pandemic added another level of difficulty.”
On the toughest days, she missed Charlie the most while he was at the bike shop, even though they were both grateful business was booming. As a very hands-on shop owner, he was there seven days a week.
“I know this time was tough on him, too – he wanted to be able to be home and spend time with Amelia in those early weeks. He did his best, and his staff was incredible,” taking over for him when they could.
About 10 weeks after delivering, she reached a point where she could not stand the isolation any longer, so she reached out to a close friend who has a 1-year-old. They met up and went for a much-needed walk.
“You are dealing with so much as a new mom, mentally and physically, that being able to connect with someone who has recently walked through it means so much,” Kulp said. “And it gets better. I didn’t believe it when I was in the thick of it, but it does.”
GLAM FAM: Chelsea, Charlie, Amelia and Cody are looking happy and well adjusted after a trying year. (Photo by Kyle Gronostajski)
Having her parents and in-laws on hand was a big help, too. Eventually, when she felt confident driving with her newborn, she started making daily trips over to the Island to her parents’ and in-laws’ homes, which gave her a renewed sense of purpose and hope. Both sets of grandparents were diligent mask wearers and limited exposure risk, so when Amelia was born, Chelsea and Charlie were comfortable seeing them in person. “It was world-changing to have that support,” she said.
“I got COVID-19 at the end of March, which put me into quarantine,” 29-year-old Lanoka Harbor resident Amanda Heim said. “It was a very difficult and scary time. I would video chat with my oldest son and husband from my bedroom.”
She was in her third trimester at the time, around her 37th week.
“Unfortunately, I was very sick and had to have an emergency C-section. Everything happened so fast. Thanks to Dr. Brian Gottesman and the nursing team, my son’s delivery was perfect.” He was born healthy on April 11. Heim was SOMC’s first – and, to date, only – COVID-19-positive delivery.
When the coronavirus had first become a threat, “there were so many unknowns,” she said. “Working as a nurse, I was extremely concerned about catching the virus and what would happen to my son. There were not many maternity COVID-19-positive patients.”
Heim’s live, in-person baby shower was her family’s last gathering before everything shut down. Her final ultrasound was canceled due to the pandemic.
When she was induced, her husband was home with their oldest son. “I wanted him to stay healthy, so he could take care of our oldest and the new baby,” Heim said.
The support she received from the hospital, doctors and nurses was incredible, she said. “Although I was alone with no family, I never felt alone. Kathy Porsch, my midwife, immediately met me at labor and delivery and didn’t leave my side the entire time. My nurse, Alice Howarth, felt like a mom to me. She was amazing. Due to my having COVID, I was not able to hold my son. The nurses went above and beyond and would send me pictures and gave me a baby monitor, so I could see him. There was a possibility of my being transferred to ICU after the C-section, but they chose to keep me on Labor and Delivery.
“There are no words to describe the care I received. As a nurse myself, I was so taken aback by the compassion and care. I recently started a position at Southern Ocean Medical Center, and I am honored to be a part of this team.”
Howarth, a nurse of 40 years and the one who admitted Heim and stayed by her side for the entire duration of her three-day stay, recapped the experience:
Heim was admitted through the emergency room as a known COVID-positive pregnant patient who was receiving prenatal care at the Women’s Pavilion OB/Gyn Group.
“She was quite symptomatic (short of breath, severe muscle aches, fatigued). She had quarantined herself at home, trying to stay as far away from her husband and son as she could to prevent them from getting sick. She drove herself to the hospital ER. We got a call that she would be coming up to our unit, so we got our negative pressure room ready (negative pressure means the air flow goes outside into the atmosphere, instead of in toward the hospital for not only COVID, but other droplet/air illnesses, such as tuberculosis or chicken pox). Since it was mid-April (Easter weekend, to be exact), our hospital had stopped visitation on March 13, 2020 since COVID-19 was rapidly escalating in New Jersey.
“I felt so bad for her,” Howarth said. “Her body ached, her oxygen saturation was 92% (normal is 97 to 100%), and she looked drained and sick. I put oxygen on Amanda with a nasal cannula because it was difficult for her to breathe. I started her IV, obtained labs, and talked to her through the whole thing. I couldn’t leave her side; she had no one with her, and she was scared. I was scared for her. I have been a nurse for 40 years now, and this has been such a challenging time for all nurses.
“Because she did not have pneumonia, she could be awake for her cesarean birth. There was no way she would have been able to tolerate labor to have her baby vaginally. She was too sick, and that may have also compromised the well-being of her baby. She was able to have a spinal, so she could be awake to see her baby soon after he was born.
“We had to call on others in the hospital for help. The supervisor was made aware we were going to have our first COVID baby. Remember, things were still so unknown back then; at that time, it was protocol to separate mom and baby, so baby didn’t ‘catch’ COVID (protocol now in 2021 is to keep Mom and baby together, as transmission of the SARS-COVID virus to the newborn seems to be rare if non-existent), and mom could not breastfeed. So, we had to get an isolation nursery ready, as well, for the baby. It was certainly all uncharted territory for our hospital. We have a great team of nurses, obstetricians and pediatricians.”
Mother and baby did well. The pediatrician showed Amanda the baby after he was born and before he went to the isolation nursery. During Heim’s stay, Howarth did everything in her power to give Heim the most “normal” experience possible, given the anything-but-normal reality, Howarth said. After the delivery, the operating room walls and all equipment were scrubbed by the environmental services team and zapped with UV lights, she added.
Howarth and the Heim family happened to see each other at a mutual friend’s child’s first birthday party in September, held outside with masks.
“We both cried as we saw and hugged one another,” Howarth said. “I met her other son and her husband, and they are so happy; Amanda was so grateful for her care during that stressful time.”
Aimee Hargrove, 36, of Manahawkin is expecting her first baby, a boy, around May 19.
When COVID struck, she and her husband, Chris, had just started talking about expanding their family. Chris has a teenage daughter and a pre-teen son.
“Once we realized (the spread of the coronavirus) wasn’t going to slow down, we decided not to let it deter us from our bigger picture,” Aimee said. “We both just came to terms with it being a different experience as opposed to ‘normal.’”
At first she had many negative thought processes, but she did not let them rule her mind or actions, recognizing most of her worry was over things she could not control. Early on in her pregnancy, logic overtook the fear.
“I think it’s very easy to get lost in the ‘what ifs,’” Hargrove said. Instead, she focused on what she could do: follow guidelines and wear proper PPE. The world is not ending, she told herself. We are blessed with this little guy arriving soon. We will make it through and certainly have a story to tell him!
For the grandparents, having to stay away has been tough. Some live hours away or out of state, “so they have not been able to be as present as they’d like, to help and witness everything. Our parents are very hands-on.”
Chris attended the first 12-week ultrasound but none since, which is distressing because they wish they could experience these milestones together, but Aimee fights the urge to mope about it. “I have to remind myself constantly how blessed we are to both be in good health and pregnant,” she said. She looks forward to having him there in the delivery room.
She had always planned to have her mother in the delivery room, too; as of now, that’s not possible – “a bit of a hard pill to swallow” – but Aimee holds out hope that by May perhaps the restrictions will have been relaxed.
In the meantime, she feels lucky to have a solid support network of family, friends (some of whom are also pregnant right now), and “work family” in the emergency room at Southern Ocean Medical Center.
“Being pregnant in this climate is one of the most isolating experiences,” she said. “I’m very grateful for those around me.”
Being pregnant during a pandemic is “such a wild ride,” according to Kelly Lamezec of Little Egg Harbor. The 29-year-old delivered her first baby, Wyatt, at SOMC on July 21. She was about five months along when the virus broke out, so any normal fears she might have had about the pandemic were escalated.
“Even when my doctor reassured me that babies in the womb can’t contract the virus from an infected mother, my anxiety was still high. My logical brain knew everything would be fine if I just followed precautions, but I had such high blood pressure readings just going to my routine checkups that my doctor made me keep track of it at home, just to be safe.”
At that time, she said, the word “pandemic” had just started being used, and mask wearing, social distancing and virus awareness in general were a brand new way of living.
Her biggest fear was not having her husband, Mike, with her during delivery.
“It was on my mind nonstop,” Lamezec said. “I was reading news articles about mothers giving birth alone, and it sent me into waves of panic. Luckily my hospital allowed one support person, which was such a relief.
“Another fear was testing positive before delivery. Maybe new protocols are in place now, but as of last summer if I tested positive, it was possible I’d have to isolate from my baby after giving birth.”
Mike was allowed to attend only the early checkups and ultrasound appointments. Later in the pregnancy, the ultrasound tech let Lamezec record the screen so she show Mike afterward.
One upside was the pandemic forced her to stop working much earlier than she had planned, “which actually helped my mind and body. A few weeks into lockdown, it was becoming painful to walk and perform daily tasks,” she said. “I never would’ve given myself as much rest and grace if it weren’t for the lockdown.”
Another positive was Lamezec’s virtual baby shower, which was “overwhelmingly beautiful and heartfelt” and showed her that even after eliminating the venue, party food and mingling, “there still is a whole lot of love left.”
Yet another plus was the no-visitors rule in the maternity unit. Her husband wasn’t allowed to leave their room. “I was oddly at ease, knowing that after about 26 hours of labor and a rough recovery, there was zero chance of visitors swinging by and catching me in my most vulnerable state.”
Delaying introductions, missing friends and loved ones, and a lack of bonding with people outside their home has been hard, though. They worry Wyatt will be overly shy, or that he’ll be ill-adjusted in public. They’re hoping for no repercussions from being isolated for so much of his first year of life.
As far as Lamezec is concerned, the whole thing is just woefully unfair.
“Bottom line, no one should have to be pregnant, give birth or raise a newborn in the middle of a pandemic,” she said.
Seemingly overnight, Lamezec’s support system, which was robust before COVID, was reduced to digital formats.
“No one really saw me pregnant once lockdown happened. It sounds silly, but I was missing the experience of being a pregnant woman out in the world. I took for granted the bits of small talk and encouraging words with clients, baristas, acquaintances and loved ones. When I was cooped up indoors, the feeling of being alone was exaggerated. I kept thinking about that old saying ‘If a tree falls in the forest but nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’ But instead of a tree, it’s a woman growing a human.”
“Every mom has a vision of what they think their delivery is going to be like,” Rocheskey said. “COVID has completely upended that. As a result, it has been crucial that we are informative and supportive of them, as well as set realistic expectations, both during their prenatal care and also while staying at Southern Ocean Medical Center.”
Rocheskey outlined the hospital’s policies (in accordance with the CDC and N.J. Department of Health guidelines) regarding visitation, PPE, and patient care in maternity. They include ongoing evaluation of team members to ensure those with symptoms do not report to work; stringent masking guidelines; rigorous cleaning procedures; separate areas for non-COVID and COVID patients; requiring expectant mothers and their support person to undergo continuous temperature and symptom evaluation upon admission and throughout their stay; allowing only one support person (plus a doula, if desired). The support person must remain with the mother for the entire duration of the stay.
“We truly believe it is essential that these women have someone with them as they navigate the world of having a baby and becoming a parent,” Rocheskey said.
Upon arrival, mother and support person undergo a temperature check and must wear a standard face mask, no scarves or gaiters, before being escorted to the maternity unit.
Regarding the hospital’s response to the ever-changing guidelines, Rocheskey explained, “As part of the Hackensack Meridian Health network, we anticipated another surge and developed a 30-chapter playbook, a how-to on every aspect of care, and best practices on keeping everyone safe from infection,” which covers testing and screening; separate pathways, areas and entrances for COVID and non-COVID patients; social distancing, reminder signage and disinfectant dispensers; and conventional and ultraviolet sanitization.
“As we acquire new evidence and expert opinion, the entire SOMC team has been able to quickly distribute the information and change course within a relatively short period of time,” she added.
Rocheskey reiterated the surprising benefit of prohibiting visitors. The assumption was that the hospital’s changes to visitation policies and procedures would not be well received. As it turned out, however, most new moms and dads appreciated that private time “to bond as a family, relax and learn about their child.”
“While Zoom and Facetime popularity has increased, (without in-person visitation) Mom, baby and support person got the gift to truly get to know one another in ways that were never possible during previous visitation practices.”
Howarth agreed. “Moms and dads are getting more rest than they ever had before since we don’t have visitors,” she said. New parents are pleasantly surprised that they get to enjoy the first few days with their brand-new babies all by themselves.
“All I can say is thank God for the technology we have in 2021,” Howarth said. “Not only for the research being done about the illness, treatment and vaccines, but for cameras in our phones and for Facetime with family members who cannot visit at the hospital, in these good times or even sad times with COVID deaths.
As Howarth pointed out, 2020 was the Year of the Nurse and Midwife, which is continuing into 2021. The pandemic has caused many nurses, both new and seasoned, to leave the nursing profession due to the physical and emotional stress of caring for COVID patients, as well as the extraordinary number of deaths that have occurred, she said.