My name is Ashton, I am a co-founder of Early Bird Foundation, Inc. I am married to my best friend, Matt, we have a two-and-a-half-year-old son, Brooks, and are currently in the midst of a NICU journey with my beautiful daughter, Olivia. When asked to share my story, the process of sitting down and actually putting into words some of the most difficult days of my life, I have found is no easy task. Hopefully through this story I can adequately describe our experiences and make an impact for awareness of NICU life, but even more for myself, for truly putting into words what the journeys meant to me.

God has chosen me as a NICU mom to not only one baby, but two. On January 20th, 2016 Brooks was born at 33 weeks and 5 days gestation (4 lbs and 8 oz) due to uncontrollable severe preeclampsia; less than two days after I was admitted for monitoring. He spent 30 days at Baptist Health NICU and had an immediate 10-day hospital stay at UK before we were able to bring our precious baby home. The initial days and weeks after Brooks was born I truly struggled. I was terrified, confused, and anxious. Recovering from preeclampsia and an emergency c-section, coupled with a baby in the NICU had me in a downward spiral and I found myself experiencing a degree of postpartum depression.

NICU life is hard to explain to an outsider, but I promise you once engulfed in the environment it will forever be sketched in your heart no matter the length of stay. When entering the NICU, the sight of term babies to babies as small as your hand can be observed and the overwhelming sound of alarms going off can be heard from all directions. Nurses, doctors, therapists, and support staff all have their full attention on these babies fighting for their life. Parents participating as much as possible with their baby’s care is an encouraging sight, but looking closely exhaustion and concern can be seen on each face.

My experience was no different, and my emotional struggle began as soon as Brooks was taken away to the NICU immediately following his birth. Leaving your baby in the NICU, watching monitors, hearing alarms for brady events, and realizing other people were caring for your baby more than you, were all reminders of how my childbirth experience was not how I expected it; I later realized this was grief. Grief from my missed experience of holding my child immediately following birth, grief from being on the mother baby wing without my baby and without visits from friends and loved ones, grief from the “ideal” excitement and events of a new baby.

All in all, God provided and I have a very healthy baby boy to this day, but the impact of my first NICU experience was life changing.

Shortly after my son’s second birthday we found out we would be expecting another precious baby. The initial sickness and fatigue decreased around the time we found out we would be having a baby girl, just what Brooks wanted! As the pregnancy progressed, so did the memories and anxiety surrounding a pre-term birth and NICU stay. For some reason; I just expected it, maybe because that is all I knew.

In the first few weeks before Olivia was born some strange pregnancy symptoms had my OBGYN doing additional tests and ultrasounds to rule out any potential issues. Everything had checked out, but the end of July I had woke up feeling decreased movement from out sweet girl. I was hesitant to tell my doctor due to feeling like I was imagining it, but decided to anyway at a scheduled appointment. I was put on a monitor and Olivia was observed having a four-minute deceleration of heart rate in utero; which my doctor immediately did a follow up ultrasound and found a Velamentous Cord Insertion; a condition that can cause a baby to have heart rate drops, low birth rate, and even death in undiagnosed cases. A true sign from God, that Olivia would be my second miracle baby.

I was admitted to the hospital for monitoring and steroid shots were initiated less than a week before Olivia was born. When additional drops were observed I was put on a drip of magnesium sulfate to stall delivery for as long as possible. On 8-5-18, Olivia had two drops: a four minute and an eight minute drop in utero; the decision was made for an emergency c-section. For at this point, she was more stable out than in. Olivia was 31 weeks and 1-day gestation (3 lbs. 6 oz), and for the second time, my baby was swept away to NICU; the start of my second NICU journey.

The all familiar emotions and stresses of NICU life had returned, and this time accompanied by having a child at home who I had to care for as well. Let me tell you, that makes NICU life 100% harder, this I now know. In the couple of weeks after her birth I have asked myself why did my body fail me again? Why do I have to be pulled in so many different directions? Doesn’t God know the tole it has taken on me and my family, especially Brooks?

My only explanation: God has a plan for this experience as well. A year and a half after Brooks was born, I co-founded this non-profit after realizing the true need for peer support to NICU families. During my first NICU stay I realized I would have loved someone to talk to, someone who had been there. Someone to offer hints on how to survive this lonely journey. Someone to hold my hand in prayer when I couldn’t hold Brooks’. Someone to not only say “How is the baby?” but to also ask me “How are you?” I realized the sole purpose I went through my first stay was to be in a position to help others in a similar situation.

So why was a second NICU journey needed, hadn’t I learned everything there was to know about this journey? The answer is no. I can promise you this much though, God isn’t done with me is all I can process. God has more to teach me through this experience about myself, God’s timing, and further how I can help people through Early Bird Foundation. I also hope that through my recent trials and NICU journey I can expand NICU awareness. For others to see that this population is at a heightened risk for postpartum depression and see how much of a strain it can put on families emotionally, financially, and physically. I ask that when you see a NICU family remember my story and my purpose for suffering. Take a meal, give a ride to the hospital, offer to watch older children, walk a dog, stop for a visit in hospital waiting room, know your actions are worth so much more than any words alone.

My passion to co-found this organization came from a place of wanting to provide a safe place for all the mamas out there that are struggling. I want to be an encouragement and help in anyway that I can. I want to share about Jesus, and how He allowed me and carried me through a circumstance for maybe the sole reason of helping others.

Early Bird Foundation, Inc. is truly making a difference, and I know this because I am seeing it first hand through my second NICU experience and the added support it has brought to my journey. With that, I look forward to meeting you all, and offering my services in anyway that I can!