Shea Tufts is a tiny yet mighty second grader who loves piano, gymnastics and her younger brother Tommy. Her friend Will Savage likes to join her for walks around the city, where he tells her about his favorite things: Pokemon, LEGO and cars. The two have been friends since birth. Because of the experience they shared coming into the world, they and their families will be friends for life.
Shea and Will were roommates in Mass General for Children’s Patty Ribakoff Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), born a few days apart and much too early.
During those bewildering, lonely and tenuous times at the hospital, while the babies received lifesaving care from Leslie Kerzner, MD, and her team, their parents — Hillary and Mike Tufts and Christine and Eric Savage — found comfort in navigating the experience together.
“Each day at the NICU was a different day,” says Hillary, who is a nurse in Mass General’s dermatology surgery unit. “Christine was a rock. We’ve been close ever since.”
“It meant so much to be able to text one another and talk about how we were feeling,” Christine says. “We will be friends with them for life.”
“It Was A Miracle.”
Shea was born in harrowing circumstances in August 2014. Hillary was 27 weeks pregnant when she started bleeding and knew something wasn’t right. She rushed to Mass General and, during a stress test, saw the baby’s heart rate plummet to zero. She heard the team call a code, went straight to surgery and woke up with her family around her.
“I asked them what happened, and Mike said he was going to the NICU,” Hillary says. “I said, ‘For what?’ I thought the baby was dead.”
The neonatal care team had performed CPR on tiny Shea — who weighed barely a pound — for 12 minutes, without regaining her heartbeat. But the doctors and nurses refused to relent and, finally, they restored a faint heartbeat.
“Our clinical and care teams were unbelievable. The doctor had said Shea wouldn’t make it through the day, but she did,” Hillary says. “Then she survived the week, and the month — and then, 93 days later, she made it home. You name it, she had it. A brain bleed, holes in her heart, kidney failure. It was a miracle that she survived. Mass General saved both my and Shea’s life. We were at the right place at the right time.”
A Steady Support
Living a minute-to-minute existence made Hillary even more grateful for her support system and the calming presence of Christine, the mother of Shea’s new NICU roommate. Part of Christine’s steadiness came from gratitude to have a baby in the NICU at all.
In 2011, Christine and Eric Savage had a son stillborn because of a life-threatening pregnancy complication known as HELLP, which stands for hemolysis, elevated liver enzymes and low platelets and is considered a variant of preeclampsia (high blood pressure during pregnancy). Christine was closely monitored for the same condition throughout her pregnancy with Will. Symptoms suggesting the complication was returning led to several emergency department visits, and eventually an emergency C-section when the baby’s heart rate dropped.
“I loved our doctors, including Dr. Kerzner, and the nursing staff, who are just so unbelievably dedicated, technically proficient and able to tell you exactly what they’re doing and why you don’t need to worry.”
Born 12 weeks before his due date, and a few days after Shea, Will was placed on a ventilator for his first six weeks and successfully underwent a procedure to treat a condition called ductus arteriosus, which occurs when a small valve in the heart doesn’t close properly.
“I loved our doctors, including Dr. Kerzner, and the nursing staff, who are just so unbelievably dedicated, technically proficient and able to tell you exactly what they’re doing and why you don’t need to worry,” Christine says.
The timing of Will’s birth meant that the Savage family met the Tufts family on their first day in the NICU and immediately fell into conversation. As the days passed, the parents offered to get coffee or a bagel for each other and sent text messages when doctors were about to do rounds so the other set of parents could hurry to be present.
Shea and Will roomed together throughout their NICU stays, they graduated to Mass General’s special care nursery together, and were discharged to go home within a day of each other, about three months after their births. “One of the things that’s most amazing to me is the resilience of these kids and families,” Dr. Kerzner says. “It’s the babies’ resilience and the parents’ resilience. When they match, it’s a true graduation.”
After getting through the babies’ first winter at home, Christine and Hillary started visiting each other and walking with the babies around Castle Island. As the children have grown, so have their outings, including a week away with the families in Watch Hill, R.I. On a recent trip to Boston Children’s Museum, Christine and Hillary marveled as they often do, as the two 8-year-olds navigate Boston’s downtown together, hugging each other the whole way.
“They absolutely love each other,” Christine says. “We are so lucky.”
To learn more about how to support Mass General for Children’s NICU, please contact us.