Their sign of hope: A Spencer family’s story about giving birth during COVID-19

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Bethany Johnson holds her newborn son, Irving Johnson, inside Spencer Hospital's Birth Center as her husband, Ryan Johnson, looks inside from a window.

Bethany Johnson holds her newborn son, Irving Johnson, inside Spencer Hospital's Birth Center as her husband, Ryan Johnson, looks inside from a window.

Bethany Johnson knew exactly what to do last month when her water broke.

Her first baby was on the way.

So, shortly after 7:30 a.m. on April 11, Johnson and her husband, Ryan, went to Spencer Hospital, which is just across Grand Avenue from their house.

Unfortunately, that’s when other things stopped going according to plan. 

Ryan had been experiencing symptoms of a common cold. Normally, that’s no big deal, but in a time when COVID-19 was just starting to show up in Clay County, the hospital was beginning to take every precaution necessary to protect patients and staff.

“They knew that Ryan had a cold because I’d gone in for some testing (earlier in the week),” Bethany said.

Ryan was told he wouldn’t be able to be with Bethany as she gave birth to their son. The hospital had changed its policy the night before. Nobody who was sick – aside from the expectant mother – was allowed in the hospital’s birth center unit.

Like many mothers preparing for childbirth, Bethany had created a birth plan, an outline of how she would like the labor and delivery process to go.

“My birth plan went out the window basically as soon as I got to the hospital,” Bethany said. “Because on my birth plan was, Have my husband there.

Bethany called her mom, who lives an hour away in Pocahontas, to come and be her support person. Each patient was only allowed one, per new hospital rules.

“It was so hard,” Bethany said. “I had been told he could be there, so when we found out on Saturday morning that he couldn’t, I cried. When I called my mom, I could barely get a full sentence out before I burst into tears.”

Her mom arrived at 10:30 a.m. Saturday. She and Bethany could not leave the room until Bethany was discharged.

“We couldn’t walk the halls, we couldn’t leave that room,” Bethany said.

Ryan had to leave the hospital entirely.

Protecting mothers, babies and families

In normal times, there are about 300,000 births each month in the US. That’s likely not going to change soon, but it’s safe to say expectant mothers were not planning to welcome their babies during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

There are challenges that many hospitals are aware must be met to help pregnant women during this time – and the CDC has prepared special guidelines

Like hospitals across the country, Spencer Hospital is rising to meet those challenges and protect those who enter its Birth Center, even as it stays about as busy as normal. That’s about 25 births per month.

“We’re really trying hard to keep it as potentially normal and a good experience as possible for our families,” said Jeannette Hasley, Spencer Hospital Birth Center Director.

For Bethany and Ryan, that meant nurses and doctors helping Bethany and her mom keep Ryan as updated as possible. 

Ryan brought a step ladder to stand on outside the first floor delivery room’s window so he could see inside. He was on speaker phone so he could hear what was going on. While he was home, he’d use his computer video conference with Bethany’s mom, who had brought her computer.

“He was basically in constant communication and contact all day long,” Bethany said. “It just depended whether or not he had gone back home.”

It wasn’t ideal, but it worked.

The hospital has made some changes to their policy that are meant to minimize exposure for pregnant mothers, including having them come through a separate entry and asking everyone who enters the hospital to wear cloth masks. Those cloth masks protect others from droplets that may come from the wearer, who may unknowingly be positive for COVID-19.

Hasley said they are constantly reviewing policy and adapting as necessary.

“We have plans at the hospital for almost everything,” Hasley said. “This has been a very intricate plan, and sure, we’re on the fly with somethings, but we are very detailed and making sure we’re using evidence-based practice, listening to all the experts giving advice and so that staff go through all the training to make sure they know how to apply your PPE, when are you going to isolate a patient.”

Susan Zulk, Spencer Hospital Vice President of Marketing and Fund Development, said that even though COVID-19 is new, the hospital already had applicable policies and procedures at the ready.

“COVID-19 is a novel virus,” Zulk said. “It is new and so it’s different from anything we have worldwide ever seen before. However, it has similarities and we train for infectious diseases and so there are already policies and procedures in place for handling an infectious disease, either for a single patient or for an outbreak that would occur.”

Saturday did not go as planned for the Johnsons, thanks to COVID-19. Bethany couldn’t drink any of the hot tea packets she had brought with her because they couldn’t access the hospital’s hot water maker. 

When staff visited the room, they donned full gowns and PPE. Hasley later explained this is done on a case-by-case basis and not standard for every patient because PPE has to be preserved.

Watching from the window

Ryan spent his Saturday watching and waiting outside from the window.

“A lot of standing on the step ladder outside of the window,” Ryan said. “It’s on the first floor, but the window’s a little high and you can see in, but it’s a lot easier with a step ladder.”

Ryan estimated he spent at least seven or eight hours standing on that step ladder while Bethany progressed through labor. He went back across Grand Avenue to their house a few times to eat or to warm up. 

The high that day in Spencer day was 61 degrees, but the low was 33 degrees. Snow was in the forecast for April 12, Easter Sunday, and it was supposed to be colder.

Ryan went home later Saturday night. He asked that they let him know if anything changed so he could come back as soon as possible. At about quarter to midnight, just over 15 hours after Bethany’s water broke, he was told to come back – it was time to start pushing.

As Bethany began to deliver their son, Ryan watched from outside. The nurses gave him updates.

“They made sure they were including Ryan as much as possible,” Bethany said. “They would walk closer to the phone or the computer to make sure that he thoroughly understood everything that was going on, double-checked to see if he had questions for them. They just did an awesome job including him in the experience as much as possible.”

At 3:43 a.m. April 12, Easter Sunday, Bethany gave birth to their son, Irving Carl Johnson. He weighed 7 pounds, 9 ounces and was 20 inches long.

Ryan described the experience of watching his son being born as “surreal.” He said he felt an “extreme joy” of watching his baby boy being born, but there was also a “sorrow” that he couldn’t be in the room to support Bethany or be there in person.

Bethany said it was hard to not have Ryan in the room with her.

“I love my mom,” she said. “She was a great support person and we’re very, very close, but it’s not the same as having your husband there. It was really, really hard because I just wanted him there for that emotional support.”

Spencer saw just over four inches of snow on Easter with blizzard-like winds, too. Luckily, little Irving beat the snow.

“It was a little bit cold and windy when he was actually born, but there was no precipitation,” Ryan said. 

Irving and his father met for the first time with a window between them.

“Before I went home, they brought him to the window for a short period of time,” Ryan said.

A sign of hope

Ryan came back again later that day. This time, a picture was taken and shared on Facebook to announce to friends and family that Irving was born – and to share the Johnsons’ experience.

When they were taking the picture, Bethany said she couldn’t stop thinking about how cold Ryan must have been. 

Ryan wasn’t sure what was going through his mind.

“I don’t even know,” Ryan said. “It’s such a different feeling. I don’t know that I have a coherent thought, if that makes sense.”

There were “so many different emotions,” he added.

“The time I was in the snow, that was Easter morning,” Ryan continued. “If you read the Facebook post, the hymn ‘Because He Lives’ just ran through my mind all that day. I sang him that second verse that I put in my post.”

How sweet to hold a newborn baby, and feel the pride and joy he gives.

But greater still the calm assurance, this child can face uncertain days because He lives.

“That was a special moment because Ryan sings a lot of hymns and has sung to Irving in utero quite a bit,” Bethany said. “And so, that was the first time Irving got to hear his daddy sing outside the womb.”

Irving, the Johnson’s Easter baby, was a sign of hope, they said.

“It’s a nice reflection because the new life of being born mirrors Christ’s return to life,” Ryan said. 

Bethany said the moment of their son’s birth was a reminder for them.

“Easter is hope. Easter is the promise that the price has been paid and the brokenness of the world will be redeemed some day,” she said. “And, in the midst of all of this chaos of this worldwide pandemic, to have him born on Easter Sunday was just a reminder of that hope. That even in a pandemic, God is still with us.”

Being home “just feels right”

Bethany and Irving went home on April 14. Ryan was finally able to hold his son for the first time.

“I was so excited to bring Irving home and to put him in Ryan’s arms,” Bethany said. “Every time – I’d been thinking about it all morning long – I would tear up at the thought. And when I finally got to do it, it was just as special as I knew it was going to be.”

Though he likely was happy to be home and in his father’s arms, Irving was a little impatient when he arrived at the house.

“The only one who wasn’t very happy about it was Irving because he wanted to eat,” Ryan said. “We made him wait a minute so I could hold him first.”

Both Ryan and Bethany said the staff at Spencer Hospital made their experience as positive and as special as possible.

“The hospital staff were amazing, and sympathetic, and supportive and tried to make everything the best experience it could be given the circumstances,” Bethany said.

Feature image (provided): Bethany Johnson holds her newborn son, Irving Johnson, inside Spencer Hospital’s Birth Center as her husband, Ryan Johnson, looks inside from a window.

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