Breanne “Bree” Poulin didn’t even know what a NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) was until she had to be sent by ambulance to southern New Hampshire’s only Level III NICU at Elliot Hospital in Manchester.
“I woke up when I was 31 weeks and three days pregnant and I got sick like I did every day,” she says. “Then I ended up getting the worst headache of my life and I felt like something was really wrong.”
A Portsmouth, NH, resident at the time, Bree headed to the local emergency room where she was discovered to have very high blood pressure and elevated levels of protein in her urine. She immediately was transferred to Elliot Hospital, where OB and Maternal-Health physicians diagnosed her with pre-eclampsia, a complication of the pregnancy characterized by high blood pressure.
Initially Bree was put on bed rest, where she was observed and had her symptoms monitored. Early delivery was discussed in the event her symptoms worsened, says Dr. Malgorzata Bulanowski, a neonatologist at Elliot Hospital, who managed the Bree’s case.
“It was a big shock,” Bree says. “I was 24 years old; it was my first pregnancy and it was very scary.”
But, today, five years after that scare, both Bree and her son, Levi, are thriving, and Bree credits Elliot Hospital’s NICU and Maternal-Fetal Medicine teams with saving their lives.
“To be so young and to be so ignorant of the potential for complications, it was paramount that everyone at the Elliot took the time to really make me understand what was happening,” she says. “They were very patient with me, even when I asked them to explain everything again because I just couldn’t comprehend what was happening.”
It was on March 10, 2017 when Bree was transported to Elliot Hospital. In a move to save the baby’s life, Levi was delivered by an emergency Caesarean section six days later on March 16, about three months before his May 9 due date. He weighed three pounds, 13 ounces.
“Bree had progressed to pre-eclampsia with severe features and the fetus did not tolerate the labor, so an emergent caesarean section was performed,” Dr. Bulanowski says. “At birth, Levi required a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine, as well as central line insertion for feeding support. As many premature babies do, he also required therapy with caffeine to stimulate his breathing and phototherapy for jaundice.”
Bree says their “world was turned upside down again” when, at 10 days old, nurses found blood in Levi’s stool and his weight had dropped to three pounds, eight ounces.
“We were standing right there, I remember the moment so vividly, she said, ‘I’ll be right back,’ we knew something wasn’t right,” Bree says. “She came back in five minutes with the neonatologist. She said, ‘I don’t want to scare you, but we need to act fast.’ “
Dr. Bulanowski says Levi’s “blood culture grew bacteria and a radiographic exam was positive for necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), one of the serious complications of prematurity.”
The baby, who couldn’t be fed for 14 days, continued fluid and antibiotics administered intravascularly, and was able to recover with intensive medical treatment without the need for surgery, Dr. Bulanowski says.
It was certainly a long road for the family. Even after Bree was discharged from the hospital, following treatment for severe post-partum hypertension, she and her husband, Josh, stayed by Levi’s side in the NICU every day at least from 6 a.m. until after the 11 p.m. feeding. When they did sleep at a nearby hotel, Josh drove back to deliver the breast milk for midnight and/or 3 a.m. feedings.
“We were there in the NICU for seven weeks (49 days),” Bree says. “We became family.”
Doctors, nurses and therapists were on a first-name basis – several were even included in Levi’s professional newborn photographs and wrote letters for Bree’s scrapbook documenting Levi’s birth.
Levi was discharged on May 4, 2017 – two days before his original due date – weighing six pounds, two ounces.
“Although the scariest thing was having Levi off all the wires and monitors – because I think that was a very big security blanket for us – everyone helped us have a lot of trust and no fear when we were leaving the hospital,” Bree says. “We felt extremely well-prepared, which was crucial.”
Today, Bree says, “Levi is the healthiest kid ever, I’ve never had to take him to a doctor for being sick, even when he had COVID…twice.” He has been committed to karate since he was three years old and is very social, independent and outgoing.
“But, as traumatic as it was – and is to talk about – it’s important for me to share our story and for Levi to know the story of his birth,” Bree says. “I want to do anything I can to help other people be prepared and have the potential for a miraculous and positive outcome like we did.”
Elliot Hospital in Manchester is the only Level III NICU in southern New Hampshire. Close to two-thirds of the babies who are transported to Elliot Hospital are critically ill.