There is an instant bond among parents of premature children. They’re called NICU moms and dads, and their connection is rooted in the intense experiences they endured before, during and after their babies’ early entrances into the world.
They know what it’s like to hang on every number change on an oxygen monitor, on every blip on a pulse oximeter and, most importantly, on every word out of their baby’s doctor’s mouth.
And that’s why Dr. Gregor Alexander’s unexpected departure from the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies shocked so many Central Florida parents. In his 40-plus-year career as part of the hospital’s NICU (which was named after him in 2010), Alexander cared for — and indeed, saved — tens of thousands of babies. For his patients’ parents, his work often led to stories of hope, faith and miracles.
Marysa LaFontaine — a sweet, sometimes shy 8-year-old who calls Winter Garden home — is just one of those stories.
ALL THAT MATTERS
Mary LaFontaine knew something wasn’t right. It was Feb. 23, 2011, and she was about halfway through her pregnancy. When a 102-degree fever lasted several weeks, she begged her OB-GYN for help.
Her worries actually started months before, but subsequent tests concluded everything was fine with her and her baby.
This time, her OB-GYN put her on bed rest and sent her home. However, that night, Mary began to experience what she thought were contractions. At 12:30 a.m. Feb. 24, she and her husband, Eric, climbed into their car and drove to Winnie Palmer’s Triage Unit. She was sent home with medication to stop contractions and relieve anxiety — after all, she wasn’t due for another five months.
Less than five hours later, the LaFontaines became NICU parents.
“I was standing in my bathroom doorway, and she fell out — still in the amniotic sac,” Mary said. “I held her gently and slowly got back in bed. I had to fight the contractions, because I knew they could break the sac, and she would die.”
Mary didn’t know Eric also had seen what had happened. She tried to stay calm and asked him to call 911. Eric, though, was fully aware his first daughter had been born right there in his bedroom.
“We were both trying not to make each other panic,” Mary said. “Eric called 911, and I just remember watching the clock on the DVR tick as we waited.”
The Winter Garden Fire Department sent everything — a truck, two ambulances, a helicopter. But no equipment could have prepared them for this.
“They had never seen anything like this,” Mary said.
Paramedics decided to cut the umbilical cord and transport both mom and baby in separate ambulances to Health Central Hospital.
“I remember after we were separated, a paramedic took Marysa and dropped her into his shirt to keep her warm,” Mary said. “I thought that that was the last time I’d see her.”
In the ambulance, a paramedic asked Mary if this was her first miscarriage.
I guess it is, she said.
At Health Central, Mary saw the expressions on the paramedics’ faces. They looked distraught, defeated.
Marysa didn’t make it, Mary assumed.
In fact, there are myriad reasons why Marysa probably shouldn’t have made it. Her eyes were still fused, she registered a heart rate of a terrifyingly low 40 beats per minute. Her body core temperature measured 83 degrees. And at just 23 weeks, the only thing separating her brain from the outside world was a fragile piece of skin. With so many paramedics and nurses having already handled her, any one of them could have unknowingly caused irreparable damage.
But Marysa, as the LaFontaines would come to know in the following years, was nothing if not a fighter. She was breathing the entire way to the hospital. And those heart rate and temperature numbers? They were Marysa’s body preserving itself until help could arrive.
Ciro Escoto was able to get Marysa intubated, and unbeknownst to the LaFontaines, Alexander already was caring for their minutes-old daughter. His top two nurses, Barbara Peterson and Karla Borrelli, were en route via helicopter to assess Marysa and prepare her for transport to Winnie Palmer.
Before their journey, Peterson and Borrelli brought Marysa in her isolette to Mary. They wanted her to see her daughter.
“Inside the isolette, there was this little tiny blob in a Ziploc bag,” Mary said. “They told me I needed to look at her. There was a little tube going into her mouth. Her skin was translucent. And it was amazing — her hands were perfectly formed.
“I knew what this meant,” she said of seeing Marysa. “We were in for the fight at that point.”
It wasn’t likely that Marysa would survive — and even less so that she wouldn’t be without some complications. But none of that mattered.
“I only wanted to know, ‘Can I love her?’” Eric said. “Because that’s all that matters.”
After being discharged from Health Central, Mary and Eric first went home to make sure everything was locked and secure. Then, they made their way to Winnie Palmer.
A nurse brought the LaFontaines to Room 2C — reserved for the most critical of patients. And as she was explaining to them all the rules that come with preemie babies, Alexander entered the room. He had stayed past his shift just to meet them.
I have been waiting to meet this mom and hear how she managed to save this baby who was born at home, he said. This doesn’t happen often, and I didn’t expect her to be in the shape she’s in.
That first meeting — the first face-to-face conversation she would have with the man responsible for saving her baby — is seared into Mary’s memory. And it served as the beginning of a 154-day journey the LaFontaines endured before they brought Marysa home.
There were setbacks — jaundice, breathing issues, a critical brain scan that would tell the LaFontaines whether Marysa was injured on her birthday.
But as NICU parents do, the LaFontaines found silver linings wherever they could.
“Every day we still had her was a good day,” Eric said.
Mary soon became known as “The Eagle,” and when she arrived, nurses and doctors would say, The Eagle is at the nest. And during her stay, Marysa became somewhat of a celebrity. She appeared in a Mastercard commercial for the Arnold Palmer Invitational and even met the legendary golfer himself. Her case also was used in research projects being conducted at the time.
“I did not want all of this to be in vain,” Mary said. “If other babies could benefit from this data, then I wanted that.”
All the while, they followed Alexander’s instructions to the letter.
“We hung on every word that man said,” Mary said. “Once, he told me classical music would help me to lactate more. I tried it, and it did. Then, when I told him it worked, he said, ‘Mary, I was just joking!’”
Marysa was born Feb. 24, 2011, at 1 pound, 7 ounces, at home. When she finally returned to Winter Garden July 29, 2011, she weighed 10 pounds, 7 ounces. Marysa had the second-longest stay in the NICU that year.
The LaFontaines credit Alexander, Drs. Brian Lipman and Jose Perez, and all nurses and support staff at Winnie Palmer for getting them to that day.
But as many know, Alexander shies away from the accolades.
God does His work through my hands, he told the LaFontaines.
THE SECRET TO LIFE
Today, Marysa is an 8-year-old third-grader who loves ice skating, music and dance. She’s an excellent student — all A’s and one B on her last grade card — and her dream is to become a doctor or biomedical engineer so she can help others.
Marysa also is somewhat of a local celebrity with the Winter Garden Fire Department. They have been guests of honor at Marysa’s birthday parties, and for the annual Santa Run, Marysa enjoys a few extra candy canes from the big man himself.
“We won the lottery with Marysa,” Mary said. “She is the strongest person I know. She may not have had the best start, but she has a great future.
“At 33, I learned the secret to life,” she said. “It’s just love and family. And I’m grateful to have learned it so young.”
As a child, Editor and Publisher Michael Eng collected front pages of the Kansas City Star during Operation Desert Storm, so it was a foregone conclusion that he would pursue a career in journalism. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Missouri — Columbia School of Journalism. When he’s not working, you can find him spending time with his wife and three children, or playing drums around town. He’s also a sucker for dad jokes.