Kenna Eckery’s son J.J. is a bright, happy and playful two-year-old boy. He is also a miracle. J.J. was born about seven weeks prematurely. Because of this, he needed to spend 50 days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Those 50 days completely changed Kenna’s life forever.
Kenna and J.J.’s Birth Story
Kenna had just finished her senior project to finish her Bachelor’s degree at Brigham Young University–Idaho when her water broke—at 33 weeks pregnant.
Confused and a little bit scared, she and her husband Josh headed to the hospital. After completely soaking through a pad on her way there, the nurses told her she needed to be induced. They gave her steroids to help her baby’s lungs grow, antibiotics, and medicine to help induce labor.
“I didn’t know all this stuff,” Kenna said. “It was all crazy and I didn’t know the severity of anything. I thought he would just be born a little small.”
Kenna’s labor felt relatively easy, which seemed odd to her since everything after labor was so intense. Her cervix dilated from 0 to 10 in exactly 9 hours, but she had to wait to deliver until the NICU team got there. Once they arrived, J.J. was born 20 minutes later.
“They told me, ‘if he’s breathing you can hold him for a little bit then we will take him away, if he’s not breathing we will just take him away, okay?’ That was really scary,” she remembered.
Thankfully he was born breathing so Kenna could hold him for a minute. After the cord was cut, he was taken away. With her husband and mother helping with J.J.’s postpartum care, she felt very alone.
Kenna had to wait an hour in the delivery room before being moved to the postpartum unit. She kept asking the medical staff when she could see her son. After pumping milk for about 20 minutes, she was allowed to see J.J.
“When I saw him for the first time I cried,” Kenna said, through tears. “I was really happy to see him again, but seeing your child and not really seeing their face because there was a mask ventilator on him, an eye mask and wires coming out of him is really hard.”
As she looked at her son and could hear the beeping of several different machines helping to keep him alive she thought, “oh my child needs more help than we thought.”
When J.J. was born, he took too big a gasp for air, which created an air pocket between his lungs and the chest wall. As a result, he needed an IV tube placed in to get the air out. He also had to be incubated and put on a CPAP machine.
“He is a literal miracle,” Kenna said. “After four days, I was able to hold him for the first time. It was a surprise when I came in one evening and they asked if I wanted to hold my baby. HECK YEAH I do! It was a really nice experience to hold him and feel that closeness with him that I hadn’t had yet.”
All Kenna wanted to do was to hold her 5 lb. 1 oz son and run her hand over his soft skin, but she wasn’t allowed to do that for a while.
“It’s really hard to be told to not touch your child because it over-stimulates them and can cause them pain,” she said. “I didn’t want to cause him more pain than he’s already in.”
Thankfully, J.J. slowly began to progress. Kenna remembered when he started actually finishing his bottles, which was a huge win. She thought, “there is an end in sight after mastering oxygen and feeding!”
Unfortunately, sometimes being in the NICU can be like riding a rollercoaster. J.J. got severe anemia because his iron was so low. He got very sick and his oxygen would drop alarmingly fast. Many times Kenna was there when it happened.
“It was terrifying,” she said. “I might lose my baby at any minute. It was a bit traumatizing, but we slowly made progress.”
Kenna and Josh were finally able to go home with J.J. on oxygen after 50 days in the NICU. It was a whole new world, but they were so happy and grateful to be continuing through life together.
Kenna’s experience is definitely not what most women expect when they first find out they are pregnant, but she is grateful for the priceless wisdom and perspective she has gained (and continues to gain).
What advice would you give to a fellow NICU mama?
“You’re not alone in going through this,” Kenna said. “There are many women going through so many things in the NICU with their babies that are going through different things. There is a community, a sisterhood of people who are there to be with you and to listen to you. It’s always so comforting when you talk about something and someone says ‘yes that’s really hard and I understand.’”
“You don’t have to take it all at once,” she added. “Take it one minute, one hour, one day at a time. Whatever works.”
What can friends of NICU mamas do to help?
Kenna mentioned that the best thing friends of NICU mamas can do to help is to just be there. Whether that’s physically, offering to help, or giving them opportunities for self care.
“Just be there to support them,” she said. “Tell them you love them. Offer them a hug and ask if there’s anything you can do to please let them know. Sometimes people want to talk about it, sometimes they don’t. Respect their boundaries. When their baby comes home, it’s really scary for them because germs can be deadly to these little babies when they are still so young. Moms in the NICU don’t really care for themselves because they are focused on their babies. Give them a meal or a gift card and remind them to think of themselves for a little bit.”
What are some miracles you have experienced along the way?
Kenna said the biggest miracle she has seen throughout this journey has been J.J. himself. He can walk, crawl, play, communicate, and do many motor skills that at one time she didn’t think he would be able to do.
“We had such amazing doctors and nurses that communicated well and answered all my questions,” Kenna said. “They cared for him and they also cared for us. It was nice to be in a hospital where Josh and I could visit any time we wanted. The pandemic made visiting hours hard, but our NICU realized the importance of having both parents there. We could even stay the night, which gave me a lot of comfort.”
What has helped you heal?
“A lot of time has helped,” Kenna said. “Also, just knowing you don’t have to heal by a certain time. Healing is lifelong and it’s okay if I’m feeling crappy right now. It’s okay to feel crappy and have these feelings. I’m allowed to cry and I’m allowed to feel joy too. It’s really weird having this duality of emotions at the same time. Yes, it sucks J.J. can’t speak, but I am so happy he is learning how to communicate in his own way.”
Every month Kenna attends a support group with other NICU mamas, which has been very helpful for her. This group inspires her to reach out and tell her story to other moms. On Mother’s Day, she sent cards, baby blankets and hats to mamas in the NICU so they knew they were loved and celebrated.
“It helps to know that others went through it too, and we got out and we survived,” she said. “Even through some days you have to take it minute by minute.”
What advice would you give to mothers?
Kenna’s advice to all mothers is to stick to a routine. The NICU helped her embrace and love consistency. In the morning she and J.J. will either do a sensory activity or go for a walk, and they try to be out of bed by a certain hour. She recognizes that each day she and J.J. might need something a little different.
“You are the mother of your child,” she said. “Even if it’s different from what you probably imagined it would look like. Even if it’s different from what other mothers go through.”
How has Jesus Christ helped you through your journey?
Kenna remembered a time she was just holding her son, wishing she could take away his pain and take it upon herself. It was so hard and she just wanted him home and safe. At that moment she remembered that’s what Jesus does for us. He took upon himself our pain and so we can return to our Heavenly home. She felt she experienced a big spiritual revelation about the Atonement.
“It made me feel his infinite love He has for us,” Kenna said. “It brought me so much comfort knowing that we are not alone. Jesus is always there. We have a Savior who knows what we are going through and knows the pain of all of it, and He just understands. At that time, I didn’t talk to anyone and I didn’t know anyone who went through it. It’s nice to know I have someone who loves me so much and understands me. That was so comforting.”
Although she didn’t want any of this to happen, Kenna feels like she has become stronger and has grown so much. She said she wouldn’t change anything and has learned to be a better mom and to look for miracles.
“Even when I thought we were going to lose him, I knew the Plan of Happiness was still there,” Kenna said. “Or when he had a rough day I’d think, ‘okay today is hard, but maybe he will be better tomorrow,’”
As Kenna continues to focus on the little moments that bring her hope, she has been able to feel joy and peace. Even during our interview we took the time to enjoy J.J.’s adorable laughter as he splashed in a puddle of water.
With dirt smudged all over his little face, J.J. was beaming with happiness.
“I really like the scripture John 14:18: ‘I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you,’” Kenna said. “I just love that. It shows that in anything you go through, you can find some light.”