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By: Eugene K. Chow

Isabella Vasquez was born two and a half months premature, weighing just 1 pound.

“I never in my life imagined my daughter would be that small,” her mother Katheryn Pena recalled.

Katheryn was 26 weeks pregnant when she felt severe chest pains. She immediately went to Bronx-Lebanon Hospital where doctors discovered that she was suffering from severe preeclampsia. She needed to be hospitalized immediately and doctors began preparing her for an emergency C-section.

As soon as Isabella was born, she was carted off to the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit), while Katheryn recovered from the surgery.

It was several days before Katherina was physically able to see her baby. When she finally did, she was shocked.

“[She was] this little thing the size of a baby wipe,” Katheryn said.

There were tubes everywhere.

Isabella was placed in an incubator and required a ventilator as her lungs were not strong enough for her to breathe on her own.

Isabella in the NICU.

Isabella in the NICU

While the doctors at the NICU nursed Isabella, the innovative Robin Hood-funded Early Head Start program supported Katheryn and helped see her through this difficult period. Infant Parent Mental Health Specialists offered emotional support and taught her valuable parenting techniques.

“It can be a very frightening and intimidating experience. Parents often have a hard time connecting to their children in the NICU,” explained Michelly Garcia, the Director of the Early Head Start program. “With their babies in incubators, parents are physically removed and can’t even hold their babies, so they feel a great distance both physically and emotionally.”

Specialists from Early Head Start meet with parents beside their children’s incubators, creating bonds and teaching specialized techniques to ensure that infants are stimulated and can connect with their parents. Bronx Lebanon’s Early Head Start program is the only one in the nation to be embedded in a NICU and supports low-income families in the poorest urban congressional district in the nation.

Isabella stayed in the NICU for five months where she grew steadily. It wasn’t easy for Katheryn, but she learned to be patient. Isabella was so fragile, Katheryn wasn’t able to hold her until she was nearly three months old. During that time, Katheryn never once heard her daughter’s voice because of the ventilator tube down her throat.

Under the loving care of the NICU’s doting nurses and doctors, Isabella continued to grow and when she was eight pounds, she was officially discharged.

Isabella was still a bit fragile, so with the help of Early Head Start, Katheryn and her husband moved into their own apartment across from the hospital so Isabella could always be nearby just in case.

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Now two years old, Isabella is a happy, healthy child who is bilingual in English and Spanish. She has a slight speech delay, but no significant health problems. Each week she receives speech and physical therapy as well as a home visit from a nurse and a Family Support Worker from Early Head Start.

Inspired by her experiences at the NICU, Katheryn is studying to become a child therapist. She is in her final semester at Bronx Community College where she is majoring in education.

Reflecting back on Isabella’s incredible recovery, Katherina is grateful. “I was so lucky,” she said.

When Isabella was first born, Katheryn didn’t want to show anyone a photo of her daughter. Now, she lovingly shows it off.

“She was born like that and look at her now. I’m so proud of her.”

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