The beeping bedside machines cut through the hushed hospital floor: monitors tracking heartbeats, ventilators pumping oxygen into the lungs of newborns who can’t breath on their own. Jessica Dolan, a second-year nurse, rushes from room to room: checking vitals, administering medications, looking for any changes that could be cause for alarm.
She sees the faces of anxious parents who sit at their child’s bedside worried if their newborns are going to ever make it home. She offers consoling words to calm their fears. She’s a mother herself, with a newborn on his way.
As Hurricane Harvey dropped torrential downpours outside and turned Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center into an island amongst a sea of flooded roads and highways, nurses in the short-staffed neonatal intensive care unit, better known as the NICU, raced from room to room to care for the more than 30 newborns who needed round-the-clock care to save their young lives—babies born premature, babies who can’t breathe on their own, babies who need every ounce of love and support to survive.
For six days, Jessie Dolan knew one speed: hyper drive—or at least as fast as her nine-month pregnancy and swollen feet allowed her to move.
She had little time to worry about the destruction Harvey reigned down outside; little time to worry about her husband, Sam, and 3-year-old daughter, Marlow, as the two watched floodwaters rise to their doorstep; little time to worry about the boy growing inside her, who—at 38 weeks—could come at any time.
For six days, there was no time to stop, no time to worry. There were babies whose lives depended on her.
It takes a special kind of person to handle the stresses that come with caring for newborns fighting for their life: someone who’s loving, gentle, and compassionate. Someone who’s mentally and emotionally strong. They’re all characteristics that Jessie’s husband and co-workers say she carries.
“She’s the most loving person I know,” Sam said. “Since I’ve known her, this is what she wanted to do: she wanted to take care of NICU babies.”
As the doom-and-gloom news spread that Hurricane Harvey grew to a Category 4 storm as it approached the Texas coast Thursday night, Jessie and Sam devised a storm plan: She would stay at the hospital and work while Sam and Marlow would ride out the storm at home. She kissed her husband and daughter goodbye Friday morning and headed for the hospital, expecting she won’t be home for days.
The two stayed in touch as best they could, updating each other on their situations and FaceTiming when allowed. They hardly discussed the possibility that she might go into labor. She still had nearly two weeks to her due date, they reasoned.
Jessie rode a rush of adrenaline as the days passed. Sam did his best to keep his composure around Marlow as Harvey sent constant downpours that threatened to flood their home.
“Your children feed off your emotions. You have to swallow it all and take it all in stride,” Sam said. “There’s nothing you can do at that point but make sure your daughter is safe.”
But each rain band that Harvey threw at Houston sent water closer to their door. Sam poured sand from Marlow’s sandbox into bags to prevent the water from creeping in the first floor. There was nothing he could do about the winds that damaged the roof, causing rain to leak inside.
At the hospital, Jessie was caught in a whirlwind of adrenaline and exhaustion. By Tuesday afternoon, six days after the start of her Thursday shift, she reached her limit: She had no energy and for the first time wasn’t able to keep up with her fellow nurses.
Amanda Alvey noticed Jessie’s flushed face and that her belly dropped. Jessie was “nesting,” Alvey said, cleaning and tidying up babies’ beds and the break room when she should have been resting.
“I’ve had two kids and I know that look,” Alvey said, the charge nurse of the NICU.
Alvey convinced Jessie to get checked out by the labor-and-delivery nurses. Though Jessie thought all was okay, her blood pressure was “sky high.” Mixed with her headaches and the pressure on her hips, she exchanged her scrubs for a hospital gown.
She called her husband. It was time.
Floodwaters in their neighborhood prevented Sam and Marlow from getting to the hospital. They would try at first light. Jessie reminded her baby of their deal: You can’t come until Wednesday once the worst of Harvey had passed.
Sam and Marlow fought through the flooded streets and arrived just after 8 a.m. Wednesday.
Reid Thomas Dolan was born at 1:07 p.m., a perfectly healthy 8-pound, 3-ounce baby boy.