Robert Potter dialed the first number on a long list of children’s hospitals and nervously paced back and forth as he waited for somebody in neonatology to pick up the phone. His wife’s doctor had told him his son would have a scant chance of survival if he was born before 24 weeks.
“Can you help babies who are born under 24 weeks?” he asked. No, he was told, many hospitals don’t admit babies born that young because the majority don’t survive. He hung up and quickly dialed the next number.
“Can you help me?” he pleaded, explaining that his wife, Molli, was 22 weeks pregnant, and her life was at risk. Their baby was probably in danger, as well. His son needed to be born — soon.
Again, the answer was no, so he kept dialing, calling 16 hospitals in three states, he said, until somebody at the University of South Alabama Children’s and Women’s Hospital, 70 miles from his home in Milton, Fla., gave him good news.
Not only would the hospital admit his wife and deliver their son by emergency C-section, but they also had experience treating preemies younger than 24 weeks.
A few hours later, the Potters, both 32, asked a relative to watch their other son, Kayden, 7, and set out for the hospital in Mobile.
Their baby was teensy — 13.9 ounces at birth. They named him Cullen, and hospital staff said they would do what they could for him.
Now, almost six months later, Molli Potter is in good health, Cullen is a healthy preemie — and a video of him “graduating” from the Alabama hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit in a miniature Build-A-Bear cap and gown has been viewed on the Internet more than 18 million times.
“I never saw it coming, but I have an inbox full of messages, and I’m glad that Cullen’s story gives others hope,” Molli Potter told The Washington Post.
“He’s a miracle. We never gave up on him,” said Robert Potter, who works as a river tugboat captain.
The Potters’ journey started this year when Molli Potter, then three months pregnant, began to bleed. Because she’d had two miscarriages, doctors put her on bed rest. Three weeks later, when the bleeding worsened and labor pains began, she and Robert were told that if their son was born before 24 weeks’ gestation, the medical team at their local hospital wouldn’t be able to care for him.
Panicked, Molli Potter told her husband to start calling every children’s hospital in the region to see which one could take her.
The Potters were relieved when they found the neonatal team at the University of South Alabama Children’s and Women’s Hospital, which has an advanced NICU, and said it would admit Molli and care for their son.
“We’ve helped really small babies, born at 21 or 22 weeks, for more than two decades,” said Renee Rogers, the hospital’s NICU manager. For preemies that age, the survival rate at the hospital is about 68 percent, Rogers said.
It was March 9 when the Potters drove straight to the Alabama hospital. After monitoring Molli Potter for five days, doctors determined that her placenta had separated from the wall of her uterus, putting her at risk of hemorrhaging that could deprive their baby of oxygen and also put Molli Potter’s life at risk. Cullen had to be delivered immediately.
“I started screaming, ‘No! He can’t come now! He’s too little!’ ” she recalled.
The medical team worked quickly.
“It was incredible. I was scared, but the team worked together so well that it was almost like everything had been choreographed,” Robert Potter said.
When Cullen was delivered at just 22 weeks, they heard his soft cry.
“It was the most beautiful sound ever,” he said. “I told her, ‘That’s our son, he’s going to be okay. He’s going to make it, so let’s focus on you.’ ”
Cullen was whisked away to the NICU. His mom wanted desperately to nestle him, but his skin and organs were so fragile that it would be more than a month before anyone could hold him.
For the next five months or so, one of the Potters would make the 90-minute trip from their home in the Florida panhandle to the NICU unit almost every day to sit next to Cullen’s incubator and talk quietly to him while he was hooked up to a ventilator and fed through a tube where his umbilical cord had been.
“What kept me going was just knowing that Cullen needed me,” Molli Potter said. “He needed to know that we were fighting for him.”
The Potters got to know the doctors and nurses very well.
“It’s a very harrowing journey for the parents of babies this size,” said Fabien Eyal, director of the hospital’s division of neonatology. “Anything can happen day to day, hour to hour. . . . It’s a long waiting game, full of risks.”
For now, he’s optimistic about Cullen. Other than needing extra oxygen as a precaution for a few months, Cullen hasn’t shown any long-term side effects from his traumatic early birth.
“Time will tell,” Eyal said. “But right now, Cullen looks very good. He’s going to be watched very carefully, but the signs overall are quite encouraging.”
So encouraging, in fact, that in early August, it was decided that Cullen, at 5 pounds and 11 ounces, was almost ready to “graduate” from the NICU and go home. Several weeks before the big event, the Potters took Kayden on an outing to a Build-A-Bear Workshop store, and his mom spotted a tiny black cap and gown hanging on the wall.
“We joked that Cullen could fit into all of the bear clothes, and I knew I had to have it,” she said. “I thought it would be perfect for him to wear home when we left.”
On Aug. 21, she dressed her son in the tiny cap and gown and took him out to say thank you to the nursing staff. Jewel Barbour, Cullen’s lead day shift nurse, rounded up some “pomp and circumstance” music, and Cullen was paraded through the main hallway of the NICU.
Molli Potter said she wants her son’s story to give hope to other parents of premature babies. She plans to keep Cullen’s cap and gown tucked safely away as a keepsake. One day, she said, she’ll take it out of storage and show it to her son — perhaps in 18 years at his high school graduation.