Under normal circumstances, the odds of survival for a baby born at 23 weeks are slim: Around 30 percent, according to some doctors. Just 15 percent, say others.
But under the circumstances in which Haiden Morgan was born — on a cruise ship more than 100 miles from land, with no obstetrician, no incubator and 14 hours to reach the nearest hospital? He had practically no chance.
“The doctors really tell us that he’s a miracle baby,” Haiden’s mother, Emily Morgan of Ogden, Utah, told The Washington Post. “It’s a miracle he’s here.”
She hadn’t expected to need a miracle when she, her husband and their 3-year-old daughter boarded a Royal Caribbean cruise in August. She was only five months pregnant at the time, and her doctor had approved the trip.
But on her second night at sea, amid the almost imperceptible motion of the waves and the hum of ship machinery, the contractions started.
At first, she and her husband, Chase Morgan, weren’t too alarmed. She had been pregnant before and had a sense of what to expect. Perhaps they were false labor pains, known as Braxton Hicks contractions. He pulled out a computer and began to search online for an explanation.
An hour passed, and the pain didn’t go away. Two hours. Three.
In the fourth hour, the blood appeared.
They called down to the medical unit, and Emily Morgan was brought over in a wheelchair. Looking back, she’s amazed that she wasn’t more panicked.
“I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t really comprehend how wrong. I didn’t think about what the possibilities were. All I knew was I was going to have a baby,” she said.
Now, she knows, “I was naive. I didn’t understand what was going to happen from there. … I didn’t realize that there were going to be complications, and there were going to be problems, and we were a long way out at sea. All of that unfolded as we went along.”
In the medical center, a nurse assessed Emily Morgan, her expression nervous. She called down a ship-board doctor, who confirmed what she already knew: she had inexplicably gone into labor. But the doctor warned her that the ship’s medical unit was ill-equipped to deliver such a severely premature infant. And Puerto Rico, the nearest land, was a long way off yet.
” ‘Don’t push, don’t do anything,’ they told me,” she recalled. “And I said, ‘I can tell these are contractions. I’m going to have this baby. I have to push.’ ”
Steely-voiced at the memory, she repeated, “I had to push.”
Less than an hour later, at 1:56 a.m. on Sept. 1, her son was born.
She got only a glimpse of the boy before he was whisked away by a doctor. Emily Morgan, who still had to deliver the placenta, was in some danger herself. The ship-board medical unit didn’t even have clamps to cut her umbilical cord. She had lost a great deal of blood.
“I remember I told them, ‘I want to see my son,’ ” she said. The doctor and nurses soothed her, told her they needed to focus on her for now. At one point, a doctor told her that she had miscarried.
“I want to see him, I don’t care if he’s dead,” she recalls pleading. Then she turned to her husband: “I’m not having any more kids,” she told him. “I’m done. I’m not going through this again.”
But a short while later, the doctors returned. Their son was alive, they said. Tiny and fragile and struggling to breathe, but still alive. For how much longer, though, the doctors weren’t optimistic. If the baby stopped breathing at any point, it was their policy not to resuscitate. In cases such as this, many doctors would do the same — 24 weeks is usually considered the limit of viability for premature newborns.
The exhausted parents were brought to another room, where their newborn son lay swaddled in towels. An oxygen mask was strapped to the side of his face. Emily Morgan marveled at his tiny features, his bright pink skin, his feeble little cry. They were good signs, she knew, evidence that his lungs were strong and that his immature, 1.5-pound body was perhaps up to the challenge ahead.
She isn’t sure why she was initially told she had miscarried, though she believes the doctor’s intentions were good.
“Maybe because they weren’t equipped … and they really didn’t think he would live, and they didn’t want me to be overwhelmed,” she said. “I do believe she really felt like I had miscarried and that he wasn’t going to make it.”
Initially, the Morgans were told that they couldn’t stay with their son, and Emily Morgan was sent back to her room. She knew the doctors didn’t think he would live through the night. But she refused to believe it.
“They had told me that once, and he was still alive. It lit a fire,” she said. “If he can make it so many hours then I will do what I can to help him stay alive. If he wants to be here, we’ll make it so.”
After about half an hour, she and her husband returned to their son’s room and laid down beside his tiny, towel-wrapped form, dwarfed by the adult-sized bed.
For the moment, they called him Baby Boy Morgan. “We love you, Baby Boy,” they said. “We love you.”
All night, the couple devoted themselves to keeping the infant alive. He was so fragile he could barely be handled — at 23 weeks, a baby’s skin is insubstantial and paper thin, his nerves so close to the surface that the slightest stroke can be painful. But they did their best. When Baby Boy’s towels were wet, they wrapped him in new ones. When it seemed he was losing too much heat through his head, they found a maxi pad to cover it and keep him warm. Every 90 minutes, Emily microwaved saline pouches to stuff into his wrappings — a makeshift incubator.
In the morning, the ship’s captain called down to check on how the Morgans were doing and let them know that the ship was speeding to shore. Over the phone, he heard Baby Boy’s weak cry, more whimper than wail.
“He’s alive?” the captain asked, startled.
Okay, he said. Okay.
“He told me they were going as fast as we can, and we were going to get there two hours earlier,” Emily Morgan recalled. “And then I thought, well, two hours isn’t really a big difference.”
But as the morning ticked by, dark spots — signs of hypothermia — began to appear on the little boy’s fingers and toes. His body was losing heat, fast, and he needed to be in a real intensive care unit, with a real incubator.
In the end, being two hours early might have saved the baby’s life.
The ship docked in Puerto Rico around 2 p.m., and an hour later the Morgan family was being rushed to the hospital. Chase, 3-year-old Chloe, Baby Boy and a translator provided by Royal Caribbean were in one ambulance, on their way to the neonatal intensive care unit. Emily was in another, to be treated in the maternity ward.
She cried in the ambulance — partly out of exhaustion, partly out of remorse at having disrupted a cruise for several thousand people, partly out of fear, partly out of joy that they had made it this far.
After three days in the Puerto Rican neonatal intensive care unit, Baby Boy was healthy enough to be transferred to a hospital in Miami. Now that they were closer to home, the Morgans felt comfortable giving him a name.
Haiden was one they’d discussed while he was in the womb, and it seemed to fit their tiny, red-faced newborn. For the boy’s middle name, they considered something ship-related. Perhaps Cruise?
No, they decided. He would probably hear enough stories about his untimely birth growing up without the additional reminder. They decided on Chase, for his father.
Haiden Chase Morgan. Their son.
Haiden has been at the hospital in Miami for three weeks now, and he is still a long way from healthy. Repeated infections and complications have kept him from putting on any weight. Nearly a month after birth, he weighs little more than a paperback book and is still so tiny he could almost nap in a basketball player’s sneaker. He wears a respirator tube to help with his breathing and is fed breast milk through a syringe into his stomach — just two tablespoons at a time over the course of an hour and a half.
The little boy will likely remain in the intensive care unit through December — the month in which he was supposed to be born — though the Morgans hope to be able to transfer him to a hospital in Utah next month. Their medical expenses have mounted worryingly, and they are accepting donations through a GoFundMe page to help pay the bills.
Chloe daughter, is back in Utah with her grandparents, though she speaks with Emily and Chase constantly and asks about Haiden every day. “She says ‘I just want to kiss him, he’s so cute,’ ” her mom said.
She and her husband are staying at an apartment rented by the hospital. They’re only able to visit Haiden during “touch times” every three hours — the sounds of too many voices disturbs him — so they spend some of their spare time at a nearby gym. There, they lift weights and try not to worry. And they’re a short drive from a hospital, should anything happen.
But the Morgans are not pessimists by nature, and they feel they have reason to be positive.
“We’ve hit rock bottom of not knowing what was going to happen. We were on a cruise ship hearing he was going to die,” Emily Morgan said. “And now he’s 24 days old and he still is fighting.”
“We can smile about that.”
Correction: An initial version of this article misstated the date of Haiden’s birth. He was born Sept. 1 at 1:56 a.m.