‘A little fighter,’ parents of premature baby have a lot to be thankful for

A Columbus family recounts the difficult birth of their premature baby

"If she is gonna come that early, then she is gonna have to fight," Catherine Morales said that she gave the pep talk to her new born, Juliette Morales. Juliette was nearly two pounds when she was born prematurely.
Up Next
"If she is gonna come that early, then she is gonna have to fight," Catherine Morales said that she gave the pep talk to her new born, Juliette Morales. Juliette was nearly two pounds when she was born prematurely.

Every miracle deserves a name.

And Juliette Morales, now 6 months old and living in Columbus with her parents, is a miracle.

Juliette was born May 10 at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. She entered the world about three months premature and spent 70 days in neonatal intensive care units in South Carolina and Georgia.

But long before Juliette arrived, her parents, Julio and Catherine Morales, had settled on a name. They were a little reluctant because Catherine had already experienced a miscarriage in 2014.

“We were at her mom’s house one day and she’s going through names and she said the name Juliette,” Julio remembered. “It was sort of a play on our names, Julio and Catherine. We called her Juliette Catherine. We started looking at the meanings of the name, and I want to say Juliette and Catherine were both pure, clean and beautiful. We knew that when she came into this world that’s exactly what she would be.”

The little fighter who weighed less than 2 pounds when she was born is now 13 pounds and discovering the world’s wonders.

Right place, right time

Catherine and Julio had been talking about a vacation to Charleston for three years and finally decided to take it in late April as she was completing her second trimester.

Catherine, who works in the advertising department at the Ledger-Enquirer, and Julio, general manager of First Watch restaurant (formerly Egg and I), took time off to make the trip before the baby arrived.

They were on vacation at Middleton Place, one of the oldest and most beautiful gardens in the country, when the trip turned into an ordeal that would last months.

Catherine began to feel sick and went to the emergency room at Trident Medical Center in north Charleston. She soon learned that her water had broke on April 27 and unbeknownst to her, she had started the labor process.

“They were telling her there that she was laboring, and that the baby could come at any minute,” Julio remembered.

Catherine was 24 weeks pregnant when she was transferred from Trident to the Medical University of South Carolina, which is about seven and a half hours from Columbus.

On April 29, doctors put Catherine on bed rest to try to slow the labor process. Every day she could keep the baby in the womb, it increased the odds of survival.

Still, the Morales were looking for a way back home. They asked the hospital staff about the possibility of being transferred to Midtown Medical Center in Columbus.

“They said, ‘It’s kind of funny because most people want to stay here,’” Julio said.

The couple was in one of the best neonatal intensive care units on the East Coast.

“They said, ‘You know, people beg us to come here whenever they have high-risk situations,’” Julio said.

Still, they were discussing ways to get home before Juliette was born. Then they had a conversation with a doctor that abruptly ended that pursuit.

“I told him that I know that we keep pushing for trying to get transferred back to Columbus, but what are the risks?” Julio said. “He said, ‘There are many hospitals along the way and we’d have to get you through Florence, Atlanta, and then back to Columbus to get you in a route where there are hospitals along the way.’”

Then the doctor gave a blunt assessment.

“But in the case that she goes into labor in that bus or the ambulance, the chance is that the baby may not make it at all, and if mom’s bleeding out, she’s not going to make it,” Julio said. “And at that moment I said for both of them, ‘We’re just going to stay where we’re at.’”

They quickly discovered they were in the right place.

The goal was to keep Catherine pregnant and deliver the baby at 34 weeks, well under the 40 weeks a full-term pregnancy runs. But even that was a long shot. Each day gave the baby a greater chance of survival. At 24 weeks, there is about a 40 percent infant survival rate and it increases to about 90 percent in the 27th week.

“They made it seem that if we can get at least to the 26-, 27-week mark, the baby had a greater chance,” Catherine said. “So, every night I was just listening to the heart monitor.”

Listening and praying — and talking to Baby Juliette.

“I was just telling her to hang on, behave,” Catherine said.

Julio was back in Columbus, working, worrying and praying.

He, too, was thinking, “Hang on, Juliette.”

For nearly two weeks, Catherine was confined to the hospital room in Charleston, mostly alone and scared. The nurses and staff became her new family and the phone was her lifeline.

But on May 10 the game changed. Catherine started to bleed, threatening her and the baby’s health.

It was time for Juliette to be born.

Julio was in Columbus when he got the call from his wife, who was crying and told him she was about to go into the operating room for an emergency cesarean section.

Before he reached Warner Robins, Julio received a call from the hospital.

“They said, ‘Well, she’s being stitched up now, baby’s looking good, breathing on her own,’” Julio remembered.

Ready or not, Juliette Morales — after spending 26 weeks and one day in her mother’s womb — showed up weighing 1 pound, 15 ounces.

“We were just scared,” said Julio, who made the seven-plus hour drive to Charleston in less than five hours.

Daddy’s little girl is ‘a fighter’

Before Julio arrived, Catherine had briefly seen her daughter when the nurses rolled the baby into the recovery room.

Juliette was in an incubator, wrapped in plastic.

When Julio got to Charleston, he went straight to Catherine’s side.

“I wanted to spend some time with Catherine,” he said.

After more than three hours, it was time for father to meet daughter.

“I almost broke down to the point of tears and just amazement because of how small she was, how much of a miracle, and how she was a fighter,” Julio said.

Everywhere Julio looked, there were tubes running in and out of Juliette’s tiny body.

“Her foot was the size of my thumb,” Julio remembered.

One of the nurses told Julio that was normal. His thought: “This is a new normal for us.”

It took four days before Catherine could hold her baby.

She was in the process of changing her mindset, too.

“We were ready for a long haul,” she said.

And to cope, she kept a journal.

Five days after Juliette was born, Catherine wrote: “I know this will be a very long road, but you are strong and are showing already that you are a fighter. Please continue fighting for me.”

She signed it Momma.

The new norm eventually led Julio back to Columbus — and Birmingham, where he was preparing for the conversion of the Egg and I to First Watch — and Catherine to the Charleston Ronald McDonald House, right across the road from the hospital that was going to be Juliette’s home for nearly seven weeks.

“It’s almost like that was perfect timing because Juliette’s in the hospital, Catherine is at the Ronald McDonald house a block away,” Julio said of the transition going on at his work. “The baby’s being taken care of, I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do to make sure that I provide for them and, you know, there’s no way I could have left work for two or three months and still had a job.”

Catherine turned to her journal as therapy.

“It is the experience of her birth, descriptions of some of the people, the doctors, meeting the friends up there, every little thing about how she’s doing, how she’s feeling, just some of the tests that they’ve run — and everything’s in here,” she said. “It is therapy. If I can’t sit there and get a hug from my momma, then this was the second-best thing.”

At least once, but sometimes twice a day, Catherine was in the hospital with Juliette. She found a new family at the Ronald McDonald House and a newfound respect for the Medical University of South Carolina.

“We were in one of the best places in the country,” Catherine said.

By early June, Juliette was making progress and Catherine and Julio began to explore ways to get back to Columbus. The only problem was that Juliette was looking at possibly two more months in the neonatal intensive care unit.

“The doctor tried to find out the best way to get us home, but we were ultimately talking about it and came up with the decision to stay,” Catherine said, despite the fact that all of their family was back in Georgia. “We were already comfortable with where we were at. Yes, there were times when it was hard. I got lonely, but, you know, just meeting the people up there, they were wonderful.”

But as the days wore on, there became a possibility that Juliette could be transferred to the NICU at Midtown Medical Center in Columbus. Juliette would have to be airlifted back to Columbus and Julio and Catherine were told the cost would be $11,350.

“We couldn’t afford that,” Julio said. “I told them we were a few 20s short for that.”

They thought that had ended the discussion and they would ride it out in South Carolina until Juliette was released. But the social worker arranging the flight came back and said it could be done for $9,500.

That was still more than they could afford.

“The next day Catherine calls me, she says, ‘Hey, they’re asking me if I could be ready tomorrow morning, you know, would I be willing to go home?’” Julio said. “I said, ‘Well, you know what we told them, we don’t have that kind of money.’ Then she says, ‘It’s taken care of.’ I said, ‘How?’ ‘They said don’t worry about it, it’s taken care of.’”

On June 23, Catherine and Juliette flew back to Columbus on a private medical jet. Juliette, weighing 3 pounds and some change, was coming home for the first time.

They still don’t know how it happened, but Julio has an explanation.

“It was just another one of the angels that has been looking after us on this journey,” he said.

Juliette spent three weeks in the Columbus NICU before going home.

Special gifts for a special gift

When Juliette is old enough to understand this story, she will get two special gifts from her parents: Her mother’s journal and a Mr. Potato Head.

“So the first entry was her story, all seven pages of it was her story,” Catherine said. “I continue to write in it.”

The Mr. Potato Head also carries a special meaning.

“I had a friend that I made up there in Charleston and she came across a story on Facebook,” Catherine said. “There was a family who had a pair of twins extremely early. When you are in the NICU, you kind of want to mark those milestones, see how well that they’re growing.”

Enter Mr. Potato Head, the perfect measuring tool for a premature infant.

“They decided to put it up against their twins each month,” Catherine said. “They would take a photo. Part of the reason for the Potato Head is because it’s hard plastic, you can wipe it down, you don’t have to put it in a bag, you don’t have to watch it.”

Juliette has her Mr. Potato Head and it has been a photo prop several times in the last six months, most recently on her 5-month birthday.

As they reflect on 2016, Catherine and Julio talk about faith — and new life.

“We’ve had so many instances where it could have ended, and I have some conditions that are not favorable to carrying a full-term baby,” she said. “We just kind of took it one day at a time, and when she was born again it was one day at a time, and hitting the milestones.”

They have been tested, Julio said.

“There were a lot of trials and tests all along, but, like I have said, we don’t grow weary,” Julio said. “We just believe in what we believe in and stick to that.”

Chuck Williams: 706-571-8510, @chuckwilliams