A mother’s 42-day COVID odyssey

Sabrina and her family were finally able to take newborn photos with Harrison on May 16. The only outward signs of her illness are a tracheostomy scar on her neck and a left eye that’s droopier 
than the right.
Caption
Sabrina and her family were finally able to take newborn photos with Harrison on May 16. The only outward signs of her illness are a tracheostomy scar on her neck and a left eye that’s droopier than the right.

Credit: EMMYJAY PHOTOGRAPHY

Credit: EMMYJAY PHOTOGRAPHY

Wrestling with disease kept her at distance from newborn son for six weeks

I don’t remember meeting my second son for the first time.

I have a picture that has created a memory, and I THINK I remember some of it. But I recently saw the rest of the pictures from that moment, and I learned that most of what I thought I recalled was really a vivid dream.

How the journey began

I was 29 weeks pregnant when I got COVID-19. We had spent nearly a year being cautious. Very cautious. But our 3-year-old needed socialization, and Mama needed some time alone to regain some sanity and get ready for the baby. We were comfortable with the safety protocols at Benjamin’s school.

Ben spiked a fever briefly one night, then was fine. A few days later, I thought I had a cold — I was congested, but I still had my taste and smell. I was tired, but what pregnant mom who works full time isn’t? After my husband, Mike, tested positive, Ben and I went for testing. We both had it. We started notifying anyone we’d maybe been close to. My boss told me to take the week off. I brushed him off and said I’d be back in a few days. I should have listened to him.

I’ve been fortunate to have a strong immune system, so I had thought that if I DID get COVID-19 (despite all our precautions), it would be like a bad cold that I would fight off quickly. Well, I was wrong. I underestimated what COVID-19 was like — and what it was like for a pregnant person.

After a trip to the hospital and ER in late February to check on the baby and my lungs, I was diagnosed with pneumonia, given antibiotics and an inhaler, and sent on my way. But my breathing got worse a few days later and my husband called an ambulance. That ride started a 42-day journey.

No time to rejoice

I was admitted to the hospital Feb. 26. I spent most of the day in the ER, hooked up to two sources of oxygen and texting friends and family. I was moved to the ICU that night. I do remember that. I don’t remember the next day. I vaguely remember texting my husband the morning of Feb. 28 to say they were talking about a C-section. I also remember being emphatic that I could take off my own necklace in the operating room.

I was 31 weeks pregnant that day.

Caption
Sabrina Starrett-Wolff with her husband, Mike, and son Benjamin days before her COVID-19 diagnosis. This counted as their maternity photo shoot.

Credit: EMMYJAY PHOTOGRAPHY

Sabrina Starrett-Wolff with her 
husband, Mike, and son Benjamin days before her COVID-19 diagnosis.  
This counted as their maternity 
photo shoot.
Caption
Sabrina Starrett-Wolff with her husband, Mike, and son Benjamin days before her COVID-19 diagnosis. This counted as their maternity photo shoot.

Credit: EMMYJAY PHOTOGRAPHY

Credit: EMMYJAY PHOTOGRAPHY

My husband was allowed in to see me (which isn’t standard for someone who has tested positive for COVID-19), and he was allowed to wait. He saw Harrison Paul Wolff (who was born at 1:42 p.m., weighing a whopping 4 pounds, 13 ounces — which is big for a kid nine weeks early) come out of the operating room and head to the NICU. Then I came out, on a ventilator, headed to the ICU.

I spent 14 days on the ventilator. On day 14, I was taken off the ventilator for good and underwent a tracheotomy to help me breathe. Doctors also inserted a feeding tube into my abdomen. A few days later, they prepped me for transfer to a long-term acute care hospital.

On March 18, I met my son for the first time. I went 19 days without ever seeing him. Or touching him or inhaling that newborn smell. The first time I got to hold him was 23 days after that, a full six weeks after I first entered the hospital. 42 days. To the day.

Trapped in a dream world

Time marched on. I don’t remember a lot of it. I do remember some of the crazy dreams I had. They were rooted in truth, but the picture around them was completely different.

I thought it was 2022, and I was thawing out from being frozen underground to keep my unborn son and me safe from this illness we didn’t know about. I was in an underground dome in the Bahamas, and I was on my way to meet my son. I thought I had gone deep sea diving; taken helicopter rides — including being rescued from deep sea diving and ascending too quickly; been in four different hospitals — including one that was within walking distance of the Florida Keys and another that had me “on display” as what incredible postpartum recovery looked like.

I kept thinking I was tied down — which turned out to be true because I did have to be restrained so I wouldn’t try to pull my tracheostomy out — or my limbs were too heavy to lift, which was also true because of the sedation and pain medications I was on. I remember a nurse who kept talking to me, telling me what was going on and that if I didn’t keep my hands away from my throat, she’d have to restrain me again, something she didn’t want to do. (This nurse does exist, and her name is Maureen).

I then thought I was staying in an open-air hospital near Key West when my mom visited me during her only allowed visit in the ICU. I dreamed she braided my hair — which it turns out she did, because I have a braid in the pictures of me meeting Harrison. I also thought all my closest friends and their families took refuge in the hospital to ride out a wave of COVID-19 that was sweeping the country. Now I know why no one actually came in my room to see me — it was all a dream.

I do remember the first time my husband got to visit me in the first hospital. Of course, I thought we were in a different hospital, in a different city, with a different set of circumstances. But, I do remember seeing him. I also remember one of my first nights in the second hospital, freaking out and a nurse calling hubby on FaceTime to have him calm me down. I later learned Mike called the hospital four times a day to check on me, and he called four times a day to check on our son in the NICU. When I was on the ventilator, the nurses called him often to let him talk to me, even if I couldn’t talk back. He was “there” for every big procedure and milestone during my stay.

Caption
Before Sabrina Starrett-Wolff was transferred to a long-term acute care hospital to continue her recovery and prepare to have her tracheostomy removed, she met Harrison for the first time March 18. He was 19 days old.

Credit: COURTESY OF SABRINA STARRETT-WOLFF

Before Sabrina Starrett-Wolff was transferred to a long-term acute care hospital to continue her recovery and prepare to have her tracheostomy removed, she met Harrison for the first time March 18. He was 19 days old.
Caption
Before Sabrina Starrett-Wolff was transferred to a long-term acute care hospital to continue her recovery and prepare to have her tracheostomy removed, she met Harrison for the first time March 18. He was 19 days old.

Credit: COURTESY OF SABRINA STARRETT-WOLFF

Credit: COURTESY OF SABRINA STARRETT-WOLFF

A few other people kept appearing in these “dreams,” besides real-life nurse Maureen. Two others were “sent” to me by friends of mine who formed a bond and were eager for my recovery. Talking to them later, I described the recurring folks in my dreams, and we got chills. (I’m not a religious person, but I have faith and believe I’m more of a spiritual person. This reinforced that we are all connected.)

There were tons of these weird dreams. Maybe it was my body’s version of the “COVID fog,” but I really think it was just the heavy doses of medication I was on to keep me calm. I’m OK with this because the dreams were 90% good, and when I became more lucid, I quickly learned the worst things didn’t really happen.

A slow return to normal

We were now in the last few weeks of March, and I was settling into the long-term acute care hospital. After meeting Harrison, I moved there March 18 — a date seared into my brain because my ID bracelet said that. I started in their ICU — where I kept trying to get out of bed and would cause the nurses to run (I was teased about this until the day I was discharged). I was allowed one visitor a day, and this was starting to boost my spirits — even if I didn’t realize it. My husband said he walked into the ICU one Sunday and saw me propped up in bed, with my legs crossed, watching TV. He said he saw the old me and knew things were going to be OK.

The hospital moved me into a regular hospital room from the ICU, and I was slowly becoming more aware. As I was weaned off pain medications, I really was starting to feel like myself — even if it was only mentally.

I was 41 years old, and I had to rely on others to do everything. I had a tracheostomy so I was hooked up to oxygen. I couldn’t go to the bathroom because my tubing didn’t reach. I had to use a commode next to my bed that I needed to call someone to move over for me and then assist me to get on it. I had to call the same person back to clean it up. I was a young, vibrant, independent person who had to ask another adult to help me do what I used to do for my toddler.

Still, each day was better than the previous one. My mental sharpness was coming back. I was able to interact with my caregivers. My husband visited. My mom visited. My friend Sam came. (She told me later, “I knew you were going to be OK when you dropped the F-bomb again.”) Looking back, this rotation of love boosted me.

I also now had my phone, which allowed me to start reconnecting with friends and family. They gave me more love and motivation. I never felt alone. They sent me encouraging messages and pictures. They all kept me in the loop, and I calmed them. (I still maintain this ordeal was harder for everyone else than for me because they knew what was going on, and I was so sedated and medicated, I was blissfully unaware.)

Caption
Longtime friends of Sabrina’s commissioned this painting of her first meeting with Harrison. The artist —Patrick Harris — was also a high school classmate of theirs. This now hangs behind her desk, as a reminder of how far the family has come.

Credit: Patrick Harris

Longtime friends of Sabrina’s commissioned this painting of her first meeting with Harrison. The artist  —Patrick Harris — was also a high school classmate of theirs. This now hangs behind her desk, as a reminder of how far the family has come.
Caption
Longtime friends of Sabrina’s commissioned this painting of her first meeting with Harrison. The artist —Patrick Harris — was also a high school classmate of theirs. This now hangs behind her desk, as a reminder of how far the family has come.

Credit: Patrick Harris

Credit: Patrick Harris

Besides this huge support network, I had my hospital family helping make me stronger, literally. I worked daily with an occupational therapist, a physical therapist, a speech therapist and a respiratory therapist. The dietitian checked in on me regularly, too. Their goal was to prepare me for my return to my life — and they did that. I did strength exercises, balance exercises. I walked the halls with my walker, eventually ditching it and walking by myself. I practiced doing everyday activities, like brushing my teeth, folding laundry and picking up toys.

When my tracheostomy was removed, I was allowed to go into the bathroom, and by myself. The speech therapist worked on my eating and swallowing, finally clearing me for my first meal — grilled cheese and tomato soup. I was prepared to go home with a reliance on my feeding tube — but I was thrilled it was only an “accessory” and not a necessity (it was removed a month after I went home). I even got to have a real shower for the first time in five weeks. That was another pivotal moment. It was a sign that I was regaining my life, and I really became a woman on a mission.

In the week leading up to my discharge, we ordered a walker and a wheelchair. The walker was to help conserve my energy and the wheelchair was for me to go longer distances for doctors appointments. I never used either.

They wheeled me out — to incredible cheering from what felt like the entire staff. It was the first time I breathed fresh air — and only the second time I’d been outside — since this all began. I couldn’t believe how hot it had gotten, but I soaked it up. I eased into the passenger seat, clicked that seat belt and I finally breathed a bit easier. I was getting out of here, for real. It wasn’t a joke.

After six weeks, I was going home. Finally.

Not dwelling on lost time

I hit the ground running. Well, maybe not running … but I hit the ground. Again, I eased out of the car, slowly walked to the front of the house and got all teary at the big sign hubby ordered for this moment. Our photographer friend popped out of her van, and once she stopped crying, she captured this homecoming — including me forgetting I didn’t have the strength to squat and crumpling to the ground as my older son came out to greet me.

When I was in the hospital and started understanding what I had been through and how long it had been, I thought I would grieve for my lost time. I thought I would end up grieving the six weeks I was away from my family and my newborn. I thought I would need professional help to work through all I missed out on — maternity pictures with my husband and son. All the kicks. The last ultrasounds. My son interacting with my growing belly. Getting Harrison’s clothes and nursery ready. Preparing for his birth. The last picture of me ever being pregnant. The first cries and snuggles. The boys meeting for the first time ... It wasn’t how I pictured Harrison Paul entering the world. It wasn’t how I planned to spend his first six weeks.

At some point, a switch flipped and I went from thinking I would grieve to knowing I would celebrate. I can’t tell you when that exact point was, but I knew statistically I shouldn’t be doing this well. I might have missed Harrison’s first six weeks, but I have the rest of our lives to be with him.

Incredible support system

I’m healthy, but I do have concerns. I’m now 42 years old and I wonder whether my next cold will attack my lungs. And now, I have to worry about blood clots and take blood thinners (I’m hoping this is temporary).

At some point during this, I suffered a mini-stroke. Something I never would have known happened if it weren’t for a droopy left eye. I feel good. I’m back to work and working out. But this droopy left eye is a blessing. It led me to an MRI, which found I had a “cerebral event” that hit my balance centers. (Please note: I’m not any more uncoordinated than I was before.) I’ve been cleared by most doctors, but now my hematologist is monitoring me monthly.

I still don’t know what effects I might have years from now. But there’s a part of me that is glad it was me — because I’m strong enough to fight back. Because I have a support system that wouldn’t let anything happen to me.

It really does take a village. From the good thoughts and prayers to people being there near and far. This journey has made me appreciate every part of my life. I love harder, and I love those in my life even more. I knew what people meant to me before, but now I’m not afraid to say it, and I also learned how much of an impact my family and I have had on others.

Caption
Sabrina holds Harrison for the first time April 9, the day she came home from the hospital after a 42-day stay. She held Harrison after a long-awaited reunion with her older son, which included a lot of hugs, kisses and tears on her front walkway.

Credit: EMMYJAY PHOTOGRAPHY

Sabrina holds Harrison for the first time April 9, the day she came home from the hospital after a 42-day stay. She held Harrison after a long-awaited reunion with her older son, which included 
a lot of hugs, kisses and tears on her front walkway.
Caption
Sabrina holds Harrison for the first time April 9, the day she came home from the hospital after a 42-day stay. She held Harrison after a long-awaited reunion with her older son, which included a lot of hugs, kisses and tears on her front walkway.

Credit: EMMYJAY PHOTOGRAPHY

Credit: EMMYJAY PHOTOGRAPHY

Within days of my discharge, my best friend, Colleen, high-tailed it from North Carolina to spend two weeks with us, doing whatever we needed. We’ve always been close, but this solidified it — we are sisters. She was the caregiver to all my boys when I couldn’t be. She was my muscles when I didn’t have the strength, my chauffeur when I wasn’t comfortable driving. She left her husband and two kids to help me and my family.

My mother-in-law moved in for two weeks to care for our newborn so my husband could still work and give our older son some semblance of normalcy. And this was after she spent the better part of a month picking him up from school three days a week and watching him until my husband could pick him up. My mom would get Ben from school on Thursdays, and keep him until Saturday so Mike could spend time with Harrison — and visit me without added dad-guilt.

We had a parade of people come through our doors to help however they could. Friends came in from Nebraska and Washington, D.C. Locals dropped off random items. Our photographer friend was there to document every moment I couldn’t be part of — she followed Harrison home from the hospital and captured my sons meeting for the first time. And work … They never made me worry. I knew they had it covered and worried only about my health. All because they love me.

I don’t have words to express what this outpouring still means. I can only hope I pay it forward.

Grateful to beat the odds

This story took a lot of twists and turns. I went from how COVID-19 personally affected me to how it affected my loved ones to how this could have been avoided if I were old enough to be vaccinated then. But now, I’m just THANKFUL to be here. I get to celebrate Harrison’s first Thanksgiving, then his first Christmas. His first birthday will be here soon. And I get to celebrate how I always would have — I have no restrictions.

This journey changed my outlook. I now do things on my own timeline. I seldom feel like I have to keep up with the Joneses. I’m in no hurry. I’m happy to be here and to be able to do what I did before.

I still don’t really remember meeting my son for the first time, but it changes nothing of our love for each other. One day we will tell him the story for the first time, and his birthday will also always be the day I was put on a ventilator. But it’s become another thing to celebrate. My scars will fade, but my memories and strength won’t.

This could have ended so differently. I don’t know why it turned out so well. Other than medicine and science and faith and one heck of a strong will. Plus, I never considered this turning out any other way. As Han Solo once said, “Never tell me the odds.”

A pillar of strength

My husband is a big man. Pretty intimidating actually if you don’t know him. But he’s all heart with a tender soul. Yes, I’m here and doing this well because of medicine, science, my strong will — and him. He stayed positive through all this. He knew I’d be OK. If the alternative flashed through his mind, he pushed it out. He sent out daily updates to a lot of people. He kept folks in the loop. He was a pillar of strength, even when the hospital’s COVID-19 protocols kept him from seeing me for 3 weeks. He was a pillar of strength for everyone.

Caption
Mike Wolff takes Harrison home March 28 after four weeks in the NICU. He weighed 4 pounds, 13 ounces at birth and had gained almost 1 pound during his stay. He’s now 81/2 months old, weighing more than 17 pounds, close to what his brother was at this age.

Credit: EMMYJAY PHOTOGRAPHY

Mike Wolff takes Harrison home March 28 after four weeks in the NICU. He weighed 4 pounds, 13 ounces at birth and had gained almost 1 pound during his stay. He’s now 81/2 months old, weighing more than 17 pounds, close to what his brother was at this age.
Caption
Mike Wolff takes Harrison home March 28 after four weeks in the NICU. He weighed 4 pounds, 13 ounces at birth and had gained almost 1 pound during his stay. He’s now 81/2 months old, weighing more than 17 pounds, close to what his brother was at this age.

Credit: EMMYJAY PHOTOGRAPHY

Credit: EMMYJAY PHOTOGRAPHY

For as long as we’ve been married, seven years through all this, he’d take his wedding ring off every night and put it back on in the morning. But he didn’t while I was gone. For 42 days straight, he wore his ring. On April 9, 2021, he took it off and said, “Now I can do this. You are home.”

And for the first time in 42 days, he relaxed and slept soundly.

Sabrina Starrett-Wolff is a senior editor with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution managing a team of copy editors and designers.