How a 101-Day NICU Stay Led to Bliss
Feb 18, 2022 Cedars-Sinai Staff
Spending any amount of time in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) can be an upsetting experience for any new parent. For Fransiska Weckesser and Michael Douglas (nope, not the actor!), their daughter Bliss' incredible 101-day NICU stay was not only unusually long but also filled with additional pandemic-related challenges.
Yet, the couple's determination and resilience helped them weather the storm, along with the care and expertise of the staff in the Cedars-Sinai NICU. Now Bliss' first birthday is just around the corner.
Bliss' arrival on Feb. 28, 2021, was unusual for several reasons. Most importantly, this was only the 27th week of Fransiska's pregnancy. All babies born before 28 weeks are categorized as "extremely premature" or "extremely preterm."
"She is super funny, so happy and such a sweet, silly girl. She laughs at our dog, Doog, and at so many funny things. And she has the biggest blue eyes that are always wide open, as if she is staring right into your soul. We are just amazed by her."
At 26 weeks, most of the baby's organs—including the brain—are still maturing. While Bliss' survival odds were not necessarily low, there are long-term concerns about developmental issues for all preterm babies at this stage.
The pandemic was also in full swing, and the many unknown variables of COVID-19 were raising more questions than answers. As if this were not enough, this Dutch couple was living and working far away from their home country, and their families were forced to remain in Holland due to the travel ban that was in effect when Bliss was born.
So, what's it like to be in the NICU for 101 days during a pandemic when you are so far away from your family and native country? When her water broke toward the end of her second trimester, Fransiska found herself rushing to Cedars-Sinai with no clue about what lay ahead. "The only things I grabbed were clean underwear and my laptop, since we were working on a big job for a fashion client," says Fransiska, who co-owns a creative production agency.
The visit brought unexpected news: She had gone into preterm labor. "That's basically when they told me, 'You are not going to leave the hospital. You're not going home,'" Fransiska remembers.
The Cedars-Sinai NICU staff, including social worker Alva Gregorio, were there every step of the way to see the family through.
"Alva explained everything in baby steps, saying, 'Here's what's going to happen next,'" says Fransiska. "Then we had our first neonatologist come and explain what the process is when you have such a premature baby, what the risks are, and what you need to possibly prepare yourself for."
When Bliss was born, COVID-19 restrictions had at least eased enough to allow both Fransiska and Michael to be with their baby girl in the NICU at the same time. "We were super lucky that both of us were allowed to go in," she notes. She recalls that, just one month earlier, only one parent could go in at a time.
Fransiska's business had slowed somewhat in the pandemic, which turned out to be a blessing. The slower pace gave Fransiska an opportunity to tend to Bliss and process the stress and demands of life as a NICU parent. She was able to read proposals, work on emails and take video calls while spending time at Bliss' bedside. "I do love to work," Fransiska says. "And it was a good distraction."
Michael had started a new job the day that Fransiska was admitted to the hospital. "For him, too, work was a bit of a distraction," Fransiska adds. "We both had many people around us that were very understanding."
The fact that they were so far away from their family and friends added an extra layer of isolation and anxiety. "For my family to have never even seen me pregnant in person—it was very stressful," Fransiska says.
From the beginning, the couple kept a journal to carefully track daily developments such as which doctors they would see, what was said and how much Bliss was eating from one feeding to the next. These journal entries didn't just help the new parents monitor important medical details during an emotionally difficult time. They also allowed Fransiska and Michael to share the roller-coaster experience with their faraway family and friends.
"We tried to share details with them every day so they could share the journey with us," Fransiska says.
According to their social worker Alva, Fransiska and Michael's communication skills and grace under pressure helped them smoothly navigate this challenging time. "Fransiska and Michael are such a beautiful couple! They were very memorable in that they had such a calmness about them," Alva says.
Everything seems chaotic when you first find yourself in the NICU, Alva explains: "It can be a traumatic experience. Frustration can [show] in many ways. You can start challenging the doctors. You can start doubting yourself. With Fransiska and Michael, that may have been happening internally, but we never got that from them. They remained calm and in control the whole time. They were very vocal about things that they needed and wanted [as well as] the things that they needed guidance with. If you can't communicate, we won't know how to help you."
It quickly became clear that Bliss had inherited her parents' enviable grace under pressure. "She was a very calm baby in the NICU," Fransiska says. "Everyone loved her. One day a nurse came up to me and said 'You're Bliss' mom? Oh my god, do you know she has a fan base? She is so cute, and she is so calm."
When the time finally came to leave the hospital, the couple faced many new emotions and challenges. Some of their stresses went away because "Bliss was home, and she was healthy," Fransiska recalls. On the other hand, the new parents "almost didn't dare to sleep" for fear that something might go wrong if they did.
After a few months of juggling their jobs while watching over Bliss, they eventually hired two nannies with alternating schedules to help strike a more manageable balance. The young family has since arrived at "the perfect mix, and we are so happy to have help."
And what is Bliss like now, as she's about to turn 1?
"She is super funny, so happy and such a sweet, silly girl," Fransiska says. "She laughs at our dog, Doog, and at so many funny things. And she has the biggest blue eyes that are always wide open, as if she is staring right into your soul. We are just amazed by her."
Their first few months together presented overwhelming challenges and more than a few frightening moments, but Fransiska, Michael and Bliss have settled into the comforts of a busy but happy routine at home. Their experience serves as an important reminder that with a strong support system in place—each other, their families and friends, work colleagues and the NICU staff at Cedars-Sinai—difficult paths can still lead to some truly wonderful destinations. Happy birthday, Bliss!