A Miracle 7 Years in the Making.

During her 123-day stint in the NICU at Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital, Emmalee Brown earned a reputation for strength and a nickname: ‘pretty tough cream puff.’

Our hero

Emmalee Brown, 1 year old. Current passions include babbling, giving kisses, standing up and sleeping, and her parents say she is well on her way to walking and talking.

Our hero’s journey 

Emmalee Brown is a miracle seven years in the making.

Her parents, Randy and Ashley Brown, spent those years on a challenging and emotional journey to conception. They tried intrauterine insemination and, when that didn’t work, moved on to in vitro fertilization. The process worked, several times over. But with each success came loss. Her first pregnancy proved inviable. Then she became pregnant with twins but lost the first baby at eight weeks, the second — Emmalee’s “big sister” — at 20 weeks.

“When I lost Emmalee’s big sister the year prior, I got to hold her, but she wasn’t breathing or moving or anything,” Ashley recalled. “That was my only experience of holding a child of mine.”

A year later, Randy and Ashley tried again. The embryo took, and Ashley made it to 23 weeks before she went into labor.

“We went to the hospital, and they were able to hold it off for a week. But eventually my water broke, and they had to do an emergency C-section,” Ashley said. “I asked them to do everything they could to save my daughter. And that’s exactly what they did.”

The Hemby Children’s Hospital difference

Emmalee was born on Oct. 14, 2020, and spent the next 123 days in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital. The first month and half, she was doing great. She came off the ventilator and was on low oxygen support. But when Ashley and Randy went to visit her Thanksgiving Day, they knew immediately something wasn’t right. Emmalee looked pale and needed more oxygen.

The doctors initially thought it was a urinary tract infection, which is common among premature babies. They began treating her with antibiotics, and Ashley and Randy went home to rest. Early the next morning at 2:17 a.m., the care team called with devastating news. Emmalee had caught a rare strain of strep, and she was in trouble. 

“She was so tiny. The infection was ravaging her body. She barely had a pulse. She barely had any blood pressure,” Ashley recalled. “When I tell you they had everything hooked up to her to keep her going, I mean everything. All the doctors told us, ‘It doesn’t look good, but we’re going to do everything we can.’”

Once again, they did.

“The nurses came and gave us words of encouragement and prayed for us — and let us know that everyone was praying for us,” Ashley said.

Three days later, Emmalee started showing some improvement, but the infection had affected her brain. And because she lacked circulation, necrosis (the death of cells in her tissue) began to set in. The doctors warned Ashley and Randy that Emmalee might have to lose her arms and legs as a result.

“I told them, ‘I don’t care, as long as she’s here,’” Ashley said.

In the end, the team at Hemby Children’s Hospital was able to alleviate the worst-case scenario; however, Emmalee lost seven toes because of the infection. The brain damage caused cerebral palsy, which so far has meant Emmalee has low muscle tone. But before Emmalee was discharged, her medical team had already scheduled appointments with occupational and physical therapists to ensure she has the best chance of success as she continues to grow.

“I was dealing with postpartum depression in the midst of all of this, and at the same time, I’m pumping milk to feed her. And there was the lack of sleep and the emotional distress. It was a lot; however, the nurses there were so caring. They made sure I was taking care of myself because they let me know they were taking care of Emmalee. They would remind me to eat. They would offer me a room to sleep in if I needed to rest. They did all of that,” Ashley said. “Although it was a traumatic experience, it was a really beautiful experience, as well, just to see the compassion from everyone and from my family.”

The team at Hemby Children’s Hospital also provided support in other ways, in the form of gas gift cards to cover Ashley and Randy’s travel to and from the hospital, food vouchers so they could eat in the cafeteria and a social worker who helped them get coverage for medical expenses and other services.

“I miss walking onto that floor, seeing the pictures of those beautiful babies, hearing the lullaby being played after every baby born,” Ashley said. “Most of all, I miss seeing those smiling faces greeting me, saying, ‘Hi Mrs. Brown! Emmalee has been doing so great today!’ I will forever be grateful for my experience at Hemby.”

Our hero today

When Emmalee recovered from her strep infection, one of her doctors told Ashley, “In my 35 years of practice, I’ve never seen a baby as sick as yours come back from it.” Another doctor gave her the nickname “pretty tough cream puff” — one that continues to define Emmalee’s life as a happy, babbling 1-year-old.

Emmalee’s weeks are filled with occupational and physical therapy appointments, and she is about to start vision therapy as well. She routinely sees a neurologist and a pediatrician, and Ashley and Randy continue her therapy exercises at home.

“It’s very busy, but we see the improvement, and it encourages us to keep going,” Ashley said. “I’m confident she’ll be able to walk. I’m confident she’ll be talking here pretty soon. She’s a lively little girl, and I think her future is very bright.”

Emmalee’s story has already had a profound impact beyond her family. When Ashley shared her story on social media, Emmalee became a source of inspiration.

“I know I have something truly special on my hands. Even when I was pregnant with her, I would tell my husband, ‘The energy of this baby, she’s just going to be something different,’” Ashley said. “I said that from the start.”

Work to ensure more babies like Emmalee can receive access to this lifesaving care is now underway at Hemby Children’s Hospital. Through your generous contributions, the facility is expanding its NICU to increase capacity and accommodate a nearly 30% increase in NICU babies served over the past three years. The $5 million investment will add 12 new NICU beds, as well as NICU physician sleep rooms, family restrooms and a dedicated lactation space for NICU mothers. The project is expected to break ground early next year.

Your gift has remarkable impact.

You can support remarkable babies like Emmalee and the expansion of care to families in need with a gift through Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center Foundation. Your generous contributions help provide lifesaving care and other services to our smallest patients and their families. Do your part and give today.

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