‘You Fight for Gabriel.’
This is the story of 10-year-old Gabriel Pitman, whose life began in the neonatal intensive care unit at Hemby Children’s Hospital at 24 weeks and two days.
Gabriel Pitman is 10 years old. He’s happy and curious — “flat-out nosy,” his mother, Stephanie says with a laugh — and going all the time. He has a walker to get him around school and other places, but at home, scooting along the floor is his primary mode of transportation. Like most 10-year-old boys, he loves his iPad, and his favorite toy is a bump-and-go train he’s named Grace.
“We’re on our 20th train right now because he wears them out,” Stephanie said. “He wants to play with Grace all the time.”
Gabe is also a fighter. He has been his whole life. He was born at 24 weeks and two days, weighing 1 pound and 14 ounces, and spent the following 180 days in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital. His journey has been far from easy — it is also far from over — and it began in the weeks before Gabe was born, when Stephanie was put on bed rest to keep her labor at bay. From the hospital, where her bed was tilted head down at a 30-degree angle for two weeks, she remembers calling her mother to tell her what was happening.
“My mom said, ‘You don’t give up on him. You fight for him. You fight for Gabriel,’” Stephanie recalled. “Ten years later, we still are.”
Our hero’s journey
Gabe was born on Jan. 12, 2012, via emergency C-section. Stephanie saw him for the first time four days later in the NICU at Hemby Children’s Hospital.
Gabe was small but bigger than Stephanie thought he would be, and he was relatively stable in those first few days. Then, on day six, Stephanie got a phone call from the NICU. An air pocket had formed in Gabe’s intestines, and he needed an emergency procedure to place a drain in his belly. A month later, doctors performed another surgery on his intestines.
“He would recover well after his procedures, but his little gut just really struggled,” Stephanie recalled. “Then, in March, I got a phone call around 2 or 3 in the morning from the doctors saying things had changed drastically, and we needed to get to the hospital immediately. When we got there, he was on a ventilator. His belly was swelling. His color was horrible.”
Gabe had necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), the most common and serious intestinal disease among premature infants. It’s a bacterial infection that kills the tissue in the intestines.
“That really changed everything for us. I don’t even know how many times we almost lost him during that week. His belly was so swollen and distended that it was putting pressure on his lungs and making it hard to breathe,” Stephanie said.
Doctors had to open up Gabe’s tiny body to relieve the pressure inside, and they left his abdomen open while he battled the infection. It was one of three surgeries he had over the course of one week.
Despite a high mortality rate for the conditions of this procedure, Gabe made it through. Two months later, the doctors started to talk about discharging him. Then, on Mothers’ Day, Stephanie went to visit Gabe in the NICU, and his oxygen saturation started dropping. He developed a fever. His belly began swelling, and the doctors put Gabe back on a ventilator. They performed an exploratory surgery to find out what was going on and found an abscess the size of a golf ball in his abdomen.
“He had a hard time recovering from that,” Stephanie said. “Any time a doctor or nurse would come to check him, he was in so much pain. His oxygen would bottom out any time he was touched — unless it was me. I was the only one who could touch him.”
Two months after that, on July 9, 2012, Gabe was finally able to come home.
The Hemby difference
Having Gabe at home was both joyful and scary. Stephanie was used to being at Hemby Children’s Hospital, where she had built strong relationships with her care team, and being at home meant leaving that team behind.
The nurses did everything they could to prepare Stephanie and Gabe for the transition. They walked her through a care plan for Gabe and had Stephanie stay with him overnight at the hospital as a practice run for life at home. They trained her on how to run all of his equipment. Gabe was being sent home with in-home nursing care, but there was still a lot Stephanie was going to have to know and do.
“The hardest part about coming home was saying goodbye to the nurses. They have provided care for your child when you couldn’t. They did things for him that I was not capable of doing,” Stephanie said. “It was really, really hard.”
Gabe’s departure was hard on the Hemby Children’s Hospital nursing team, too.
“Our day nurse was not scheduled to work on the day we were discharged, and she came in anyway, just to say goodbye,” Stephanie said. “The care we received there was so personal. Whether it’s a doctor or a nurse, they don’t talk at you. They have a conversation with you. And that makes all the difference.”
Our hero today
Gabe’s life after the NICU has not been an easy one.
He has been in and out of the hospital over the years and undergone multiple surgeries. Because he relied on intravenous nutrition for so long, he developed a strong oral aversion and has struggled to eat solid foods. Gabe also has periventricular leukomalacia (PVL), a type of brain injury that affects premature infants, and has experienced delays in his development and speech.
Throughout everything, though, both Gabe and Stephanie have kept fighting. Gabe loves school, although he’s home now while he recovers from another surgery in late 2021. He enjoys music and listening to his stepfather, Brandon, a pastor, give sermons online. And he’s happy.
Stephanie is grateful for how far Gabe has come and for the care he has received over the years.
”Hemby Children’s Hospital provides care and understanding we haven’t found anywhere else. It’s our home away from home, and we love them dearly. There are so many neonatologists, pediatricians and nurses who have provided care that literally saved his life, on more than one occasion,” Stephanie said. “He was a very sick and fragile baby, and today he is a feisty, opinionated 10-year-old because of the care he received. We will always be grateful for that.”
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