Being a Breastfeeding Mom During COVID-19: One Mom's Unique Journey
In this guest blog, Erin Little shares her journey to becoming a breastfeeding mom during the coronavirus pandemic and in the face of many unique challenges. See her story, in her very own words, and learn how Medela was able to help her along the way!
Erin Little is a Kansas City native who currently works as the Head of Operations for Ayana Therapy, a mental health startup focused on underserved communities, alongside her two favorite remote coworkers - Cassius, a 3-month old baby boy and Hachi, a 5-year old Shiba Inu mix.
A serial entrepreneur, Erin has focused on building next-generation healthcare solutions to improve access and affordability around the world, working in over 150 countries, and was last based in Hong Kong. She has served on many national and international boards related to healthcare activism, as well as entrepreneurship, and is currently working on finishing her Master's in Data Science from Oklahoma State University.
Heading Home to Begin Our Journey
When I moved back to the U.S. after living in Hong Kong, I had a heavy sigh of relief after disembarking the plane in Vancouver. COVID-19 started in December for us abroad, and had just begun lockdown in the States. But, for me, a serious case of several blood clots turning into pulmonary embolism meant I wasn’t supposed to fly, let alone take a 35+ hour flight home. Like many things in startup life, it was a matter of absolute chaos and destruction between the economy of Hong Kong tanking during the pandemic, to losing my job, and of course using the rest of my savings to find a private doctor to give me I.V. medications to avoid local hospitals. As someone living with a chronic illness, having COVID was the last thing I needed while living alone.
Finding out I was pregnant was one of the scariest moments of my life. As a Type 1 diabetic, I had always been told of the risks and that the journey for us is never the same as our counterparts. Many patients plan years in advance to master perfect blood sugars in order to defy the odds. Like anyone who had lost their job and moved around the world to find out they had become a single mother, I did what anyone else would also do by figuring out how to make the best life possible for my baby. Within three months, I had joined one of the best startups focused on mental health and communities of color and wondered when would be a good time to tell my boss I was pregnant.
...Turns out there was never a good time. It ended up being the same week I delivered the baby via an emergency C-section after going in for a blood pressure check without as much as a rubber band. I was lucky that a childhood friend named Jana Johnston, a certified midwife, had guided me on how to get through the public system and find better specialists for high-risk pregnancies such as mine. Without her help, and the help of so many nurses in the Kansas City area, I don’t think I could have continued to juggle attending full-time class, 70+ hour work weeks, and multiple pregnancy appointments, which gave more anxiety than peace.
The lessons of the pandemic continued to remind me to let all expectations of myself or this child go. There are times so grave in one’s life you must remember that sometimes sheer survival become one’s raison d'etre. I was living back at my parents’ house wondering when I would even be able to move. My brother’s converted childhood bedroom became the HQ for unknown Hong Kong baby to grace us with his presence.
Every day I was in the hospital, the COVID regulations changed. I was told my support person would need to be able to stay “approximately three days to three months” as the new rules forbid anyone from even leaving the premises and returning back. Within a few days, my preeclampsia became so severe that I gained 30 pounds in one day and I looked more like a reality tv star who had just had surgery than an expectant mother.
Learning to Become a Breastfeeding Mom During a Pandemic
Because I had passed the initial COVID screens, I was able to be in my hospital room without a mask, although I was aware there were active cases on the labor and delivery floor. And although Cassius Chan, named after the Hong Kong doctor who had saved me, graced us with his presence months early during my finals week, I was not able to hold my child for days. In fact, no one outside of my close friends knew I was even pregnant (the perks of Zoom calls above the waist during a pandemic).
A Medela Symphony machine was placed in my room, but the lactation assistants seemed to have given up on me outside of providing me with a time-stamped sticker relaying how fresh my milk was but with no additional instructions about pumping. I had asked my mother at one point early in my pregnancy, as well as taken prenatal classes, but she remembered nothing outside of how to use manual pumps. The friends who knew my history as well as the circumstances were scared out of their mind.
YouTube became my best friend in understanding basics of what a breast shield even was, as well as how to teach my body to produce more milk through the Medela videos I was able to find. Since Cassius was on a feeding tube, it was progressively a game of understanding when to time my arrival in order to ensure I was his first feeding option. Unfortunately, as my leave was unplanned, I was continuing both full-time school and work, which made the equation extremely difficult to manage. Despite this, I was beginning to produce very well without any issues – even with my difficult time schedule.
Within a day of being released from the hospital, I soon returned after beginning to feel feverish. I thought it was just a side effect of the magnesium drips I had been on. However, I didn’t want to put any of the NICU at risk, so I was tested for COVID-19. I was subsequently diagnosed with COVID-19 after the test came back positive, making me the first mother to actually contract the virus while in the hospital. Without protocols in place, no one seemed to know when I would see my baby and, despite all the challenges of my pregnancy, this was the first time I emotionally broke down. Even after passing two different COVID checks, Cassius was still placed in quarantine from the other babies. No one was allowed to hold him outside of the isolation chamber he was kept in. None of the staff were trained on how to use an iPad within a sterile chamber or how WebEx worked. The CDC guidelines kept changing and no one informed me that my breast milk was also considered contaminated without specific guidelines in place at the time.
As a disability activist myself, I continued to advocate and became “that parent” I never expected myself to be – going all the way up to the Chief Medical Officer of the entire hospital system in order to gain access to see him once a day through video calls. Despite the fact they were calls, only myself and my support partner were allowed to communicate with the teams daily about his case. I was grateful to rely on the support of so many moms and those through the Medela network who provided me not just with advice on how to breastfeed while your child was in the NICU, but also professional mothers who traveled often. They were the closest proxy I had to breastfeeding without being able to see, hold, or come anywhere near my child. I received access to iPad visits almost 8 days into my quarantine as well as Cassius’s.
I am grateful for the resources we have available in 2020 that have allowed us to connect with others despite often very physical, even emotional, distances. With technology, there is no doubt that myself or my baby would be here today. The products we create matter, just like the Symphony breast pump mattered to me greatly during a time of need.
I am happy to report that, even as a preemie, Cassius is finally beginning to make strides. His joy reminds me every day that there is something to smile about, despite so many losses for us all.