By Carrie Vittitoe

Michelle and Matt Runkle, Lily (8), Jackson (6), and Caroline (8 months) from Newburgh, Indiana.
Photo by Alisaan Elpers – Captured Studio Photography 

When Michelle Runkle began experiencing contractions at 34 weeks of pregnancy in July 2017, she didn’t think much of it. When she was pregnant with her son Jackson, she had prodromal labor for a month prior to his birth, so she thought that the contractions she was having were the same. She went on with her day and even went out to dinner that night.

During the meal, Michelle’s contractions showed no signs of abating and only intensified. Two minutes apart. One minute apart. She and Matt decided to go to the hospital, where she was informed that she was definitely experiencing real labor. Of course, as any woman who has experienced labor and delivery knows, babies don’t always follow the straightest path of arrival. “The contractions were so close together and strong for so long that they were affecting Caroline the baby,” Michelle says. Nurses gave Michelle medication to relax her uterus. After the third round of drugs, Michelle’s water broke.

Because Caroline wasn’t yet full-term, Michelle says her doctor and the nurses prepared her for what would likely happen when she delivered, which would be that Caroline would be immediately taken to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Michelle says it was a very special surprise that Caroline was stable enough that Michelle was able to hold her, and Lily, Jackson, and her grandparents were able to meet her before she was taken to the unit.

During her 26 days in the NICU, Caroline had to pass five “tests” that would determine her ability to go home safely. “She had to be over 4 pounds, breathe room air (no ventilator), have a consistent temperature, experience no ‘events,’ and feed from a bottle,” Michelle says.

Caroline did have one “event,” which was when her blood pressure dropped, and she stopped breathing. Fortunately, she came out of it on her own without any intervention, but that event meant it would be another seven days before Caroline could be released from the hospital.

Caroline had a feeding tube for a while and struggled to bottle feed. “This was the major thing we were waiting on,” Michelle says. Although Michelle had planned to nurse full-time, Caroline’s early arrival meant she had to be flexible. Michelle pumps full-time so Caroline can take bottles during the day and nurse at night.

A new baby always changes a family, but Caroline’s early arrival has meant some precautions that most families don’t have to take. Michelle says Jackson is in kindergarten and has been bringing home every bug known to man, which means she has to work to sequester the kids to keep Caroline as healthy as possible. Everyone in the family, including aunts, uncles, and grandparents, had to get both a flu shot and a TDAP to reduce the risk of Caroline contracting whooping cough.

Caroline’s early arrival has affected Michelle in a way that other preemie moms can understand. “There are times I get overwhelmed and anxious. If I hear a certain beep like the ones for the NICU, I shudder,” she says.

Still, she feels fortunate that Caroline is so healthy and at this point meeting all her developmental milestones. “Twenty-five years ago, it was a different story. It is much easier now for a 34-weeker to be fine,” she says.

Mealtime fun includes:
Lily: Drama
Jackson: We dance.
Matt and Michelle: We play “I Spy” and tell knock-knock jokes.

Fun things that cost nothing:
Lily: Camping in the playroom.
Jackson: Bonfires
Michelle: Family walks

Fun things that cost:
Lily: Staying in a cabin.
Jackson: Going to the movie theater.
Matt and Michelle: Disney or the beach.

Guilty favorite snack:
Donut Bank donuts

The part of your family bedtime ritual Lily and Jackson expect they will remember fondly:
Staying up; otherwise known as monkey business.

Book the whole family agrees on:
God Gave Us You. Lily and Jackson enjoy hearing about when Michelle was pregnant with them.

An activity the kids have dragged the family into:
Lily: Tumbling
Jackson: T-ball