NISKAYUNA — “With each passing day the anxiety and the fear would kind of heighten,” recalls Robin Pelletier, a young mother from Burnt Hills.
She and husband Josh were expecting their second child in late March. On March 1, four weeks before her due date, the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in New York state, and the excitement, impatience and worry most women know in the last weeks before birth quickly amped up to an uncomfortable level.
With each passing day, the virus increasingly dominated the news, and the news was increasingly worse, with no firm reassurance offered about the vulnerability of pregnant women and their fetuses, or newborns.
By Robin’s due date, March 27, news reports featured an overwhelmed Queens hospital storing bodies in freezer trucks. Her doctor decided to induce labor at Bellevue Woman’s Center before the due date, in case the Capital Region medical system became overwhelmed too.
STEADY AND READY
Bellevue, on Route 7 in Niskayuna, provides specialized health care for women rather than general medical care, so it is not directly involved in the fight against COVID. But every aspect of its operation has been affected by the pandemic, just as the rest of society has been.
In an interview last week, Bellevue Medical Director Dr. Nicholas Kulbida said the worst has not happened. The pandemic has created stress for patient and staff alike, but so far no Bellevue patients have tested positive for COVID, no babies have taken ill with the virus, and the regional medical community has met the challenge.
Some expectant mothers have shown symptoms and been treated with heightened precautions, but all later tested negative, he said. Newborns, meanwhile, carry some of their mothers’ antibodies out of the womb and seem not to be at any heightened risk — only one of the 12,000-plus New Yorkers recorded as dying of COVID-19 has been under the age of 10.
So the impact of COVID at Bellevue has not been from the disease itself, but from the precautions and anxiety surrounding it, Kulbida said. And no one has it worse than the woman who just wants to get her baby out of her belly and into her arms.
“There’s a tremendous amount of excitement and now you’re throwing this amount of anxiety in, which is this fear of getting infected, not knowing what this infection is going to do to you or your newborn,” he said. “We try to do everything we can to lessen that anxiety but it’s just a difficult time.”
Kulbida avoids the now-ubiquitous phrase “social distancing” whenever he can, because the last thing new mothers need is continued anxiety from isolation. They need to be embraced as members of the community, figuratively speaking — and there are ways to do that from a safe distance. “Physical distancing” is the term he uses.
Charlotte Pelletier was born at Bellevue on March 25, perfectly healthy.
For her parents, the rush to get the baby out of the hospital environment and the isolation they came home to have been the worst parts of the last month.
“The scariest part after she was born, with each professional who came in the room, it was the unknown,” said Robin, a fifth-grade teacher at Shenendehowa’s Orenda Elementary School.
The staff was wonderful, she said, and in retrospect it was a good birthing experience, but she was glad to be clear of the hospital as the pandemic worsened. She was discharged from Bellevue after only 24 hours.
“With each passing day now. it’s like, ‘Man, I’m glad I’m not pregnant now.”
Josh, an assistant basketball coach at the University at Albany, said he was glad the birth was at Bellevue. Unlike Albany Medical Center and Ellis Hospital, both caring for dozens of COVID-19 patients, Bellevue wouldn’t be a front-line facility in the treatment of the disease, he reasoned, and there’d be fewer potentially infected people on-site.
The hardest part for the couple now is the separation from their families.
“People viewing through windows — it’s just heartbreaking,” Robin said. “Nobody but us can be around her. Nobody’s held her but us.”
Kulbida said Bellevue is operating under the strict protocols that all New York hospitals must now follow: No visitors and a maximum of one person to accompany mom in labor and delivery. That one person is screened before being allowed in. If there are any signs of the virus or even any risk factors, they can’t come in.
Kulbida and other obstetricians are doing their weekly consultations with pregnant patients remotely during the final weeks before delivery, which deprives the expectant mothers of reassuring personal contact but lowers their infection risk.
Non-conventional techniques such as water birth have had to be curtailed and the large support teams of friends and family that some women want to have on hand are out of the question.
“My hope is that they’re only changed temporarily, and once we know more … we’ll be able to go back to what we were doing before,” Kulbida said.
Bellevue has seen more than 200 births since March 1, slightly more than the same period last year. Some of the increase may be due to pregnant women fleeing the hard-hit downstate area when their time is near.
“What we have seen in the Capital Region is moms coming up from New York City, either due to fear or because they’re distancing themselves to locations where they’ve summered or had vacations or had relatives,” Kulbida said.
There isn’t an official policy of downstate hospitals or health agencies to send women upstate, the women are doing it on their own, he added. Because they are from New York City, these expectant mothers are being treated as potentially infected, and Bellevue has them wear masks and take other precautionary measures. None have tested positive at Bellevue, though.
HOME ALONE TOGETHER
Josh and Robin Pelletier’s first child, Elijah, who’ll turn 3 next month, is able to enjoy this remarkable time and leave the worrying to his parents.
“Our son especially loves having us here,” Robin said. “That has been a silver lining.”
They’re doing more of the simple things working parents can’t always do, including nature walks and other family activities that a 3-year-old can’t get enough of.
“Every day we’re trying to do something to get out of the house,” Josh said.
But they do regret having to place Charlotte in near-exile.
“It’s been really, really lonely,” Robin said, of keeping the baby away from all other people. “That’s just a piece that you celebrate when you welcome a new child.”
Josh added: “I think every night after Charlotte goes to bed, today’s April 13, what will it be like May 13, what will it be like June 13?”