The story of our son Liam’s life is the story no parent wants to tell, but we do and we tell it for a reason. We can never have Liam back, but his memory is helping us make something good out of our pain.
Liam was our second child. His big sister, Bella, was born in 2007. My pregnancy with Bella was 100 percent typical, so there was no reason to think my second pregnancy would be anything but typical, too. My due date with Liam was October 23, 2009.
That summer, on a Saturday morning, my husband, Jason, and I were turning the spare bedroom into Bella’s room and getting the nursery ready in anticipation of Liam’s arrival. I remember having a strange feeling that day. There was no crisis, nothing too concerning or alarming, but I kind of felt off. When these feelings did not subside by dinnertime, I decided it was time to go to the hospital to have it checked out.
I was triaged and set up with monitors to watch what was happening with the baby and keep an eye on both of us. The team thought maybe I was dehydrated because there were no signs of anything wrong and monitors didn’t show much in the way of contractions. Just before I was about to be released, one of the nurses checked my cervix to be sure they weren’t missing something. It turns out, the feelings I was having were extremely mild contractions. I was dilated 4 to 5 centimeters and the amniotic sac was bulging through. Suddenly, my uneventful pregnancy entered crisis mode.
I was immediately transported from my hospital to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center to be close to their level 3 NICU. Doctors tried all of their tricks to stop the contractions, but nothing worked. At about 1 am one of the contractions broke my water, making it unsafe to delay labor – it was time to deliver Liam.
Liam Nolen Bradley was born at 1:30 am on July 26, 2009, via emergency C-section. He was 13 weeks premature and weighed 2 pounds, 3 ounces.
Liam was so little. The nurses in the operating room told us he let out one tiny cry before they took him to the NICU where he was intubated and started on a ventilator.
Without warning, we were NICU parents.
The roller coaster of highs and lows of the NICU can be devastating. Liam had a patent ductus arteriosus (PDA), a common heart problem in premature babies, which meant his lungs weren’t getting blood flow. Doctors closed his PDA with medication and it felt like we got over a hurdle.
A brain scan showed Liam had one very small bleed – results that were much better than what doctors expected – and we felt like we could cross another obstacle off our list.
At first, Liam’s biggest challenge was his lungs. He was put on high-frequency oscillatory ventilation and with settings perfected, was doing a great job with his breathing.
We felt optimistic until a new diagnosis seemingly came out of the blue. Liam had developed necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC). His bowels were dying.
We knew ahead of time that this was a possibility, but we still felt blindsided by the diagnosis and the acute nature of the condition.
On a Thursday evening, Jason and I pried ourselves away from the NICU to go home for dinner and bedtime with Bella – we’d been doing our best to create as much normalcy for her as possible. Liam’s day had been good, so we felt comfortable heading home together.
Almost as soon as we stepped inside at home, my phone rang with a message that although he had been stable the hour before, Liam was very sick. We fought rush hour traffic for the 40 miles back to the hospital and while we did, the transport team came to move him from UC to the NICU at Cincinnati Children’s. Liam struggled to stay alive that night, but he made it through to the morning.
Liam went into surgery first thing on August 14. The results were grave. The NEC had become more than his tiny body could handle. We were standing in an unfamiliar hallway, in an unfamiliar hospital when we learned that our sweet Liam had died. He was 19 days old. Our entire family was with us during this heartbreaking time, and I’m grateful they were able to meet Liam before he left us.
Next to having to bury our son, the NICU experience was the hardest thing Jason and I have ever endured. If you find yourself in our situation, I have two pieces of advice: 1. make time to reach out to other families in the NICU who are going through the same thing as you are and 2. be sure to love on your baby as much as you possibly can. Hold your child (if you’re allowed), feel your child, talk to your child, and tell your child how much you love him or her. The NICU is a roller coaster and many rides end with smiling babies who go home, but many do not. We loved every one of the 19 days we had with Liam and I am confident he felt that love.
Now, six years later, we’re still trying to find ways to heal. We maintain a strong relationship with God and pray a lot. Jason has Liam’s handprints tattooed on his shoulder and I have Liam’s footprints tattooed on my feet so that we know he’s always with us.
We found a great support group near our home in Middletown called H.E.A.L. (Help Endure a Loss) for families coping with miscarriage, stillbirth or neonatal death. And, through hosting an annual golf outing over the last six years, we’ve donated $55,000 in Liam’s name to Dr. Kurt Schibler’s NEC research team at Cincinnati Children’s.
The Liam Nolen Bradley Memorial Golf Outing was initially my dad’s doing. I credit him for pushing us in this positive direction. His idea – to focus our hurt into something that is good and helpful for others – has been comforting for our whole family.
For a lot of parents who’ve lost a baby, there is a difficult realization at some point that not many people will ever have the opportunity to meet your child. A majority of the hundreds of people who’ve supported us and NEC research through this golf outing never knew Liam, but they personally speak his name every year. I love hearing every single one of them say it!
Doctors tell us we’ll probably never know what caused the preterm labor, but every year, we’re proud to support research that is helping the medical community understand more about NEC and how to stop it. We know Liam’s memory is making a difference in the lives of other NICU families and we’re so incredibly proud of him.