The Family House Diaries: Blessings and Lessons from a High-Risk Pregnancy

Thursday, May 7, 2009 — This is the first in a new series from UNC Health Care that focuses on the stories of UNC Hospitals patients and their families who live at the States Employees' Credit Union Family House in Chapel Hill while receiving or awaiting treatment.

The Family House Diaries: Blessings and Lessons from a High-Risk Pregnancy click to enlarge Connie Wild, left, Dean Unger and Francine Wild in the Children’s Play Room at the SECU Family House in Chapel Hill.

Written by Elizabeth Swaringen for UNC Health Care

Mandatory bed rest for a high-risk pregnancy is delivering more blessings and teaching more lessons than Francine Wild or her mother Connie Wild ever dreamed possible.

“This whole experience has brought us together and taught us so much,” said Francine, 37, and 30 weeks pregnant. “It has forced us to take care of each other and to accept help from each other. We are very independent women, and it is not easy for us to accept help from others.”

Since March 27, Francine, Connie and father-to-be Dean Unger, 36, have lived at the State Employees’ Credit Union (SECU) Family House to be close to Francine’s physician, Robert Strauss, M.D., and the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at the University of North Carolina Hospitals, where the trio from Virginia believes the baby will have the best chance if Francine delivers early.

According to Strauss, associate professor in the UNC School of Medicine and director of labor and delivery at UNC Hospitals, Francine’s pregnancy was complicated by a shortened cervix, which places her at an increased risk for preterm delivery, defined as less than 37 weeks gestation.

“Although much effort has been devoted to understanding this common pregnancy complication, the rates of preterm birth in the U.S. have actually increased slightly in recent years to about 13 percent,” Strauss said. “What is wonderful about Francine’s pregnancy is that although she has a much higher risk of preterm birth than the general population, perhaps five- to 10-fold higher, she has managed to continue her pregnancy and do very well.

“If she did go into preterm labor, which can often happen quickly, it could be truly lifesaving for her baby to be born at a tertiary care center that has the ability to care for very preterm infants,” Strauss added.

“I was getting excellent prenatal care in Virginia, but at best, we were 45 minutes away from a hospital that could care for a preemie, and that wasn’t close enough,” said Francine, who has had two miscarriages. “Everything – my research on neonatal care, recommendations from friends in Virginia Beach and co-workers of Dean’s – all said ‘go to Chapel Hill’.”

Francine and Dean, who is a master sergeant in special operations, currently stationed at Pope Air Force Base in Fayetteville, N.C., had planned to rent an apartment for the duration of the pregnancy, but upon arriving in Chapel Hill discovered the Family House minutes from UNC Hospitals. Built in 2008 with the help of the State Employees’ Credit Union Foundation, the Family House provides comfortable, convenient and affordable housing for adult patients undergoing treatment for critical illness or trauma and family members who accompany them to Chapel Hill.

“The three of us share a confined space, a suite, but we each find our space and get along,” said Connie, who is 62 and deaf, and was laid off from her job as a nonprofit executive in December. Francine helped Connie recover from a broken ankle earlier this year, and Connie is at Francine’s side while Dean commutes to Fayetteville to work.

“If I hadn’t lost my job, I couldn’t be here to help Francine,” Connie said, clearly choosing to always see the best in less-than-ideal circumstances. “We didn’t know the area or the first person here, but this house, this community, everybody at the hospital – we’ve let Chapel Hill adopt us. This really feels like home.”

That she was able to conceive a third time is nothing short of a miracle, Francine said. “I was told many years ago that I probably could never become pregnant. To be told something is not possible and then be able to conceive, carry and hopefully give birth to a healthy baby, that’s an amazing thing.

The good news came a few days before Dean left for his ninth deployment overseas in late October, but was tempered with the reality of the likely difficult road ahead.

“Being on bed rest has been hard,” Francine said. “I haven’t been able to show off my pregnancy or go shopping for baby things. I read a lot. I eat well. We play board games. I have a lot of time to pray. At the end of the day I’m always content and happy. And I really do look forward to the next day, because it’s one day closer to a healthy baby.”

Francine, Dean and Connie have toured the NICU and the labor and delivery suites at the hospital and are mightily impressed. “Our questions were answered before we could ask them,” Dean said.

Dean also has completed “New Daddy Boot Camp”, a voluntary program offered by the hospital to increase new fathers’ comfort levels with their babies. And he’s been invited and has committed to come back as an instructor when the baby is six months old. “We want to give back for what we have been given,” he said.

Connie acknowledges concern for her unborn grandchild, given hereditary deafness that is multi-generational and Francine’s advanced maternal age.

“Francine has always been good with kids, with her two deaf brothers growing up and with her three nephews who visit every summer,” Connie said. “We’ve talked about the possibility that the baby could be deaf or developmentally disabled. But she says, and I know it to be true, ‘I will love this baby no matter what.’ That’s the heart she has.”

Francine and Dean don’t yet know the gender of their child, but they do have the names picked out.

“I’ve known since I was 5 years old that if I ever had a daughter she would be named either Emma Mae or Ella Louise after my grandmothers,” Francine said. “And Dean chose Evan James if we have a boy.”

“Evan means ‘gift from God’, and that’s what this child is,” Dean said. “We just want a healthy child, and we believe we gave ourselves the best chance of that by coming to Chapel Hill.”

“It is truly a pleasure caring for a patient and family so invested in their pregnancy,” Strauss said. “Francine makes my job easy. I already know that she and Dean will be wonderful parents.

“Any of us who have been faced with a difficult medical condition or family illness learn very quickly the value and importance of hope,” Strauss added. “Although Francine was faced with a complicated pregnancy, we have all chosen to be hopeful that things will be OK. I can’t think of any better medicine than that.”

UNC Health Care media contacts: Clinton Colmenares, 919-966-8757, ccolmena@unch.unc.edu, or Tom Hughes, 919-966-6047, tahughes@unch.unc.edu

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