Zach Hillstrom

I had just arrived back at my office from an interview with a sweet old woman who was celebrating her 100th birthday when I looked down at my phone and saw I had missed three calls from my girlfriend.

“This is it,” I realized excitedly. “She’s here. The baby is coming.”

I called Geanine and she confirmed my assumption: Her water had broken at work and she was heading home to get ready.

At the time, I was working for the daily paper down in Pueblo, so after wrapping up my work and finding someone to cover my assignments, I made the drive up Interstate 25 feeling excited and stressed and hopeful and anxious all at the same time. The other thing I felt — even though I knew we still had an Everest-size mountain ahead of us — was relief.

Geanine’s pregnancy had been particularly brutal: vomiting every day the whole nine months, massive hormonal swings, her body’s rejection of most of the foods and routine to which she was accustomed, the whole nine yards.

So as I made the white-knuckle drive home to Colorado Springs, I couldn’t help but think: Maybe the hardest part is over.

I knew it wasn’t likely, but I’d heard of some first-time moms who had relatively easy deliveries, so I hoped that maybe since Geanine’s pregnancy had been so rough, she’d finally be able to catch a break.

The next 50-plus hours were like something out of a deserted-island survival movie.

Geanine’s contractions were so debilitating that each one stopped her dead in her tracks. She couldn’t eat, could hardly drink water, and the idea of sleep was nothing short of laughable.

We’d originally planned for a homebirth, and our midwife told us that walking might help speed up the contractions, so we paced around our small condo for hours on end.

It went on for what felt like weeks.

On Monday afternoon, more than two full days after Geanine’s water broke, we finally gave in and headed to the hospital.

But things did not get any easier.

The anesthesiologist botched the epidural, but we had no time to dwell on it, as the medication they gave her significantly sped things up.

Just after midnight, Geanine told me that the baby was coming and asked me to call the nurse. I was so disoriented and exhausted, she had to repeat it three times before I finally delivered the message.

Once she got finally to the point of pushing, Geanine was a woman possessed. She drew upon some kind of other-wordly strength, and just after 1 a.m. on Feb. 5, 2019, Winter Joy Hillstrom finally met her mommy and daddy.

As I smiled sheepishly and cut the umbilical cord, I foolishly told myself the hard part was over.

When you have your first child, there’s something that clicks inside of you. It tells you that your only priority is to protect and care for this precious little being made of half of your DNA.

But after no more than 30 seconds, they removed Winter from her rightful place on Geanine’s chest and placed her on a small medical table nearby. They began to suction her tiny airway and told us she’d seemingly been very stressed during the delivery, causing her to release her bowel of its meconium.

They said she had meconium aspiration syndrome (MAS), meaning as Winter attempted to take her first breath, it was the meconium, rather than oxygen, that found its way into her lungs.

And as if one life-threatening ailment weren’t enough, what was even more concerning, they told us, was the fact that Winter was very “floppy.” They would lift her little arms and let go, and each time they came crashing limply down to the table — an expression of pure gravity with no discernible sign of resistance.

This, they told us, was very worrisome.

They took Winter down the hall to a small Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, and I followed as the nurses helped Geanine get cleaned up. I sat in a rocking chair watching them work on my 6-pound, 3.8-oz baby girl. Her eyes were closed, her face as purple as a day-old bruise.

The nurses said she was exhibiting symptoms of a condition called hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE), which meant that the stress of her delivery had, at some point, cut off oxygen to her brain.

Panicked and needing to feel like I had some control, I did the stupidest thing I could — I googled it. The first result said: “HIE… is a brain injury … associated with a high risk of death and lifelong disability.”

At that moment, I felt like Geanine and I had taken an elevator to the top of a New York City skyscraper, only to have the cable snap as soon we reached the top floor.

“She’s fine,” I pleaded with myself. “She’s gonna be fine. She has to be fine.”

We were told that there’s a treatment for babies with HIE called “cooling,” or therapeutic hypothermia, which entails lowering the baby’s body temperature to minimize the potentially catastrophic brain damage associated with HIE. But it would have to happen quickly — the treatment is only effective if administered within six hours of the initial brain injury, and the hospital we were in did not have the capabilities.

A short time later, Winter was loaded into one ambulance and Geanine another.

A biting chill hung in the air as I followed the emergency vehicles to the hospital downtown, and as I drove, I realized how fitting it was we had chosen the name “Winter.” She was born in the freezing cold and because of her condition, was forced to spend the first 72 hours of her life on ice.

The days that followed were a complete blur of medical discussions and doctors’ visits and conversations about Winter’s prognosis.

They were, far and away, the most difficult days of our lives.

As I smiled sheepishly and cut the umbilical cord, I foolishly told myself the hard part was over.

When you have your first child, there’s something that clicks inside of you. It tells you that your only priority is to protect and care for this precious little being made of half of your DNA.

So when your newborn gets sick like Winter was, those instincts get all dressed up with nowhere to go. You can’t touch your baby, because doing so might raise her body temperature and negate the effects of the cooling treatment.

You can’t feed her, because her breathing is only possible through a ventilator. She’s constantly sedated and requires a highly-addictive fentanyl drip to manage her pain.

All you want to do is hold her and hug her and kiss her, but none of those things are possible or helpful.

So you take it day by day, talking to her, reading to her and trying to put out of your mind all the devastating things that could lie ahead in her future if the treatments are not successful.

As was the standard during this experience, the days were disproportionately hard on Geanine — she suffered from devastating spinal headaches as a result of the anesthesiologist’s error, and had to endure her first week of motherhood with a sick baby in the hospital and headaches so excruciating that simply sitting upright caused her to vomit.

But after a few days, we got the news we were so desperate for: The cooling treatment had done its job, and an MRI showed no discernible lesions that would indicate significant brain damage.

As ecstatic as we were at the prognosis, we were far from out of the woods. Winter required several different ventilators to access different parts of her lungs, as they tried to rid themselves of meconium.

After about two weeks, we finally were able to take her home, though she required supplemental oxygen to breathe. It was both the most thrilled and scared I’ve ever felt.

We knew that because of Winter’s rough start, she’d need advanced monitoring and care, so we spent the next six months visiting pulmonologists, ear, nose and throat doctors, and speech and occupational therapists, in addition to her regular pediatrician appointments and weekly visits from a mobile nurse.

All the while, we waited with bated breath for someone to tell us there was something wrong. Miraculously, no one ever did. It was one piece of good news after another. Eventually, we were able to take Winter off the oxygen.

If you were to look at my beautiful, vibrant daughter today, you’d never be able to tell she almost didn’t make it.

She’s a picture of perfection. She’s happy and healthy and wild and everything a father could ask for. She’s the strongest person I’ve ever met, despite being less than 2 feet tall. She’s gone through more in a year than most people go through in an entire lifetime.

She just turned 1 a few weeks ago.

Every time I look into her crystal-blue eyes, hear her warm laugh and watch her explore the world around her with a vigor that’s perhaps only found in those who almost didn’t have a chance at life, the struggles we experienced seem borderline laughable. They’re a completely trivial price to pay when it comes to the reward of being a dad.

And I guess that’s what it’s really all about — weathering the storm by relying on the love and support of those around you, putting one foot in front of the other until the gray clouds part and all you’re left with is blue skies and sunshine.

Now, I know the hard part isn’t over. In parenthood, it never really is. But I’ve tasted the fruit that it bears. And I know it wouldn’t be half as sweet any other way.

Contact reporter Zach Hillstrom at zach.hillstrom@csbj.com or follow him on Twitter at @ZachHillstrom.


Zach Hillstrom is a Colorado Springs native and graduate of Colorado State University-Pueblo. He has worked as a reporter for Southern Colorado print outlets since 2015.