When Aria Mason-Folse first laid eyes on her baby girl three days after giving birth prematurely, she couldn't help breaking out in song.
"I was wondering if she'd know I was her mom, we didn't have that moment at delivery," Mason-Folse explained. "She took my hand once I started and her pulse evened out, other vital signs came up instantly. That meant the world to me."
As expecting parents, Mason-Folse and husband Henri already had enough to worry about during the coronavirus pandemic. The cause for concern only heightened in late March when Mason began experiencing symptoms of preeclampsia, a common but life-threatening pregnancy complication. The loving mother gave birth prematurely to Amara Mason-Folse, weighing just one pound, eight ounces.
The newborn was immediately rushed to the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU, at Ochsner Baptist Medical Center in New Orleans and began the long road to recovery.
"Having the ability to connect with her this way has been its little ray of sunshine through all of this," Mason-Folse said.
With the challenges of COVID-19, Amara had never seen her parents' faces entirely. Infection risks meant "strict scrubbing precautions" and face masks during visits. Only one parent could stop by at a time. Mom and Dad became concerned covering up would hinder their child's development of social cues and non-verbal communication skills. A speech therapist mentioned she might have a solution.
"A team at the hospital was working on creating clear masks for people who work with deaf patients," Mason-Folse said. "We thought it would be a great way to solve our problem."
The high school sweethearts agreed to try the masks as part of a pilot program, and noticed a change with their daughter almost immediately.
"You can see her watching our mouths, especially when I was singing to her," Mason-Folse said. "She likes the silly faces we make too. I feel excited by that, that she is responding so well to it. It's really reassuring that we made the right decision."
Aimee Quirk, CEO of innovationOchsner -- the team that came up with the transparent face covering design at the hospital -- explained while the masks were originally designed for medical professionals attending to those with hearing disabilities, it's clear patients and visitors alike from all walks of life can benefit from the unconventional design.
"It allows for connection at a time when it's hard to do," Quirk said. "Seeing a person smile, it makes a big difference to somebody's day and the feedback we've received has been overwhelmingly positive."
That includes those with special needs, early childhood education, people with neurocognitive disorders, and dementia among others, Quirk said.
Quirk's team at the hospital has partnered with local entrepreneurs to create the masks and have "a lot more coming" that will be "available as needed" to those in positions like the Mason-Folse family.
Baby Amara remains in the NICU as her lungs continue to mature, and while the trio can't rest at home together for now, the silly faces and smiles seen through Quirk's face masks seem to be the ripple of hope underneath it all, promising what is to come.
"The time with each other bonding as parents and with her -- you can only describe that as a blessing," Mason-Folse said.