Jessica Rowlett gave birth to her second child, a son named Rowdy, on May 31 in an emergency C-section that took place while she was on a ventilator due to COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
Rowlett, 35, did not meet her newborn son until nearly one month later, when they were both released from a Nashville, Tennessee, hospital.
"Honestly I was kind of numb," Rowlett, also the mother of a 4-year-old daughter, told "Good Morning America" about the moment she saw Rowdy for the first time in person. "I just looked at him from across the room and he didn’t feel like he was mine."
"It just didn’t feel normal," she said.
Rowlett said not much has felt normal for her since mid-May, when she tested positive for COVID-19 at around 31 weeks pregnant.
The mom of two was diagnosed with COVID-19 just a few weeks after going back to her job as a dental hygienist. Her office had reopened after initially shutting down due to the coronavirus pandemic in March.
"I had a very hard time breathing and kept falling asleep and wasn’t making any sense when I was talking to my husband," said Rowlett, whose husband, James, followed her OBGYN's orders to take her directly to a larger hospital with a COVID-19 unit in Nashville, 40 minutes away from their home.
"James couldn’t go into the hospital with me," she said. "He just had to drop me off."
Rowlett was put on oxygen immediately and just a few days later was told she would have to undergo an emergency C-section because her health was deteriorating so rapidly.
"Jessica’s oxygenation was becoming so poor it was difficult to predict how much oxygen the baby was getting through the placenta," said Dr. Paul Bryant, an infectious disease specialist who treated Rowlett at TriStar Centennial Medical Center in Nashville. "We weren’t really sure if there was going to be any long-term neurological damage to the baby."
James Rowlett was able to come see his wife in the hospital for the first time just before her surgery, and still remembers how scared both he and his wife were in that moment.
"Jessica was crying because she didn’t want to be intubated and she didn’t want to give birth already," he said, also recalling how the doctors were head-to-toe in personal protective equipment (PPE) that looked like something out of a science fiction movie. "It was really scary."
"I remember stopping [the doctors] and telling my husband that I was sorry," recalled Jessica Rowlett. "He said, 'Why are you sorry?' and I said, ‘Because I’m about to leave you with these two kids.’"
Rowlett though made it through and the couple's son, Rowdy, was born at 33 weeks, weighing 4 pounds, 15 ounces.
He tested negative for COVID-19 but had to be intubated for a short time because of the heavy sedation Rowlett was under while giving birth. The newborn was taken to the NICU, where he was also placed on a feeding tube because he was too tiny to feed from a bottle and Rowlett was unable to breastfeed.
James Rowlett had to quarantine after visiting his wife in the hospital, so he was not able to see his newborn son for the first 14 days of his life. After that, he visited Rowdy in the hospital daily, arranging childcare for their 4-year-old daughter and making the 80-minute roundtrip drive from their home.
"I work for myself so I could make my own schedule but after you’ve gone to the hospital to see your preemie baby, you can’t do just about anything," he said, noting that he was not able to visit his wife in the hospital again. "All kinds of emotions were going on."
Jessica Rowlett woke up from the sedation due to the C-section the next day, but still faced a tenuous road ahead, including coming to terms with the fact that she was no longer pregnant.
"I couldn’t talk because I was intubated so I remember using my finger on my leg to spell out words to [the nurse]," she said. "I felt my belly and then wrote out baby and she said, ‘He’s fine. He’s fine.' It’s a strange feeling waking up and thinking, 'Where is my baby?'"
It’s a strange feeling waking up and thinking, where is my baby?
She would go on to be placed on an ECMO machine for the next nearly two weeks. Rowlett credits the machine -- which pumps and oxygenates a patient's blood outside the body -- with saving her life.
"Without the ECMO I wouldn’t be here," she said. "From what I understand there’s only about three hospitals in middle Tennessee that have those machines."
Aside from the roughly 24 hours that Rowlett was sedated, she was awake and alert during her weeks-long battle with COVID-19. She communicated with Rowdy, her husband and daughter and other family members only through FaceTime and on phone calls.
"I think the hardest part was how with it and awake she was but how critical and sick she was all at the same time," said Mary Shea, a registered nurse who cared for Rowlett. "It was pretty incredible to see all that she went through and how strong she was and how poised she was through the entire process."
Over the course of several weeks, Rowlett slowly and miraculously began to regain her strength. She moved out of the ICU and off the hospital's COVID-19 floor, was taken off the ECMO machine and was eventually discharged from the hospital on June 26, the same day as her son.
"What gave her a better fighting chance was the fact that she was young with little to no medical problems," said Bryant, noting that Rowlett still faces and emotional and physical battle ahead. "I really want to stress though that even surviving this disease can have some long-term impacts for years."
"Everybody fears that ultimate outcome [of death], but for the ones that survive, it’s a very emotional and taxing toll to recovery," he said.
Now that she has been home for a few weeks, Rowlett said she has bonded with Rowdy and things are starting to feel more normal again.
Reminders of her COVID-19 battle are still with her though, like the oxygen she still has to use daily at home.
"I have 30% lung capacity now because of the scar tissue and the respiratory therapist said I’ll be on oxygen for one to two years but I’m going to prove her wrong," said Rowlett. "She also said running a marathon is not in my future and I said, 'That’s fine. I’m more of a mall walker.'"
"But it's a change of life, for sure," she added.
Rowlett, who will also need to undergo physical therapy to regain her strength, said what she has gone through the past two months still seems "surreal." She described it as "frustrating" to see the debate still ongoing about wearing masks and taking the coronavirus pandemic seriously.
"Everyone is worried about themselves and not worried about the community," she said. "It’s just like take one for your neighbor and wear a mask."