On the surface, sweet 2-year-old Aubree Pearson and her mother, Shaquilla James, could be any ordinary mother-daughter duo.
Little might the average passerby know that the Summerton family has overcome a major milestone this year since Pearson came into the world in April 2020.
James was the first mother to give birth at McLeod Health with a positive COVID-19 diagnosis. On June 3, the pair celebrated their graduation from McLeod Health's two-year Nurse Family Partnership Program.
"When I was pregnant with Aubree at 37 weeks, I was diagnosed with COVID," James said. "Giving birth while having COVID was so hard. I was with her for about 16 hours before they decided to take her from me, and I was intubated for about five days."
James was six weeks pregnant when she first joined the program, and she is forever thankful she did after the traumatic experience that April two years ago. Being separated from your newborn isn't an easy task, but it was the safest option at the time, and James knew her daughter was in great care with her family and NFP nurse, Alison Baggette, who had worked with more than 30 mothers in the program at the time.
According to McLeod Health nursing staff, many patients were infected with COVID-19 when giving birth. However, James' case was the first and the worst at McLeod Health.
"She was the sickest," Baggette said. "It feels like that was yesterday."
"It's so heart-touching, the story," James' mother said. "I thought my baby was gone. Never experienced nothing like that a day in my life. Never again. You can't see her, you can't touch her, you can't be there for her."
"It was a lot," James said, looking at her mother.
According to nurses and James' family, she was on the verge of death. It took James weeks to overcome the illness separating her from her baby. It was an emotional time for the first-time mother, but to be able to hold her little girl in her arms was what kept her fighting in the ICU. She had been transferred to McLeod Regional Medical Center in Florence, where she slept on a ventilator for days.
James said she isn't sure she'd have made it if it weren't for the McLeod Health team and her decision to join the NFP program.
Baggette has been there for both mother and daughter since James joined the program and joked she isn't going anywhere. Baggette was essential in helping the family raise the newborn for her first month of life. She practically became family.
The NFP program helps first-time moms-to-be of all ages who fall under a low-income household status. The graduating class of 60 moms, including James, on June 3 was the first Sumter-Clarendon program. McLeod Health's system-wide program serves nine counties in South Carolina.
According to Baggette, the Sumter-Clarendon program began with its first moms right before the pandemic in 2020, which was a challenging time for the nurses. They never stopped serving their first-time moms, though, and it showed in Sumter's Memorial Park that Friday afternoon. Sixty families from Sumter and Clarendon counties enjoyed the sunshine and waited for the moment.
James and her 2-year-old daughter, dressed head to toe in pink, sat at a picnic table with Pearson's grandmother as they waited for the ceremony to begin. Pearson smiled with glee to all who approached and complimented her on her big pink bow.
Pearson does not have a shy bone in her body.
McLeod Health nurses could not get over how the first COVID-19 baby grew up to be in just two years.
"Aubree got big," the grandmother said proudly.
However, the best change was to see both her granddaughter and daughter grow strong and healthy since April 2020.
"That's a blessing," she said.
James' favorite part about the graduation ceremony was getting to see all of the first-time moms joining her in the last stage of the program as well as the other moms Baggette helped throughout the last two years.
Specific things NFP helped James with were safe sleep with the baby, milk issues for her daughter, finding resources and more. That was Baggette's job once a mom joined the program. She even helped James find her way back to school to get a college degree in early childhood education. She hopes to finish school in 2024.
"It was hard going back, but I got to follow somebody," James said. "Being in the program definitely motivated me to go back and get my degree."
She couldn't promote the program enough to attendees of the graduation ceremony. She hopes first-time moms, young and old, take advantage of the program.
"Don't be afraid to join because I was at first. And don't be afraid to ask questions," James said. "They have nurses here to help you. You can call anytime of the night, any question. If you're not too sure about something or even if it doesn't have to do with the baby, it's yourself, like your mental health, they'll help you."
James addressed the crowd to tell her story. As she spoke in the microphone, Baggette held Pearson tight in her arms, standing next to the 2-year-old's mother.
She fought tears talking about Baggette being there for her, her family and Pearson through the hard times. Baggette couldn't help but wipe a tear from her cheek.
As they embraced during the ceremony, it could be seen throughout the park that their relationship grew to more than just a nurse-patient one. They were family.
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