Julie Howard had waited her whole life to have a baby. And in an instant, her dream quickly turned into a nightmare -- both she and her baby almost died during the delivery process. But the harrowing ordeal also served as Howard's inspiration to start It's a Preemie Thing, a business that helps other families live through the neo-natal intensive care unit experience.
Almost immediately after getting married at age 39, the 16-year Army major underwent multiple rounds of in vitro fertilization. "My husband and I laughed that we are both so stubborn that our bodies are, too, and we just couldn't get pregnant," Howard said. "They had actually told us on the last round of IVF that they wouldn't try again if that round didn't work." But it did, and Howard finally got pregnant at age 41. When she found out, she said, "I burst out crying. I was thrilled."
That thrill soon turned to concern. Howard's baby was diagnosed with several conditions and wasn't predicted to live past two months. Howard was subsequently hospitalized and gave birth prematurely, nearly dying in the process. During the next 64 days in the neo-natal intensive care unit, Howard gave birth once more, to a business idea: clothing for preemies.
Though Spencer faces additional health challenges, he has outlasted his 2-month life expectancy and is currently a thriving 2-year-old. Meanwhile, Howard's almost 2-year-old business taking off. She sells her products online and in local hospitals, helping others endure a parent's worst nightmare.
What had doctors told you about your baby during your pregnancy?
At 18 weeks, during an ultrasound, they discovered he had what was called ventriculomegaly that was eventually going to lead to hydrocephalus, and one doctor told us his cerebellum was way smaller than normal and more than likely he wouldn't live past two months. We had discussed getting a brain shunt when he was born, because his ventricles became twice the size of normal. So we knew there were issues, but we just thought that would be something to deal with after 40 weeks, when I gave birth. We had no idea he would be born early. I just went in for a 28-week appointment for my gestational diabetes test, and I knew something was wrong because he was usually like an indoor soccer player, and after drinking that sugar water, there was no kicking whatsoever. So they hooked me up to some monitors and my blood pressure, which was normally about 116/55, and it had skyrocketed. They checked me into the hospital, put me on bed rest and told me it would probably be for a few months. I only made it four days until he arrived.
What happened on the day Spencer was born?
I was diagnosed with preeclampsia during those four days I was in the hospital. On Thanksgiving day, I sent my husband home and told him I'd be fine. A friend who happened to be a labor delivery nurse came up to visit, and I told her I didn't want to complain, because I'm an army major and we don't complain, but I kind of hurt. She asked what I meant, and I said it felt like someone was shooting a nail gun down my back. She freaked out and ran out and got help, and my blood pressure was 220/180. Apparently my body had gone into HELLP syndrome, when your body is shutting down to die. They said basically I had an hour to live. So my husband ran back to the hospital and they did an emergency C section and delivered my son. They just gave me an epidural and I was awake for the whole thing. They let me kiss his head, and they took him off.
So as you were giving birth, you expected to die right after that?
My husband did -- I never really thought about me dying. I guess I was just hoping the baby would be okay. The whole time, we didn't know if he was going to live, based on all the tests they'd run. One doctor told me that I should terminate because he'd only live two months, and I told her to leave the room and never come back. So I never really thought about me. I guess I'm too stubborn -- I just thought, I'm not going to die, end of story. I was more worried about him.
When you first saw him, what was your reaction?
He was beautiful. He was so tiny, but he was actually beautiful. I just remember thinking, "Oh my God, he's so tiny" and telling my husband to go with him. I just wanted to know if he was okay and when I could see him. They told me I couldn't see him for 72 hours because I wasn't allowed out of bed for 72 hours. I got caught eight hours later going down the hall. I told them, "You can fight me or help me. Those are your options." So they got a wheelchair and took me to see him. I just camped out in his room from then on until he came home.
Being in NICU for more than two months, did you get to meet the other parents of preemie babies?
I became friends with a mom who was also always there, and then we met other parents. There was a group of us, and we would rely on each other and talk and cry, or sit around and laugh and try to find humor in the situations. We talked about funny things for our kids to wear. This baby, Natalie, was born at 1 pound even and 11 inches long, and was going home on a G-tube, oxygen, apnea monitor and everything else, and that's when I came up with "O2 ... it's not just for old people." And we just burst out laughing. We kept coming up with funnier ones, and I thought, this would be fun to do as a side business while I'm in the Army.
So in the midst of the most difficult experiences, you felt it was important to keep your sense of humor intact?
The way my husband and I and luckily the other parents were, yes, we had to. It's so touch and go. There was a week where Spencer quit breathing and his heart stopped. It was the week of Christmas -- my first Christmas as a mother -- he was on a ventilator not breathing on his own, and they told me he might not make it through the week. It's too heartbreaking every day. I know it sounds bizarre to have a sense of humor, but you have to have something to bring your spirits up, because it's just too hard.
What was it like to be finally able to take Spencer home?
Whenever we left the NICU, we had to pass the normal labor delivery room. Every day we saw all these parents taking home their babies, and it was so depressing. So it was an oddly triumphant feeling, like, I finally get to take home my child. I guess like every mother feels that when you get to take home your child, except usually it's a few days and ours was a longer time. And then I was terrified of the car trip home. It was like, don't speed, don't go over bumps. I was terrified anything would happen to this little baby.
When did you start making the preemie clothing?
We left the hospital on Jan. 29, 2010, and I launched the company part time on Labor Day -- haha -- Sept. 6, 2010. At the end of September, when Spencer was 10 months old, we had to go in for a follow-up MRI on his brain. He was diagnosed with a rare brain malformation called rhombencephalosynapsis that has only been diagnosed in 50 to 60 cases worldwide. And they told us he may never walk, talk, roll over, sit up, anything. I told my husband, "I'm done. I'm staying home with him." I thought it would be okay to do one weekend a month in the Guard for a while, but I wasn't even up for that. I resigned from the Army in August 2011.
And then you focused on your business full time? Did your products focus not just on humor but on fulfulling a real need?
We couldn't find clothes that tiny. For his first outfit, his feet didn't even come to where the knees were supposed to be. So we started doing clothing because at the time, we couldn't find any. I have cute dresses and NICU wraps for babies 0-3 pounds, and then I have onesies and t-shirts with sayings. Our bestseller is "I'm older than I look." And then there are shirts that say, "No, really, I'm 1." I recently sold a "Seriously, I'm 2" in a 3-6-month size onesie. "Got sanitizer?" is also popular.
What reactions do you get from parents?
I'll be sitting at my computer crying because I got an email from a mom saying my Facebook posts got her through. Then a lot of times the babies I make stuff for don't make it, and that's the hardest thing. I was a hardcore Army officer and now I'm a blubbering idiot most of the time.
And how is Spencer now?
He's 29 months old, and he is truly beyond what I could ever imagine. He used a walker at 16 months on his own, even though he couldn't sit up or crawl yet. At 21 months, he took his own first steps. He falls a lot, but he is running now. He can count, speaks some Spanish, and the other day he was yelling "ni hao," which is Chinese for hello. He actually uses over 200 words in sign language, because we taught him sign language not knowing whether he was going to talk. He loved it because he could communicate exactly what he wanted. While other kids were pointing and grunting, Spencer would look at you and sign "I'm hungry." We'd ask what he was hungry for, and he'd sign "pears, cheese and crackers." He is a miracle, above average. He's still tiny -- he wears the "I'm older than I look" t-shirt quite often -- but yeah, he's doing fantastic.
Does what you went through add another dimension to being a mother?
It's hard to know how other mothers feel, but for preemie moms, everything is a huge victory. I think some moms may be like, "oh yeah, my baby is sitting up now," but Spencer didn't get into the sitting position until he was 17 months old, so for me that was like the invention of the cell phone. As a preemie mom, you appreciate everything just a little bit more.
And now, looking back, you probably think it's all worth it?
I wouldn't do this for anyone else. But I'd do it all again for him.
Name: Julie Howard
Company: It's a Preemie Thing
Location: Woodinville, Wa.
Employees: One, part time
2012 Projected Revenue: Doubled 2011 sales within first four months of 2012
Howard's first reaction upon seeing her son: "He was so tiny, but he was actually beautiful."
3-day-old Spencer holds his parents' hands.
Spencer, with a stuffed bear that Howard's Army Sergeant brought to the hospital, in NICU -- and now.
Howard with Spencer at 2 years old. Howard said, "I'd do it all again for him."
Spencer at the Seattle March for Babies in May 2012, wearing a custom It's a Preemie Thing shirt.