10/31/2012 06:06 pm ET Updated Nov 01, 2012

Mom Of Premature Baby Evacuated From NYU During Hurricane Sandy: 'I Just Lost It'

NEW YORK -- When Jo-An Tremblay-Shepherd, 34, set out from her Brooklyn apartment on Monday morning to visit NYU’s Langone Medical Center neonatal intensive care unit, she expected to ride out the storm with her hospitalized son Jackson, who was born prematurely, at 27 weeks, on Aug. 31. She wasn't expecting that a half-day later, she would watch a NICU nurse carry her baby and his oxygen tank down nine flights of slippery stairs, guided only by flashlight.

“It was wet, and it was dark," Tremblay-Shepherd told HuffPost. "The nurse had to take him down the stairs for liability reasons. It was crazy to watch."

According to NYU, 20 babies were evacuated from the NICU early on Tuesday after power went off and the hospital's backup generators failed. Lorinda Klein, a spokeswoman for the hospital, said some patients whose breathing had been assisted by machines "were being bagged,” meaning hospital workers manually squeezed air into their lungs.

Tremblay-Shepherd said her son requires relatively minimal oxygen support, which doesn't require electricity. But his monitors do. After the hospital went "pitch black" at just after 8 p.m. on Monday, the first-time mom said she sat with her son, watching for signs he was okay.

“Jackson has been with us for two months now, and he has been on the monitor all that time,” said Tremblay-Shepherd. “It was a rude awakening for me not to have a screen tell me his heart rate and how he was oxygenating. I had to really go with my instinct.”

What happened then, she said, did not seem particularly well-organized despite the best intentions from nurses Tremblay-Shepherd had come to adore. Nurses regularly checked on her and told her the hospital was being evacuated, with higher-risk babies going first. As the night dragged on, Tremblay-Shepherd questioned the need to bring her tiny son out into the storm. But at around 3 a.m., she said, police and firefighters announced it was time.

“They basically told us, 'Just grab the baby and go,'” she said. “It happened so fast, I grabbed the bag I’d packed with stuff he’d need, but I forgot mine.”

After waiting downstairs at NYU for a half-hour, they left in an ambulance. First stop was the wrong hospital in the Bronx. Some time after 4 a.m., she estimated, she and Jackson were finally settled at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx.

“This is my first baby, so I don’t really know, but you hear a lot of stories about parents in general keeping it together when shit hits the fan," she said. Once Jackson was safely admitted to Montefiore, "I went to the parents’ room and I just lost it,” she said, beginning to sob. “It’s hard enough to have a baby born prematurely, but to have this on top. … It was a bit much.”

Montefiore accepted six babies from NYU's NICU, said Zahava Cohen, the administrative nurse manager at Montefiore's Weiler Division. The hospital had been told to expect four infants, she said. None of the babies were on respirators, but they needed to be closely monitored to make sure they were breathing properly and staying warm.

“The doctors and nurses from NYU said they were willing to take [those two] somewhere else,” Cohen said. “But a lot of them had been working since 7 in the morning. They just all looked wasted.” Doctors, nurses and the three sets of parents who were there with their babies were given cookies, orange juice and fruit, and were given blankets and throws if they wanted to sleep. Cohen said that by 10 a.m. on Tuesday, all of the parents had been contacted.

NYU's Klein said all of the babies were transferred safely.

Cohen said she is in contact with the manager of the Langone NICU, handling matters that include transferring a large amount of one evacuee's breast milk from NYU, where she fears it will spoil.

"I'm bordering on [being] awestruck by the situation," Cohen said. "I've been doing this for 30 years. I lived in Florida during Andrew. I have never been involved in a NICU evacuation." Though the transfers kept the babies safe and warm, the parents have “aged 50 years” in the days since, she said.

Tremblay-Shepherd said she's exhausted and doesn't know what's next for Jackson. He has been given a slightly higher dose of oxygen -- a setback she attributes, in part, to the storm. She still hopes to take him home in a couple weeks. For now, she plans to drive between the hospital and the Brooklyn apartment she and her husband share with their dogs.

"I’m so proud," she said of her son. "He’s a fighter. And I’m going to have some pretty interesting stories to tell him."


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