COVID-19 was the medical story of a year many of us would like to forget. But some parents will celebrate 2020 as the year they welcomed new additions to their families.
As the obstetrics coordinator and doctor-patient liaison for Penn Ob/Gyn in Chester County, Arlene Loaeza knows something about pregnant women. She was six months pregnant when the pandemic hit. Her office quickly closed, and Loaeza’s work went virtual. “I shared my patients’ anxiety about not knowing how COVID would affect us,” she says. “I talked to them about having the same fears.”
In the meantime, Chester County Hospital took immediate steps to treat COVID-19 infections and reduce exposure for patients and staff. But maternal-fetal transmission was an unknown. At first, Loaeza’s physician, Dr. Justin Sloane, and the rest of staff used extreme caution with COVID-positive moms, removing the baby and making the primary caregiver someone negative. That has since changed. “We’ve learned that it’s preferable to keep the baby with a COVID-positive mom as long as she’s asymptomatic,” says Sloane.
After more data and testing became available in May, Loaeza went back to work, but she restarted her quarantine two weeks before her due date. Arriving at Chester County Hospital in labor, she tested negative for COVID-19. Though her first child had been delivered via C-section, she had a vaginal birth this time. Her husband, Nicolas, was allowed in the delivery room—in full PPE. Loaeza wore a mask. “It was harder to breathe, especially with an active delivery,” she says. “I wear glasses, and they got foggy.”
Post delivery, the Loaezas shared a hospital room with their new son, Lucas, for two days. No visitors were allowed. “I missed my family but, really, I was OK having just us,” Loaeza says. “It was quiet and peaceful, and I didn’t have to worry about looking nice for people.”
Chester County Hospital’s policies have changed since Loaeza gave birth. Support people can leave once a day and come back a second day. Doulas and certified birthing coaches are also allowed on a limited and monitored basis.
Once home, Loaeza quarantined for two months. “When my husband went back to work, only my mother and sister came to the house,” she says. “I went a little stir crazy, but it was a close, intimate little group.”
Back to work since mid-September, she remains vigilant about keeping her son sequestered. “I did get a lot of negative feedback on social media when I posted pictures of Lucas, and people weren’t invited over to see him,” says Loaeza. “I don’t know who is positive or negative, and we don’t want to risk it.”
Jessica Kenny was 24 weeks pregnant when COVID-19 reached the United States in early March. She works as a physician assistant at Radiology Associates of the Main Line Health and, like most medical professionals, she didn’t immediately panic. Kenny and her husband, Ryan, thought it’d be safe to go on a planned trip to the Bahamas.
While the couple was vacationing, international borders started to close as infection rates spiked. “We knew that we needed to get out of the Bahamas,” says Kenny, who lives in Wallingford. “When we got home, everyone was in lockdown.”
And there were the questions about transmission. “The authorities said COVID wouldn’t effect pregnancy outcomes, but no one could say that with absolute certainty,” says Dr. Radhika Kakarla of Main Line OB/Gyn Associates, a division of Axia Women’s Health.
Main Line Health and Axia stepped into the information void, establishing COVID command centers and issuing clear, comprehensive guidelines. “They did a phenomenal job of organizing information and advocating for us,” Kakarla says. “We used that information to make decisions, understanding things were going to change as the pandemic progressed.”
Kakarla and her colleagues closed their offices and transitioned to telehealth. Out of an abundance of caution, they told pregnant women to quarantine at home. Kenny took a leave of absence from her job for the month of April. “Except for doctor’s appointments, I never left the house,” she says.
Kenny went into labor on June 10, six days before her due date. When she arrived at Paoli Hospital, she was given a rapid COVID-19 test. She was ready to deliver before test results were in, so the obstetrics team functioned as though she was positive, donning gowns, gloves, goggles, N95 masks and other PPE. Kenny wore a surgical mask throughout delivery. “None of that fazed me,” she says. “It felt peaceful. It didn’t feel impersonal.”
Maeze was born without complications, though visitors weren’t allowed into the Kennys’ hospital room. “To be honest, I didn’t mind recuperating alone with just the three of us,” Kenny says.
For 12 weeks of maternity leave, Kenny didn’t leave the house with Maeze except for doctors’ appointments. Only immediate family members were allowed to visit. Even now, they take precautions—more so than some of their friends. “We do what we think is best,” she says. “We don’t want to regret anything later.”
Five months pregnant when the pandemic hit, Dr. Emily Sabato immediately began scouring the internet for reliable medical information. “There was a small article from Wuhan, China, about under-20 pregnant patients, but it had very mixed information,” she says. “Medically, there were a lot of blanks.”
Cutting short the last year of her OBGYN residency would’ve had serious ramifications on her career, so Sabato continued to go into the office at Lankenau Medical Center, graduating in June.
“My colleagues helped me work in a more protected environment—always masked, always distanced,” she says. “I’m really grateful that they allowed me to do that.”
A month later, Sabato started her full-time job with Main Line HealthCare OB/GYN at Lankenau. Given the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, workplace exposure was all the risk she and her husband, Phil, were willing to take. They quarantined at home, avoiding other families even after government restrictions were lifted. “We waited until the last minute to cancel the baby shower,” Sabato says. “We were holding out hope we could do it.”
For emotional support, Sabato leaned on her husband, who works from home. She also had her mom squad. “I’m part of a group of six friends who delivered within weeks of one another, and most of us are first-time moms,” she says. “We were on a constant group text, and that was fantastic.”
Though her due date was Aug. 1, a July 21 wellness check showed that her blood pressure was high. She was admitted to Lankenau and induced, eventually undergoing a C-section. “We started on a Tuesday and went home Friday, and my husband stayed in the room with me the entire time,” Sabato says, joking that it was a little like sharing a jail cell. “Because of the COVID policy, he couldn’t even walk the hallways.”
When the couple returned to their Philadelphia home, the grandparents got tested before they came to visit and also wore masks when they held the baby. Sabato returned to her practice in October, confident that her experience would make her a better doctor—and a better mom.
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