Russell Wessel is a miracle baby.
That’s what his parents, Ashlyn Wessel and Alex Sinclair, believe.
And they credit the doctors and nurses at Allegheny Health Network’s (AHN) Jefferson Hospital for Russell’s safe arrival. That’s where he was born October 8 — healthy but blissfully unaware that he’d just played a lead role in an amazing family drama.
Ashlyn had a rare prenatal condition called vasa previa. Her doctors at Jefferson discovered it during a 32-week outpatient ultrasound.
“Everything had been going so normally in the first 32 weeks,” Ashlyn said. “Then to find out that you’ve got this rare thing going on, it was a lot of shock and disbelief.”
Occurring in only one of 2,500 births, vasa previa happens when blood vessels in the placenta or umbilical cord become trapped between the fetus and the opening to the birth canal. The vessels often tear during labor and delivery, causing potentially fatal bleeding.
“I had to step back and ask, ‘How did we get to this point?'” Ashlyn said.
A Dream Realized
Ashlyn wanted nothing more than to be a mother. She’d dreamed about it for years. So, in early 2017 when Ashlyn learned she was pregnant, she was over-the-moon ecstatic.
And that emotion was magnified because Ashlyn was a miracle baby herself, according to her parents, Jim and Christa Wessel.
“Doctors told my mom she couldn’t have children. I don’t really know all the details,” Ashlyn said. “So for me to become a mother was extra special for all of us.”
At 20 weeks, Ashlyn had an ultrasound, and all was normal. And she and Alex learned they’d be having a boy.
“We named him Russell because it’s Alex’s middle name, his dad’s middle name, and was his great-grandfather’s name,” Ashlyn said.
Not long after naming their son, she and Alex made another decision — perhaps the very choice that saved Russell’s life. Roughly 24 weeks into the pregnancy, they switched doctors.
“We weren’t very comfortable with the original doctors we had,” Ashlyn said. “They didn’t spend a lot of time with us, and they didn’t have the best bedside manner.”
She and Alex came to AHN and found Dr. Melissa Poot, an OB-GYN at Jefferson Hospital , where a state-of-the-art birthing center was opened in 2014. It offers highly specialized maternity care in a community hospital setting — including access to doctors with expertise in maternal fetal medicine, perinatal care, and neonatal care.
It was Dr. Poot who ordered Ashlyn’s 32-week, outpatient ultrasound.
“I used to smoke,” Ashlyn said. “So Dr. Poot wanted to be sure the baby was developing OK.”
Russell looked fine. But when Jefferson OB-GYN Dr. Paul J. Weinbaum read the scan, he did a double-take. It showed clear evidence of vasa previa.
“This should be looked for on every scan, and at AHN it’s part of our standard of care,” said Weinbaum, who specializes in maternal fetal medicine and high-risk pregnancies. “But I’m not so sure that it’s looked for closely enough in general across the health care industry because it’s rare.”
The good news is that vasa previa, once identified, is manageable, according to Dr. David A. Logan, chief of Jefferson’s department of obstetrics and gynecologic services. “Once we find it, we actually feel some relief because we can plan a C-section delivery,” he said. “Since Ashlyn was so far along, the safest place for her was right here at the hospital. Then, we could perform a C-section at a minute’s notice.
“It was purely her decision whether she wanted to chance going home or to stay at Jefferson and wait.”
But if a woman has vasa previa and goes into labor far from a hospital, there is a 95 percent chance her baby will die. Ashlyn decided to stay.
Waiting: The Most Difficult Part
Still some nine weeks away from her due date, Ashlyn was admitted to Jefferson’s labor and delivery unit.
She settled in for what would become a 15-day hospital stay. Her parents and Alex rarely left her side.
“Alex pretty much lived there with me the whole time,” Ashlyn said later, following her discharge. “He’d come over after work, hang out, sleep, and go to work the next morning. He stayed all but one night.”
Still, she was nervous and anxious. How long would she have to wait for Russell to arrive? And would he be okay?
“If you have vasa previa, essentially you’re being told that your placenta isn’t safe any longer for your baby to live in,” said Belinda Callaghan, nurse manager of Jefferson’s birthing center. “Of course, that fills you with anxiety.”
So Belinda and Dr. Logan met with Ashlyn daily for up to 45 minutes, calming her fears and answering questions.
Floor nurses also visited Ashlyn and her family several times daily, bringing her snacks and chatting. The staff even arranged for a therapy dog to visit Ashlyn.
“They were awesome. They were always checking on me,” she said. “Dr. Logan would bring me People magazine. If the nurses ordered food for lunch, they’d ask me if I wanted anything. And they got me to start watching Scandal on television.”
“It was awesome to have people that concerned about you all the time.”
The Right Place at the Right Time
And then, on Oct. 8, Ashlyn realized she truly was right where she needed to be.
Late that evening, she complained of “pains in her belly.” But this was no normal bellyache. Ashlyn was going into labor — seven weeks early.
The staff whisked her into a labor and delivery suite for the C-section. And at 11:37 p.m., Ashlyn and Alex were holding and admiring their son.
Their tears of joy were even more meaningful: Had Ashlyn not been at Jefferson for Russell’s early arrival, the outcome may have been much different.
And because he was a fragile 4 pounds, 9 ounces, they realized baby Russell was in the right place, too — at Jefferson’s Level II neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
“I know of some other patients with high-risk pregnancies that, if they had been required to travel a long distance, there may have been a very different outcome for mom and baby,” said Dr. Allan S. Klapper, an OB-GYN at Jefferson. “It’s an advantage that Jefferson offers such specialized maternity care right here in the community.”
Russell spent 15 days in Jefferson’s Level II NICU — where the nurses and doctors closely monitored his every breath, charted his development, and ensured he was eating properly. He exceeded doctors’ expectations and went home sooner than anticipated.
Today, Russell is doing well and is growing stronger each day.
“He’s gained a pound or so since he’s left the hospital,” Ashlyn said. “He sleeps well, and he’s eating double what he did in the hospital.”
A New Beginning
Ashlyn said her experience “has definitely changed my life.” So much so that she wants to raise awareness, encouraging women to ask their doctors about vasa previa and to get scanned.
“My biggest change is that I have something to contribute to everyone else,” she said. “Other people have lost their children because of this. It doesn’t always have this great outcome that we had. I’d even like to go places and speak about this.”
Now at home, during the quiet hush of a morning feeding, or whenever she lays Russell down for a nap, Ashlyn feels her heart well up with overwhelming joy and thankfulness for her little miracle baby.
“I’m going to be one of those moms who holds her kids so much, they never want her to put them down,” she confessed, laughing.