Marina Cochran-Smith and Chad Swimmer live in Fort Bragg, California, a welcoming coastal community about three hours north of San Francisco. Their story takes place in the spring of 2014. As Mother’s Day drew near, Marina was just weeks away from becoming a first-time mom, and on June 9, the couple welcomed son Oliver into the world. “It was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had,” Chad says. “It was really sweet being here in our home out in the forest with our new baby.”
Marina had a relatively easy pregnancy and delivery. “We decided on a home birth since I was born at home. My aunt was a midwife and my cousin is a doula. Chad and I worked with a midwife. We did hypnobirthing.”
Hypnobirthing is based on the idea that the majority of pain experienced during labor is caused by fear and tension. It employs hypnotherapy and other non-pharmacological practices—relaxation, visualization, etc.—to lessen pain and in many cases decrease the duration of labor. This was certainly true for Marina; Oliver was delivered after only about five hours.
Chad was thrilled that Oliver would be with them to celebrate Father’s Day, which was less than a week away. However, things didn’t exactly go as planned. Like countless newborns, Oliver developed jaundice. Jaundice occurs so frequently that many doctors consider it a normal part of the first few days of a baby’s life. Most cases are short-term and ultimately harmless. But once in a while jaundice escalates and becomes a very dangerous condition that can result in hearing loss, brain injury or worse.
Although Oliver wasn’t acting lethargic or distressed, he was clearly jaundiced. The midwife advised Marina and Chad that if he still had symptoms when the weekend arrived, they should take him to a hospital for bilirubin testing. Bilirubin is a byproduct of the normal breakdown of old red blood cells. The reason healthy newborns develop jaundice is because their immature livers are slow to process bilirubin.
The weekend came and Oliver still had symptoms, so the couple took him to Mendocino Coast District Hospital. When the results came in, even the doctor was surprised. Oliver’s bilirubin numbers were the highest he’d ever seen. He decided to request an air ambulance to have Oliver transferred to a pediatric specialty hospital. A flight team from REACH 1 in Santa Rosa quickly headed to Fort Bragg to pick Oliver up and transfer him to UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland. REACH has been working with Oakland Children’s Hospital for over 20 years as their primary provider of air ambulance services for critically ill and injured children.
Before long, REACH pilot Jeff Barker touched down. On the helicopter with him were Flight Nurses Kyla Betts and Jennifer Fennerl. Jeff joined REACH in 2004, and he has over 30 years of flight experience. In fact, he says he knew he wanted to be a pilot from the time he was old enough to think about career possibilities. He went to flight school while in the Coast Guard. In 2003, he retired after 27 years of service and decided to get into the air ambulance industry. As to why he chose REACH, Jeff says, “Before I made a decision, I talked to potential employers about training and maintenance, and REACH was the most impressive. They discussed their three-week training program for pilots. It appealed to me that they spent so much time training, and certainly their mission appealed to me.” Jeff then adds, “It’s particularly satisfying for me when we fly children; I have kids myself.”
Kyla Betts also has the job she’s wanted ever since she was young. “Oh, I definitely wanted to be a flight nurse, and REACH had the kind of program I wanted. It seemed unachievable, but I just kept plugging away and plugging away.” Kyla’s not joking. “I started as a hospital bed maker at minimum wage, but I was so happy! And I knew I was headed toward my goal.” Kyla has been with REACH since 2011.
Marina describes both flight nurses as “phenomenal and professional”, and Chad says of meeting them, “They both seemed incredibly confident. They were so efficient under pressure. It was easy to trust them.”
Marina was relieved to learn there was room for her to ride on the helicopter with Oliver. Chad, on the other hand, was not able to join them on the flight. (It’s not that the crew didn’t want there, but the helicopter’s ability to fly safely is based on total weight.) “That was hard,” he says. “It’s about a three and a half hour drive.”
Oliver and Marina soon arrived in Oakland. “The flight was completely surreal to me,” Marina says, “but everyone was really gentle, really nice. It was beautiful. I remember going up through the clouds. It was like the angels had come. When everything is crashing down on you, it’s nice when the people around you are calm.”
“When you transport someone’s child, it’s family centric,” says Kyla. “It’s a unique dynamic and it takes a lot of sensitivity. That’s so important.”
When they arrived in Oakland, Marina’s doctor had spoken with doctors there. “Our doctor had told us that Children’s Hospital was the place to be, and when we got there, doctors were ready and waiting. I can’t imagine a more effective or helpful place than Children’s.”
Kyla says that as a nurse, she truly loves taking patients to Children’s Hospital. “They’re amazing. They’re so receptive and I feel like there’s a lot of trust between us,” she states.
Jeff feels the same way. “I really like Children’s. We work with them all the time. They’re very capable. I like being able to tell parents that we’re taking their child to Children’s. And I would never say that just to say it. I mean it.”
In the ICU, Oliver started phototherapy. This treatment uses a specific type of light that makes it easier for an infant’s liver to process bilirubin. “They thought they were going to have to do a complete blood exchange, too,” Marina shares. (In rare cases of severe jaundice, an exchange transfusion is required to avoid neurotoxicity.) Fortunately, after a few hours under the lights Oliver’s numbers went down significantly, making a transfusion unnecessary.
“We were out of there in less than 48 hours,” Chad reports. “Oliver had a fantastic recovery.” Marina says, “One often hears the phrase, ‘You saved my life!’ used flippantly. Now we know its true meaning, and there are no words that can accurately express our gratitude.”
After his release, Oliver just kept getting happier and healthier. A blessing for the couple is that they are both teachers, so they had the summer off to enjoy and care for their new son together. Another positive was that Marina was able to start breast feeding with the help of a breast pump. And because Oliver temporarily drank formula and will now take a bottle, Chad can enjoy feeding him, too.
Ten months later, Oliver is thriving. “He’s just hilarious!” Marina shares, laughing, and Chad reports, “He’s practically walking. He’s crawling everywhere and just blabbing away.”
Marina is also very positive about the value of their family’s REACH for Life membership.* The expense of the REACH medical team and air ambulance flight to Children’s Hospital was covered by their membership, so the couple can now focus on saving for Oliver’s future.
REACH is extremely pleased to hear this good news and wishes Oliver, Marina and Chad abundant health and happiness.