MOUNT HOREB (WKOW) -- Six month old Charlotte Sutter settles into her life in Mount Horeb, getting lots of love from big brother Liam, mom Stephanie and dad Marcus.
Everyone has a great birth story. But hers is a first, at least for the Madison area, because it comes during a pandemic.
Stephanie went into labor 10 weeks early. She and Marcus rushed to Meriter Hospital. As they checked in, a nurse noticed Marcus was coughing. "It was spring and I just thought it was allergies," Marcus says.
It was mid-April, less than a month after community spread of coronavirus was first noted in Dane County. So, doctors sent Marcus home before Stephanie had the baby.
"I had to take a moment to compose myself before I had to go," Marcus says. "I missed the birth of my daughter."
Stephanie, meanwhile, was tested for Covid-19 because of Marcus's cough. Without her husband by her side, Stephanie gave birth to Charlotte, who was quickly put into an isolette and wheeled away to the Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit. Stephanie got to see her daughter's face for a moment, but never held her.
Twenty minutes after Charlotte was born, Stephanie got the news she tested positive for the virus. Marcus found out later he was also positive.
"We were wondering what happens next? What do we do next?"
Doctors were trying to figure that out too. Stephanie was the first mom to give birth to a pre-term baby at Meriter and then test positive for Covid-19. So the hospital went by CDC guidelines, which at that time, prohibited Covid-positive parents from entering a NICU. Not just for the safety of their baby, but the rest of the babies in the NICU.
Stephanie and Marcus were told they would have to test negative for Covid twice before they could go into the NICU.
Dr. Nina Menda, the Medical Director at Meriter Hospital's NICU, says, it was hard for her to have that conversation with them. "It was really heartbreaking for us who care for moms and babies because our goal is really to support that bond."
Stephanie was heartbroken too. "It was sad. I was sad. What could I have done better?"
To help Stephanie and Marcus through it, nurses set up special video chats with Charlotte so they could see how she was doing. They watched over video as her breathing support was removed.
"When we were on the Zoom meetings, it was like, that's our child, yet it doesn't seem real," Marcus remembers.
Charlotte, thankfully, tested negative for Covid-19 several times. But her mom and dad kept testing positive, week after week. "It almost came to the point, when is this going to end?"
Stephanie never had symptoms, and that prompted Meriter staff to re-evaluate their policy. Instead of requiring two negative tests to enter the NICU, they decided to change to a symptom-based strategy. Dr. Menda says, "Really, Stephanie and Marcus's cases was the onus for that change."
Stephanie would finally be able to see her daughter in person. Three and a half weeks after she was born, a few days before Mother's Day.
Marcus had to wait until his symptoms went away, when Charlotte was six weeks old. "That's the moment it became all, kind of real," Marcus says.
Marcus and Stephanie say the virus impacted their lives greatly, despite having little or no symptoms. Six months later, they're making up for lost time with Charlotte.
Meriter Hospital's new guidelines are now recommended by the CDC as well. The symptom-based strategy is only for NICU babies. Full-term babies are not separated from parents with symptoms or who test positive for Covid, unless the parent chooses.