Ashley Durance is putting together 24 stockings for the babies in NICU at Royal Columbian Hospital. Her daughter, three-year-old Hazel, spent the first six months of her life there after being born 17 weeks early. (Jenna Hauck/ The Progress)

Chilliwack mom gives back to neonatal unit with Christmas stocking drive

Ashley Durance is paying it forward to other families and their babies following daughter’s NICU stay

A Chilliwack mom is hoping to bring some Christmas joy to the babies and families in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Royal Columbian Hospital after her daughter spent months there three years ago.

Ashley Durance’s daughter, Hazel, was born 17 weeks early weighing less than a pound. She was a micro-preemie baby at a mere 420 grams.

It all began on a November day in 2016 when Durance went to Chilliwack General Hospital with very bad stomach pains. She later found out that her liver was failing and she was rushed to Royal Columbian Hospital (RCH). She was diagnosed with HELLP syndrome (hemolysis, elevated liver enzymes, low platelets) and pre-eclampsia. HELLP is life-threatening and the only way to treat it is to deliver the baby.

So, 12 hours later and only 23 weeks pregnant at the time, she gave birth to little Hazel via Cesarean section.

Hazel had complications from the moment she was born, the most severe of which was her underdeveloped lungs.

“She was on every type of respiratory support that there was,” Durance said of Hazel’s six-month stay in the NICU.

She also had patent ductus arteriosus (PDA) in which a valve in her heart failed to close after birth, pulmonary hypertension, and a sick liver.

At four days old, Hazel went into kidney failure and was septic. The doctors and nurses told Durance and her husband, Jeff, that their little daughter was not going to make it.

Durance hadn’t even held her newborn daughter, and now she was preparing to let her go.

The young couple was in the middle of making final arrangements to say goodbye to Hazel when a “hail Mary” happened.

One of the nurses exclaim “she peed, she peed!” recalled Durance “which showed that her kidneys were working again.”

“From there, she fought the sepsis, she fought her kidney failure.”

It was still a long road ahead for the Durance family. After Ashley had been discharged from RCH, she drove every day to see Hazel, spending about 11 to 12 hours by her daughter’s side.

“We got to know the nurses very, very well.”

Because Hazel was in the NICU for such a long time, the Durances and NICU staff mutually agreed on four primary neonatal nurses to care for Hazel whom they formed “really deep relationships” with.

“They always went above and beyond.”

It was because of the neonatal nurses that Durance was able to hold Hazel at 32-days-old instead of two-months-old for the first time. They were able to find a way to minimize the side effects of one of the machines that Hazel was hooked up to, resulting in her not getting over stimulated when she was picked up.

One nurse made an illustrated booklet for the other staff, before she went on vacation, of what Hazel liked and didn’t like.

Another time they decorated Hazel’s bedside for Ashley’s 30th birthday and made gifts of jewelry and a bookmark with Hazel’s tiny pinkie and thumbprints on them.

And at Christmas, the nurses gave stockings to each of the babies filled with things like knitted hats, pacifiers, stuffed animals, plus coffee gift cards for the parents.

“For us it was a big deal, because [Christmas] wasn’t even on our radar. It made Christmas really special in there, it brightened the mood a little bit,” said Durance.

“We call them Hazel’s honourary aunties because we still talk to them, they come to her birthday parties. They are an exceptional group of people there. They’re really special.”

Durance is so grateful for the gifts and love her family received at the NICU, she now wants to pay it forward and she’s calling on the community for help.

“We need to do something big, we need to do something really special for those parents and those babies.”

She has organized a stocking drive for those tiny, sick babies.

There are 24 beds in the NICU and she wants to put together 24 stockings.

Durance created a wish list on amazon.ca filled with a variety of baby items such as books, pacifiers and swaddling blankets for people to purchase. She will then personally deliver the stockings to the NICU on Dec. 18.

“Everything was chosen from our experience knowing what was helpful, keeping in mind infection control and developmental needs,” she said.

People can go to the list, buy an item, select “ship to recipient” during checkout, and it’ll get delivered right to Durance’s house. Items range in price from about $8.50 to $52, although the majority of items are $10 to $15 each.

She is asking people purchase the items by Friday, Dec. 13 to ensure delivery to her home before Dec. 18.

All gifts need to be new, not used, due to infection control.

“I always think of what it was like for us being there on the holidays. It was hard, not just on Christmas, but the whole month,” she said.

Durance is also asking for people to donate gift cards — such as for coffee shops and grocery stores — for the parents.

To help, check out the NICU stocking drive wish list at amazon.ca/hz/wishlist/ls/1W4EOZF32JB04, or to donate another way (gift cards, etc.) you can contact her via email at hazelandmamablog@gmail.com.

“I think anything they can do in the NICU to pull you out of that zone, and remind you that there is a life outside of this and you will be back to that life eventually, is really important.”

Durance is hoping her stocking drive will do just that.

RELATED: Baby doing well after Vancouver Island woman gives birth on a dock

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@PhotoJennalism
jenna.hauck@theprogress.com

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