Every year, more than 1,600 infant Alaskans take their first breaths inside the Family Birthing Services on the second floor of the Alaska Native Medical Center.
They come from Anchorage and beyond. As the primary referral center for high-risk pregnancies within the Alaska Tribal Health System, ANMC welcomes expectant mothers and new babies from nearly every corner of the state. Mothers like 19-year-old Iriqtaq Hailstone.
A resident of Ambler—a town on the north bank of the Kobuk River, some 45 miles north of the Arctic Circle—Hailstone said she never expected to give birth to her first son in Anchorage, so far from home. She always felt healthy and strong. When she learned she was pregnant, she imagined giving birth at the hospital in Kotzebue, a quick 45-minute flight away. She started reading, poring over books and pamphlets to prepare herself for the journey ahead.
Then came the complications.
Just a few weeks out from her expected due date, Hailstone was diagnosed with preeclampsia. The condition, characterized by high blood pressure and signs of organ damage, can lead to serious complications for both mother and child, according to the Mayo Clinic for Medical Education and Research. It affects three to five percent of all pregnancies in the United States, according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Women under the age of 20 or above the age of 35 are at increased risk. Left untreated, preeclampsia can be fatal. The only cure? Childbirth.
"It sort of surprised me, but I wasn't scared or anything," said Hailstone of her diagnosis. "I was just taking it as it came."
The reading had left her prepared: When she first began experiencing symptoms of preeclampsia, she sensed something was wrong. The diagnosis soon followed.
To stay calm, Hailstone kept reading; filling her mind with medical facts and information about the condition that threatened her health and that of her unborn son. She made immediate plans to travel to Anchorage. Given the high-risk nature of her pregnancy, it was no longer considered safe to stay in Ambler and give birth in Kotzebue as planned.
Getting to Anchorage from Ambler requires two flights and a full day of travel: First, there's the quick commuter flight to Kotzebue, then another longer flight south. In terms of hospitals, it might as well be a world away.
For mothers, ANMC offers a plethora of services, including prenatal health classes, home visits from nurses, OB triage and high-risk pregnancy care. A multiyear renovation project brought upgrades to the Family Birthing Services, the inpatient pediatric unit and the Neonatal and Pediatric Intensive Care Units (NICU and PICU), according to the hospital. Staff at the Maternal-Fetal Medicine Clinic evaluate high-risk pregnancies and offer consultations to expectant mothers experiencing complications. Family Birthing Services at ANMC cover nearly every aspect of pregnancy and delivery.
When Hailstone arrived in Anchorage, heavily pregnant, she considered herself lucky. Supported by family, she was able to stay at a friend's home instead of a hospital room, only checking into the medical center for weekly appointments.
"Some people don't have that—I think I had it sort of easy," she said.
She's always been surrounded by a big Alaskan family. With more than a dozen aunts and uncles, Hailstone grew up watching nieces and nephews. Holding babies felt instinctive. Having a child of her own felt natural.
"I somewhat knew what to expect, like I went through it before," she said.
But she'd never dealt with anything like preeclampsia. The last few weeks seemed like the longest. You just have to take it day by day, Hailstone learned. Then, sometime around the second week in November, it was time. Her mother rubbed her back, she remembered. They walked around the hospital room. Before long, Hailstone was holding her son—a smiling, happy baby. It was Nov. 11. She named him Wade.
After the delivery, Hailstone said she stayed at ANMC for a full 48 hours, per hospital policy. The wait felt long, but she took advantage of the time with her son. She appreciated how the staff gave her space; how the hospital offered degrees of both solitude and support.
"I'm pretty new at this, and I'm just taking it as it comes," Hailstone said. "(Wade's) not gonna stay small forever."
Giving birth at ANMC gave her new insight, she said. She developed a new appreciation for knowledge and experience, and she offered a few words of advice for other first-time mothers.
"If you have knowledge, you know what to expect," she said. "Calm down. Relax. You basically have to wait for somebody to help you. Don't overlook yourself. Trust your instincts."
As a first-time mother, she faced uncertainty and complicated medical circumstances, but with family support and an experienced medical team, she said, "Everything turned out alright."
In January 2017, ANMC will be opening the doors to their brand new extended patient housing, for those who are traveling from rural communities to receive care, with the sixth floor solely dedicated to expectant moms and their children.
This article was produced by the special content department of Alaska Dispatch News in collaboration with ANTHC. Contact the editor, Jamie Gonzales, at firstname.lastname@example.org. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.