As Florida begins easing quarantine restrictions and reopening the economy, one of the first sectors the state let expand in terms of operating capacity was health care. As of last week, medical facilities were able to resume outpatient and invasive surgeries, diagnostics and more.
But the lifting of restrictions came with caveats, including COVID-19 screening for patients prior to entry and limits on visitation.
One sector of health care that has allowed visitors – or, a single visitor, rather – during lockdown has been obstetrics. Orlando Health's Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies requires testing for all patients prior to admittance, and self-isolation after testing until results come back. Only one "support person" is allowed in during delivery, an the visitor is also screened. And everyone &ndash mom, designated visitor, hospital staff &ndash wears masks.
But these procedural changes, plus current news stories – like those about women diagnosed with COVID-19 giving birth while in a medically induced coma – can up the anxiety level for anyone about to have a child.
We spoke with three women who have either recently given birth or are about to about their experience with pregnancy during the pandemic. Two are pregnant; one gave birth in April; all are justifiably stressed by the experience of bringing new life into the world while we all live life in lockdown. We talked about their fears, their expectations, their businesses, their partners, and most of all, how it feels to lose control of such a major life event.
It should be noted that all of these women have access to health care and have what could be considered typical pregnancies. Interviews have been edited for clarity and space.
Caitlin Burnett will be a first-time mom, with a due date in mid-June. She and her husband, Barry, recently had to adjust their birth plan to accommodate for COVID-19 restrictions. Burnett will now be doing a home birth, attended by two certified professional midwives, after their original hospital choice was dismantled. Burnett says the change prompted her decision to "look really seriously at home birth" to make sure the support system she wanted was able to attend the birth, and to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID in a hospital setting.
What is it like being pregnant right now?
I find that it's this really weird moment where you are both extremely vulnerable – like your body is not functioning how it has functioned for your entire life, and you don't know what it's going to do or what it needs because it's all new and it's all directed by hormones that just take over. So, in that way, it's kind of a uniquely vulnerable time. But then, on the other hand, your body is literally manufacturing a brand-new organ and putting together the building blocks of life. And, regardless of what you're thinking or feeling, it is figuring out how to produce a human. It's just this incredible, weird feeling to be both totally out of control and then doing something entirely new that you have no idea how to do but is going to happen anyways.
The pandemic just kind of increases that feeling of vulnerability because you don't know what would happen if you were to get sick. And then it definitely completely upended our birth plan.
Has there been concern about – if you were going to do labor and delivery still at a hospital – about Barry not being able to go to the hospital?
That was one of our big concerns. One of the initial triggers for us to consider a home birth even before they dismantled the natural birth option that we wanted to use was that they are cutting back really drastically on support people, so they wouldn't allow our doulas in. And at this point, as a first-time pregnant person, having doulas there to support me and tell me what's going on and make the tendency for hospital births to be really medicalized less likely was really important.
So once they were not allowed, we kind of had a moment of figuring out what that meant and what we wanted to do, because having advocates who don't want to push medical options was really important. And I think it's also really still changing, literally week by week. So we had looked at another hospital that at that point had still been allowing doulas, but by the time we called back the next week, they were in the same camp.
And with COVID, if Barry was to be sick, they would not let him in. And then the other moment that was extra terrifying was that our obstetrician warned us that if either of us were positive, the baby would be isolated from us for the first 14 days of his life. Like we could not touch, care for, bring that baby home for two weeks, which I just can't even imagine.
Was it difficult for you to find doulas to attend the home birth? Have you heard whether or not this is an option that a lot of other people are moving to?
We had the doulas way before COVID hit ... and they helped walk us through like hospitals versus a birth center versus a home birth. And they ultimately connected us with the midwives – they are called certified professional midwives as opposed to certified nurse midwives; nurse midwives are in the hospital, professional midwives do home births. They connected us with a couple of different folks to interview and they are being really selective right now because they're getting a lot of calls. But I think we had the benefit of from the very beginning planning for a natural birth.
Are the midwives relaying any information to you guys about their own precautions for COVID or what happens if Barry was sick at the house?
I know they come with their own PPE – they'll be masked even at home. But, you know, we haven't asked that. I think we are just being super cautious about isolation and not taking any chances.
Do you have any concerns about the midwives being in other people's homes and then coming to your house?
I'm trying to trust that their contact with folks is limited enough.
They won't be in a hospital setting with like, hundreds of people walking around touching everything, breathing – they'll be in more limited settings where it's just three or four people or two or three people. And they are using precautions. But they are connected to a network, so if our two midwives couldn't personally be there, I trust that they'd find good colleagues to send us.
Obviously, the world has drastically changed in the eight/nine months you've been pregnant. What is your general overview of this experience? And have you been talking to other pregnant people or people who have given birth?
No, that's been the other part of this whole crisis: The isolation has hit pretty hard because all the stuff that you'd expect from like a first-time pregnancy of getting to go to birthing classes, getting to do a hospital tour, where you meet other people at the same stage of life and form relationships and connect, all that is canceled. So, that's been one of that aspects that's been difficult because there's a whole lot of excitement for us, like we're thrilled to welcome this little human and see what he's like and see him grow and learn about the world.
But there's also an element of grief, like all the stuff that we thought you were going to get to do – celebrating, building a community – all that is canceled, so I've definitely been going between just being really upset to really angry, and I think now I'm finally at acceptance. Except when I see the stupid people who are out there without a mask walking too close and touching me. Then I go back to the anger stage of the cycles of grief.
I think it's hard for us because no one wants to get anywhere near you because they don't want to do anything that could harm you.
I know. I think even my parents are struggling with that. And I think postpartum is going to be weird and isolating, like extra isolating, besides the fact that I'll be walking around in adult diapers for several weeks – people conveniently forget to leave that out of the story.
We had hoped that maybe my mom would be able to come and support us, even if it's just hanging out with the dogs and helping to clean and make sure that we're eating, but with all of this stuff, it's just too much of a risk. So we're really kind of bracing to be on our own in a way that we didn't expect.
How's your OB? Do they have constantly updating advice for you guys? Or have they been able to at least provide some support or information?
They do provide information. The weird part has been, first of all, Barry can't go with me (to the doctor) now. Like, he's not allowed in the building. It is only me. And I have to be wearing the mask, which when you have a baby pressing against your lungs and your lungs are literally functioning worse because of the hormone percentage, breathing is really just crappy.
So he hasn't gotten to hear the baby's heartbeat in a while. And I think it's worse for folks who are getting pregnant now. I can't imagine what it would have been like to be in that ultrasound room alone for the first time – to see the baby and to see the heartbeat and to know that everything's OK. It's just heartbreaking.
Then, especially in this phase of late pregnancy, they typically want to see you every two weeks or every week. But because the risk is so great, they moved to telehealth. And so we have video check-ins, but as an anxious person not having that chance for them to actually take my blood pressure or look at my weight or measure my belly, listen to the baby, all those reassuring routines are kind of out the door because we're literally on a Zoom call in the dining room.
I think they're trying to be flexible and provide information but it's also fast changing. I think it's really hard for them – they don't know what the hospital will look like next week. Or, you know, if we see a spike if maybe it will be no support people, period, in the delivery room like it was in New York for a while. I think they're navigating the crisis right along with us.
Andi Ploehs, a graphic designer and artist, just had her second child, Sage, at the beginning of April. After unsuccessfully attempting to conceive a child on their own for several years, Ploehs and her husband, John, began seeking medical assistance in their quest to become parents. Ploehs began designing a line of greeting cards specifically aimed toward other women experiencing fertility issues and pregnancy struggles. She gave birth to her first child, Xavier, in 2018.
How did your pregnancy with Sage differ this time around – specifically in regards to any changes or adaptations for COVID-19?
Thank goodness we were in the last few weeks of my pregnancy when COVID-19 really hit the area. However, my doctor's office immediately changed several policies including going to appointments alone.
I couldn't even enter the office building without stopping at a station in the lobby where I was asked several questions related to the virus, and a temperature check.
Did you have to adjust your birth plan, if there can ever truly be a "plan"? What was the process like?
Once we started to get word of other cities using other parts of the hospital to treat patients, I got very nervous that there would be this influx of patients and that I would have to deliver in the ER. I wasn't told I would be delivering in the ER, but I was told that no one really knew what to expect since it was new to everyone.
After that conversation, we started to entertain the idea of a home birth and even reached out to a doula we knew, but the thought of something going wrong and not being at the hospital didn't ease any of my nervousness so we axed that idea.
Were members of your family or your support system allowed to be there for the birth?
I was allowed to have one person with me, so my husband was there, of course. But we both had to again answer questions related to the virus, our whereabouts and had our temp checked before we could even leave the hospital lobby. We decided to semi-quarantine weeks before I was induced to ensure no one got sick.
Many people have family members or friends help postpartum. With quarantine/isolation orders in effect, did that impact any of what you had expected your postpartum experience to be like?
My mother lives in Georgia and the plan was for her to be at my side when I delivered along with my husband. She's a non-Hodgkin's lymphoma survivor and is considered high risk so she wasn't allowed to travel for the birth. With our son, she stayed and helped for two months, so it's very strange not to have her here. We have an awesome support system and rely a lot on grandparents. The ones living here have been able to see our daughter six feet away, from the car, but honestly, I don't know when my mom will be able to meet her granddaughter. It kills me inside, but I need to do all I can to make sure my family stays healthy.
Have you had any additional concerns with a newborn now in a world with a novel virus? Are you approaching anything differently beyond CDC recommendations for sanitization and social distancing?
Honestly, we would've been living a very similar life with a newborn even if there wasn't a pandemic. We like to stay put for the first month or so, and are very particular about folks coming around, especially if they don't have the flu shot, etc. One huge change from my last delivery was our time in the hospital post-delivery. They usually want mama and baby to stay 48 hours with a natural delivery, but because of the pandemic, my husband and I decided we didn't want to stay in the hospital longer than 24 hours if all went well, which it did.
I'm accepting this as our new temporary normal but not our permanent one. I don't want my son to remember wearing a mask to go outside or not being able to give his grammy a hug because we don't want to put her or ourselves at risk. But we are definitely following the CDC guidelines for sanitizing and social distancing. I can't wait for the grandparents to finally be able to hold their granddaughter and grandson when this is all over.
Do you have anything you want people to know about pregnancy or pregnant women or newborns during the time of COVID-19, or any advice?
I was terrified weeks leading up to my delivery. I was listening to too many outlets and started to freak myself out. I had to block out media, social media outlets, and even some people. I did a lot of praying, and had to trust myself and the health care workers. I also had to trust that it would all work out, and reminded myself that I couldn't get stressed because I had a baby girl still inside me that needed her momma to stay calm. I want mamas to remember we are tough and that this too shall pass. I never imagined I would be living through a pandemic, let alone giving birth during one.
Karla Weisenberger is a small business owner and musician who is about to be a first-time mom with her partner, Pete. She operates a bridal design boutique and plays in a folk group called Stitches & Seams. Her due date is at the end of May and she did not have health insurance for herself until she found out she was pregnant.
When you got pregnant, there was not a pandemic, and now there is. How has the pandemic affected your experience of being pregnant? How has it affected your birth plan?
When it first happened, the first thing that they did was close the schools and I really felt like nobody was reacting quick enough. My doctor's office wasn't really doing anything different and I called them and I was like, "I'm not coming in." At this point, I was supposed to be there every two weeks or every week for my third-trimester check-ups. You don't have people checking people. You don't have people requiring masks. It's like sick people and regular people can be in the same room at the same time. So my doctor was like, "OK, Karla, we understand what you're saying. If you want to take this week off, that's fine."
And then three weeks went by, and (my doctor) was like, you really need to come in. I'm like, "Well, tell me what you've done to like change the situation to make sure that I'm not going to be sick when I go there." So the first thing they did was started screening people at the door – you would pull up in your car and someone would meet you at your car and then they would ask you a bunch of questions. And then they would still let you go into the waiting room. I was the only person at this time wearing a mask and wearing gloves.
So that was probably five weeks in (to the pandemic) and I still felt very uncomfortable in all of my appointments. And then they're like, "OK, it's getting to be the end of your pregnancy, we need you to come in every week." And I've also had some minor complications, so they're trying to keep a closer eye on me than they normally would. So now when I go, I'm greeted at my car, or they have a little pop-up tent if it's raining, and they take my temperature, they asked me those same questions. And I wait in my car until my appointment.
I also go to the hospital once a week to have a non-stress test and an ultrasound just because of the minor complications that I've had. So right now, for the last three weeks, I go to the hospital on Tuesdays and I go to the doctor on Thursdays.
When I get there, they immediately put a mask on me. They sanitize my hands and they, like, spray me down, and then they take my temperature. Then they asked me the same questions that the doctor's office does, and if I pass all that, they send me to the next station. They've done a good job where they have little circles that you're supposed to stand in so you know how far apart you're supposed to be when speaking to anybody.
So as of right now, do you guys have a birth plan in place?
I'm going to wait as long as possible and do most of my laboring at home. It's going to take me five minutes to get to the hospital.
Are there any kind of restrictions in terms of the amount of visitors you guys can have or who's allowed to go with you?
So only Pete is allowed with me &ndash my mom, the grandparents, nobody's allowed in the waiting room at all. And once Pete is in that room with me, he is on lockdown with me. So anything he needs, he has to have in that room. That does mean that they are giving us a refrigerator now, which is crazy. And they've been like, "Bring snacks because nobody can bring you snacks now or after the kid comes." And after the kid is born, it's only going to be Pete and I who are allowed to hold her. They don't know how long it's going to be before they're like, "Yes. Your child can be held by somebody in the family."
Did you guys have any plans for postpartum stuff that has changed?
Since they are telling us that nobody's allowed to see her, nobody's coming to help us – like we're totally on our own. And we don't know how long that's going to be. And so, for someone like me who has suffered from depression in the past, knowing that your body goes through a lot of highs, and I'm not saying that I think I'm going to have postpartum depression, but I'm not saying that that's not going to happen either. So I've been very much in contact with my doctors and been like, "Hey, I want to notice the symptoms and the signs," you know?
I have to make sure that my brain is in the best possible way to care for this kid and that, we, as a team can do this just the two of us. And so that being said, we've also been like, OK, developmentally, we all know that kids thrive from extra physical contact and extra love and hugs and all the things. So we've been trying to research how can the two of us give her the same comfort and love that a family would normally give her?
How are you handling being a small business owner with maternity leave?
This whole thing messes with my financial situation majorly because I had all these brides lined up and spring is my wedding season. This was like my moment to make all the money I needed to make sure I could take those six weeks, eight weeks, whatever I needed to do. Because of that, I am not real sure exactly. And I haven't qualified for any of the small business loans or the payment protection. With the baby not having an immune system, knowing that she's not able to be held by anybody, I'm not planning on taking clients until they tell me that it's safe for her to see anyone.
I have ordered one of those laser thermometers and I know that when I do eventually open, the clients are going to wear masks, I'm going to wear a mask and limit it to one person in the shop at one time. We're still going to be social distancing, but I have to touch them – I have to fit their dress to them.
I don't know when I'm going reopen, I really don't. And I also don't know what that means for my space. My landlord's being super cool right now, but she's got a mortgage and she's got things that she's going to have to do. I don't know what that means for the future of my shop. I'm doing my best to be as cool as possible about it.
This story appears in the May 20, 2020, print edition of Orlando Weekly. Our small but mighty team is working tirelessly to bring you news on how coronavirus is affecting Central Florida. Please consider supporting this free publication with a one-time or monthly donation. Every little bit helps.