Finding family in the pediatric ICU

If there’s proof that love can grow even under the most stressful circumstances, one would find it in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Driscoll Children’s Hospital. When Thomas and Brittany  first met the child who would become their daughter, she was just a few weeks old and fighting to overcome a heart condition and severe intestinal issues. But despite her health problems, everyone who met the baby — Allie — was swept away by her sweet nature and bright smile.

“Allie stole the hearts of the staff members: the doctors, nurses, techs, everyone,” Brittany, who works as a PICU nurse at Driscoll, stated. “There was just something about her; someone was almost always at her bedside, and everyone was constantly bringing her blankets, clothes and bows.”

A tough first year: fighting for Allie’s future

Allie had no shortage of love in her earliest days; however, finding a family qualified and willing to take on the challenge of caring for her was difficult. She was born in late Sept. 2021 to a mother who was positive for drugs at the time of her birth and abandoned her at the hospital shortly thereafter. Neonatal drug exposure caused her to develop an aorta heart defect — which was surgically treated during her first week of life — and led to severe intestinal issues that required four more procedures before she turned six months old.

Given her complex medical situation, Allie needed a medical foster; in other words, a family that had the clinical knowledge and training to care for a baby that would need prolonged medical care. While a few families had visited, none had committed to caring for her — and one day, after finding out that a potential foster had pulled out, Brittany and Thomas decided to step forward.

“We had discussed fostering or adopting very early in our relationship, and after spending time with Allie as her PICU nurse, I knew she was the one,” Brittany said. “So, I started filling out an application to become her foster parents and called Thomas to ask if he would be onboard.”

From the beginning, Allie showed a joyful spirit that would inspire the entire PICU.

“Brittany called me before work to talk about Allie, so I told her I’d come down, review the paperwork, talk to people, all that. She responded, ‘Okay, good, because I already filled out the paperwork and I need you to sign it,’” Thomas, who works as a Child Life Specialist at Driscoll, recounted. “I was like, okay, then I really need to meet this child when I go into work.”

Later that day, Thomas met Brittany at the hospital, stopped by Allie’s room and, as he tells it, that was that.

“The minute I saw Allie, my eyes locked and I was just head over heels for her,” he said. “I was all in.”

For the next few months, Thomas and Brittney dedicated most of their time off to bonding with the baby in her hospital room. Thomas drew on his expertise as a Child Life Specialist — a role which involves providing comfort and support to hospitalized children — to further support and bond with her.

“We played a lot of music for her and made sure she had toys she could interact with. Her favorite was a jungle gym; it laid over her, so she could hit these dangling balls and make them spin,” he said. “That time was really important; I think because Brittany and I became more consistent with visiting her, she grew so much more attached to us.”

This family would grow in the PICU as Allie continued her fight.

From medical kin, to fosters, to family

But despite Thomas and Brittany’s growing love and affection for Allie, legally adopting her as their daughter proved to be a long and emotionally draining process. Per Texas adoption laws, children under Child Protective Services’ purview need to be in custody for a year before becoming eligible for adoption — and in Allie’s case, medical issues made the process more complicated. For the first eight months, the pair were simply Allie’s medical kin; in other words, they had authority over her medical decisions, but no real rights as her parents.

When Allie was fighting for her life, her future adoptive parents were right there with her.

“The first year, we were just trying to keep Allie healthy and get ourselves into a position where we could foster and, later, adopt her,” Brittany said. “CPS liked that we wanted to be her forever family, and we were qualified to care for her from a medical standpoint, but we needed to take a few courses and ensure that our home would meet foster requirements. Waiting was really frustrating, but we were so busy getting ready that it helped distract us from the fact we didn’t have her yet.”

When Allie was four and a half months old, Thomas and Brittany were able to take her home as their foster daughter. However, within just a few weeks, she needed to be rushed back to the hospital for emergency treatment after her intestinal problems reoccurred. For the couple, those initial health scares were frightening — and yet, there was something reassuring about knowing that Allie would be treated by people they knew and trusted at Driscoll Children’s Hospital.

“As a healthcare professional, I knew I could trust the staff, because I work with them every day,” Brittany said. “But Allie is our first child; intellectually, I knew what was happening, but emotionally, I didn’t know if everything was going to be okay.”

“I knew I could trust Brittany’s perspective as an ICU nurse, so it made me feel better, but we still had to endure some pretty scary moments,” Thomas added.

Allie and her mom, Brittany.

But as Allie approached her first birthday, her condition stabilized — and Brittany and Thomas could finally bring her home. Then, on April 17th, 2023, the pair were finally able to bring the baby into their family for good. For the new parents, adoption day marked an emotional turning point; finally, Allie was their daughter.

“It’s kind of a crazy love story; Thomas and I wouldn’t have met, gotten married or adopted Allie if we didn’t work at Driscoll. We couldn’t be more appreciative of everyone who was by our side during this process; when we bring her to work, we joke that we’re visiting her extended family because everyone knows and loves her,” Brittany said.

"Finally, being a father is such a miracle to me. I wake up now knowing, with no hesitation whatsoever, that Allie is my daughter.” Thomas concluded. “She means the world to me, and she makes us happier — as parents and as people."

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