A NICU PATIENT TURNS ATHLETE, VOLUNTEER AND SCHOLAR
Maybe it’s because she’s heard the story so many times. Or maybe it’s a dream she’s had so often that it feels real. Or perhaps Haylie Butler really has some deep-rooted memory of the first 14 days of her life.
Whatever the true nature, Butler’s time spent in the Torrance Memorial Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) left a permanent mark on so many aspects of her life—from her physical and mental determination to her college application essay and her future career choice—that it will forever be a part of her story.
“I’ve had dreams for as long as I can remember about being there, in the NICU,” says Butler. “I actually think I remember my mother sticking her finger through the hole of the incubator and touching me.”
It was July 7, 1995. A baby girl was born via cesarean section at Torrance Memorial Medical Center. The emergency surgery was performed when doctors discovered the baby’s heart rate was abnormal.
After delivery, the baby was grey, unresponsive and had an initial Apgar score of 3 (normal range for an Apgar is between 8 and 10). The baby had labored breathing—a shunting of the blood between the two chambers of the heart caused her oxygen saturation to be very low.
The stress of the birth, along with the umbilical cord being wrapped around her neck three times, had caused the chamber to not close properly. In addition, the baby was born with a positional problem with one of her feet/ankles.
The baby, three weeks premature, had caused her mother distress throughout the pregnancy. Four months into the pregnancy, Angela received an emergency cerclage to keep from losing the baby. “The doctor said that if I had gotten on that plane, which I was scheduled for the following day, I would have lost her,” adds Angela.
After birth, Butler spent two weeks in the NICU. But she considers herself lucky.
Monitored throughout childhood, the hole in Butler’s heart closed when she was 9 years old. Because of the defect, there was concern that she wouldn’t be athletic.
“But I didn’t believe in a lot of that stuff,” says Butler. She began ice-skating competitively at the age of 6 and spent her high school years playing indoor volleyball.
Butler has a long history of volunteerism. Early on she gained experience helping others through her church: participating in food banks, Meals on Wheels, story time at the church. In high school alone she logged 600 hours of volunteer work.
As a Torrance Memorial volunteer, she first started as an escort the summer before her junior year in high school. And by far her favorite times were helping out a new mom and baby leaving the hospital.
So as soon as Butler learned about the Cuddler program in the NICU, she wanted in. “My second year of volunteering at Torrance Memorial was in the NICU. That for me solidified my desire to go into neonatology,” says Butler.
After being chosen as one of only four teens selected per year for the Cuddler program, Butler went through training. “Wow, I’m really here, and these babies are so little,” Butler describes as her initial reaction.
However, she also felt surprisingly at ease. “I realized this is where I belong. This felt like home.”
Her three-hour shifts every other Sunday as a Cuddler largely consisted of holding babies, especially when families couldn’t be there. Other duties included changing diapers, changing pillowcases for parents, making signs for Mother’s Day. “Mostly being observant and making sure everyone has what they needed,” she adds.
Butler graduated high school last spring with a resume that included senior class president, National Honor Society, Spanish Honor Society, Red Cross Club and valedictorian. “My parents have raised me right,” she says. “They definitely instilled in me determination, giving back and service.”
Now a freshman at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, Butler hopes to continue volunteering at a local NICU. “My favorite part of my job was holding them and knowing what position they liked over time. Some on the shoulder, some liked to be rocked … sweetest little things.”