Giving back: Attorney has a special 'interest' in Neonatal Intensive Care Unit


By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Attorney Claire Harrison not only serves on the Family Advisory Board at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor — she owes the lives of her two boys to NICU care.

“I felt a real bond with the unit, and I wanted to do what I could to give back and to help other families who are going through similar experiences,” she says.

Harrison has been an attorney with Dykema Gossett since 1998, practicing labor and employment law first as an associate, then as a member and, since September 2009, as of counsel.

In 2003 after returning from a trip to Mexico, she and her husband found they were expecting their first child.

“I was sick the entire time I was down there. I thought the food or water didn’t agree with me, but when we got home, I got the happiest surprise of my life when we found out we were having a baby,” she says.

Her first pregnancy was uneventful, and Harrison and her husband Gerry waited to welcome their first child, due on April 24, 2004.

“We were so excited,” she says. “I had a wonderful pregnancy. I’m a runner, and I was running throughout the pregnancy, and everything seemed great.”

During a March 7 baby shower for 40 guests at her parents’ house back in her hometown of Lapeer — seven weeks before her due date — Harrison felt something wasn’t right. She rushed through the gifts and games with her contractions growing stronger and more frequent by the minute.

“By the end of the shower, I was pretty worried, but I didn’t want to say anything to anyone there, because I figured it was probably a false alarm and I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it,” she says.

As soon as the shower was over, though, she and her husband drove back to St. Joe’s in Ann Arbor where she was admitted immediately.

“It became very clear I was about to have the baby, seven weeks early,” she says. “It still hadn’t hit me there was anything to worry about. I’m glad I didn’t know then what I know now, because I would have been beside myself with fear.”

One of the NICU doctors came in to talk to her about the fact that she would be delivering early.

“I still remember him telling me, in a positive, encouraging way, that, at 33 weeks, I was in a good place and my baby had a ‘90 percent chance of survival.’ That’s when the gravity of the situation hit me — I hadn’t even considered the fact that the baby might not be healthy, and now this doctor was telling me there was a 10 percent chance the baby wouldn’t survive?”

James Gerry Harrison II (Jamie) was born early the next morning, weighing 4 pounds, 13 ounces, and measuring 18 inches long. Harrison didn’t get the chance to see her baby before he was whisked away to the NICU.

“The whole thing was surreal,” she says. “It was hours before I could see Jamie, and even longer before I could hold him, and that was a very difficult time. Until I saw and held him, I just didn’t believe he was okay.

“That first night, when I was in my hospital room recovering, and Jamie was in the NICU unable to breathe on his own, I was so worried that I couldn’t sleep. My husband, Gerry, went over to talk to the NICU nurses in the middle of the night, and the next thing I knew, the nurses had moved Jamie’s isolate to a different spot so that I could look out my window, through the courtyard, and into the window of the NICU, where I could see the glow from his monitors. The fact that I could keep an eye on my baby, even though I couldn’t yet hold him in my arms, made all the difference. I’ll never forget that kind and simple gesture that the nurses made just to ease my mind.” 

Jamie spent 21 days in the NICU, battling respiratory and feeding issues. He came home on oxygen and a heart monitor, which he needed until he was 5 months old.

“Today, aside from having asthma, likely attributable to being a preemie, he is a happy and healthy 6-year-old, who will start first grade in the fall,” Harrison says. “He loves Star Wars and the Detroit Tigers, he plays baseball and soccer, and he loves to run and ride his bike.”

Eight months later, Harrison and her husband were thrilled to find themselves expecting a second child. Considered high risk after giving birth to one premature baby, Harrison was monitored closely throughout her second pregnancy. 

“For the first 24 weeks, everything went perfectly, and it started to look like Jamie’s early birth had been a fluke,” she says.

At 25 weeks, however, the doctor expressed some concern, and told her to take it easy and return the following week. At 26 weeks, 14 weeks before her due date, things had become serious.

Harrison was immediately sent to the hospital to get steroid shots to help the baby’s lungs develop more quickly, then she was placed on strict bed rest at home in the hope of buying time for the developing baby.

“Every additional day inside would help,” she says.

Her second son, Owen McLeod Harrison entered the world eight weeks early, on June 27, 2005, weighing 4 pounds, 12 ounces, and measuring 17 inches long. He was rushed to the NICU, where he spent the next 23 days, primarily dealing with feeding issues. He had fewer breathing issues than his older brother, and didn’t need oxygen on discharge.

“Like Jamie, Owen is asthmatic, but other than that, he is happy and healthy,” Harrison says.

Like his big brother, Owen, who will start kindergarten in the fall, loves “Star Wars,” along with playing video games, digging in the dirt, and sports. The family lives in Saline where Gerry Harrison teaches fourth grade.

“I could not have been happier with the care that my sons received in the NICU at St. Joe’s,” Harrison says. “Everyone there — from the doctors to the nurse practitioners to the nurses to the social workers — was wonderful to us. I know that they get a lot of babies every year, but I truly felt like they cared about my children on a personal level.”

In the NICU, Harrison was encouraged to get involved caring for her boys — even when they were so tiny and vulnerable she was afraid to touch them, let alone change diapers or bathe them.

“The nurses were wonderful at showing me how to work around the tubes and wires, and even though it clearly would have been quicker for them to do things themselves, they were always very patient with me, encouraging me to do anything and everything I could for my sons,” she says. 

Harrison, who earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her law degree from the University of Michigan, looks back on those times in the NICU and wonders how she survived.

“I think about the fear that ran through my mind when the alarms on their monitors would go off or when the phone would ring in the middle of the night if one of the boys had a particularly bad respiratory episode,” she says. “I know that I survived those weeks because I was made to feel a part of the care-giving team — and not just as an afterthought, but as a valued member of that team. I am forever grateful to the NICU staff at St. Joe’s. 

“I’ve been on the Family Advisory Board for several years now, and although my children are getting older and the NICU memories are getting more distant, those memories will never fade,” she says. “I hope that, by continuing to give back, I can help make the difficult NICU journey a little bit easier for even one family.”