How His Daughter’s Premature Birth Inspired This Dad To Give Back

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When Eric Haley started Gotham Greens, the nation’s first commercial-scale greenhouse farm, in 2009, he was ditching finance for what he saw as a potentially game-changing growth industry. He had three partners, two in the venture — Viraj Puri, a sustainable development specialist, and Jenn Frymark, a Controlled Environment grower — and one in life. As the business flourished, eventually sprawling across the roof of a Whole Foods in the industrial Gowanus area of Brooklyn, he and his wife decided that they wanted to get entrepreneurial on the family front as well. Some time passed and then Marcie was pregnant. Things were going great right up until they weren’t.

Today, Haley is promoting the March for Babies, the March of Dimes initiative to fund an elite network of Prematurity Research Centers, because of what happened during his wife’s second trimester.

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The story ends well, with Haley taking his daughter Lola to the greenhouse where he grows plants that are donated free of charge to, among other organizations, the NYC Parks Department. It ends with Haley calling Fatherly from a project in Chicago and hearing his little girl in the background. It ends with him caring enormously about the fate of premature babies and understanding the difficult experience that their parents share.

eric haley

Haley spoke to Fatherly about his experience, the need for research on premature babies, and why investing in healthy babies is always the right call.

You got involved in the March for Babies for personal reasons. Can you tell the story of your daughter Lola’s birth?

My wife had a completely normal pregnancy and then, at 24 weeks, we were out to brunch in Brooklyn and she went from not feeling well to having her water break in the restaurant’s restroom. We jumped in the car to rush to the hospital, but I knew we weren’t going to make it because the baby’s head was already crowning. I was on the phone with 911, and the respondent told me I had to pull over so he could send an ambulance. I couldn’t stop and miraculously saw an ambulance on the opposite side of the road. I was able to flag it down in time for the EMT to walk over to the car and practically catch the baby.

She looked like a little bird, only 1.7 lbs. with transparent skin. He told us she was stillborn and then seconds later, she took her first gasp for air. They managed to perform CPR for 35 minutes until we arrived at the nearest hospital where she was intubated. Our daughter was there for two days, giving her a chance to get stabilized and then was transferred to a Level 4 NICU where she fought the fight for life for 101 days.

Can you describe what you felt during this experience? It seems like your joy must have been cut with genuine fear and anxiety for both your wife and child.

Lola was born so extremely early that we had no idea what her odds of survival were or what life would look like, so at first, we didn’t know what to pray for. We were in a state of utter shock and there wasn’t time in the beginning to be sad or process our feelings. We just clicked into survival mode and tried to be the best advocate for her that we could.

After a few days passed, my wife longed to be pregnant again, like grieving something that she lost. Thankfully we had each other and when one was down, the other was there to keep the other’s head and spirit up.

What was your experience in the NICU?

They told us from the beginning to expect a rollercoaster and that is exactly what it was. For every two steps forward, Lola took one step back. We learned to manage this dance and never let the highs be too high so the lows would not get too low. We felt incredibly grateful to live in America, in New York City, with all the access to modern medicine, information, and support.

Lola thankfully had a relatively smooth course through the NICU, no complicated surgeries or illnesses, but time has never felt so slow as it did during those 101 days.

What did it feel like to bring your daughter home after that?

Pure bliss. I know a lot of NICU families get accustomed to having the baby hooked up to machines to verify everything from the lungs to the heart are working properly and when all of a sudden those cords are stripped, the absence of stats can make a parent anxious. But we just felt free and trusted that she was ready to be home and that her little body was now strong enough to do what it needed to do. That being said, my wife still had her sleep in a bassinet next to our bed for six months! We were just so elated to have our baby home!

eric haley

You’re on the other side of that experience, but it’s clear you’re still thinking about it. Is that why you’re so supportive of the March for Babies?

Since Lola was born, my wife and I had a tremendous sense of wanting to give back, specifically to the neonatal medical community. Lola’s survival and ability to thrive was thanks to medical advancements made in the last decade and her dedicated care team of doctors and nurses. We feel a sense of responsibility to help these teams have the best tools possible to prevent premature birth and increase the chance of survival.

Obviously, you weren’t prepared for the complications that come with a premature birth. Do you feel, in retrospect, that you could have or should have been more informed about pregnancy outcomes?

More than 60 percent of premature births have an unknown cause so why Lola came flying into this world so early remains a mystery. That statistic is both comforting and haunting.

Would-be parents should not fear premature birth so I’m not sure there’s something to learn from our experience for first-time parents in general. But for those first-time preemie parents, we hope that Lola’s story of success offers a ray of hope. You quickly learn how impactful a single day in the womb is in terms of development, so it’s hard to compare a 24-weeker’s journey to a 34-weeker’s journey. Lola was really born on the cusp and had such an uphill battle to fight. It was always encouraging for us to meet parents of other thriving 24-25 weeks. In the same breath, we know how lucky and blessed we are since not all babies survive, so it’s important for us to be mindful that everyone’s journey is individual.

So, what’s Lola up to these days?

Lola is terribly two in all the perfect toddler ways! We are so grateful for her progress and good bill of health. She certainly has had her share of developmental obstacles but, again, we are fortunate to live where we do and have access to therapy and state programs like Early Intervention to give her the chance to catch-up and thrive in all areas of development.

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