A Preemie’s Journey
Using Photos to Tell the Story of Katie Rose
© Harold Davis. All rights reserved.
When I think about how I began to take the photos that led to the book The Story of Katie Rose: A Preemie’s Journey and the Finalist award from the World Gala Awards Storytelling contest, somewhat oddly the pigeons noisily roosting outside the window of my wife’s bed in the Intensive Care ward of a major urban hospital comes to mind. As dawn crept over the city and we watched the pigeons through the dirty window, Phyllis slowly emerged from her near-death experience and the haze of pain killers. We agreed that even if our daughter was dead—as we thought she was—she deserved a name. Phyllis said that she had been dreaming, and that she’d learned from a morphine-fueled song in her dream that the baby’s name was Katie Rose. The name Katie Rose had been playing in her head as a kind of chant for hours. I said that Katie Rose was a fine name, and okay with me.
A few days before Phyllis’s placental membrane ruptured with fluid spewing over our bed. She was twenty-four weeks pregnant—about sixteen weeks shy of full term. We got my parents to come over to take care of the boys, and I drove Phyllis to the hospital in San Francisco.
There was a chance that delivery could be held off for days, or maybe even weeks. The neonatologist, a doctor specializing in the treatment of premature babies, told us the odds were in the low single digit percentages for our daughter to survive if she was born right away. For a while things seemed to stabilize, and I went home to take care of our three boys.
I was putting the boys to bed when the hospital called. By the time I got back over to San Francisco, the baby had been born. When I opened the door to the delivery room, it looked to me like a vision of hell. The lights were dim. On one side of the room Phyllis was shivering in the grip of a high fever, moaning in pain, and gasping for breath.
My daughter was blue, limp, and not breathing. Her head was the size of a small lemon, and her body was about a foot long. She was a pathetic and apparently lifeless little thing. As I watched the proceedings, I kept thinking that I didn’t want her to suffer unnecessarily.
My daughter’s life hung in the balance. After about twenty minutes of trying to bring the limp baby back to life one of the doctors suggested it was time to shut down the effort. But the other doctors said it was too soon to stop. “There will be time enough later to shut it down,” said one doctor, “if that’s the right thing to do.” She was resuscitated eleven times before she was stabilized.
Phyllis was hit with a perfect storm. Her fever spiked to 105 degrees, her lungs were filling with fluid, she was in septic shock as a massive antibiotic-resistant infection in the placenta hit her bloodstream, and her blood type was different than the baby’s. I went with her via critical care ambulance at 3AM to an adult cardiac intensive care unit at another hospital, where they stabilized her.
By morning, as we listened to the pigeons, it was clear Phyllis would survive, although as I’ve said we assumed our tiny daughter was dead. I made my way back over to the birthing hospital to find our daughter and to give her a name. I was quite surprised when a nurse told me our daughter was very much among the living. She weighed 1.5 pounds (just as much as six sticks of butter) and had survived numerous resuscitations.
With the knowledge that Katie Rose was alive came renewed worries: what kind of shape was she in? Would she be able to have a decent quality of life?
It became apparent to me that I had to use my camera to document Katie Rose’s progress, although initially it wasn’t clear how this story would end. When you have a baby born very early—a so-called “micro preemie”—there are many firsts. For example, when you can first gently touch your baby, and when she first opens her eyes (when Katie Rose was born her eyes were still fused shut), and when you can first hold her (not for a while).
At the time, it wasn’t clear how this story would end. But, however it ended, I needed and wanted to remember these things—and it was important for our family to make a record.
My boys at home were confused. They wanted to know: Where was their mother? Where was their new baby sister? Why wasn’t their sister coming home?
The photos I showed them helped explain the situation in a visual way they could understand—and this purpose underlies the book we eventually created, The Story of Katie Rose: A Preemie’s Journey, which is intended to be useful to siblings and other in a family where there is a new preemie.
Photography in a NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) presented some technical difficulties. Flash and tripods were out of the question, and light levels were low. Light sources were varied with no reliable white balance possible. I relied on the excellent high-ISO capabilities of modern cameras with an assist from image stabilization lenses to capture my images, and processed them from the RAW files by hand, allowing the oddly tinted lighting to remain in some of the final images.
It was hard for me photograph something that hit so close to home. I’m used to being able to look through my viewfinder with some detachment. I’ve covered some dramatic interest human news events (mostly much earlier in my career), but even there I could create formal compositions and find the right exposure without being constantly moved to tears. When it is other people’s story the drama of what I was photographing just didn’t mean as much to me. When photographing the story of my own daughter, I had to expect what I was seeing to be personally difficult, and to view the experience of storytelling as cathartic. Even today, I can’t really look at the photos that tell this story without tears coming to my eyes.
Fortunately, the tears pretty quickly turned to tears of joy as it became apparent that Katie Rose was doing better than we’d even dared to hope. My story about a preemie’s journey became a story of hope and triumph over odds. As time went by, I knew I wanted to share this story with other families going through the trauma of having a baby born very early.
Photos in a sequence can narrate a story, but every good photo tells a story on its own. With individual images it is not always clear what the story is about. Narrative within a single photo can be sly, something that you really have to sneak up on to truly understand. Storytelling in a photo that is too direct can seem unreal and contrived.
With my photos that show the progress of Katie Rose, I knew I had a simple narrative for the sequence of shots, namely the timeline, although when I began documenting the story I did not know how it would end.
Within the individual frames in that sequence I tried to focus on what mattered most about the stories that each of the photos tell. Initially, this was the isolation of a very small baby wired to complex medical apparatus.
Disparity in size was an obvious narrative component as well, so I tried to find ways to show how small Katie Rose was in relationship to her surroundings, normal-sized babies, and to her parents.
As Katie Rose grew, the story became more about her large-than-life personality and her relationship with her family than her diminutive physical size.
Certainly, my idea in telling this story has also been to convey a message of hope.
Initially, I was quite reluctant to use photography to tell a story as personal as this one. However, Katie Rose’s brothers were avid to know more about their new sister and loved the photos.
Many people in our community helped our family when we were in the thick of the crisis of her birth, and a larger circle of people wanted to know about Katie Rose and her progress. I felt that an important part of giving back to the people who had given to us by cooking meals, shopping, and helping with the boys, was to show them as best I could photos of Katie Rose’s progress.
The birth of a new baby is a miracle and a major event in any family. Of course, I would have preferred a normal, full-term birth for my daughter. But I feel thankful that I had the tools to tell the story of the journey of this preemie—and that Katie Rose is here today for me to continue to photograph!