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  • Writer's pictureThe Beacon Today

New mother to COVID-19: ‘You’ve made me into a shield.’

Updated: May 12, 2022

Nearly a year has passed since Melendez-Adorno gave birth to her daughter. Despite the constant change in COVID-19 variants and corresponding protocols, the pandemic has been unable to steal away some of motherhood’s more simple pleasures: lap naps, tender gestures and intimate mother-daughter bonding time. (Photo courtesy of Brenna Brown).

As 22-year-old Heidi Melendez-Adorno cradles 1-year-old Kaia in her arms, her mind flashes back to the year preceding her first child’s arrival: social distancing signs plastered to every bare surface, news outlets documenting the never-ending rise in COVID-19 cases and the uncomfortable feeling of a mask pressed against her skin. These are only a handful of the memories that appear.

Tucking a stray curl behind her ear, she recalls the way her heart would pound each time she walked into her doctor’s office alone, wondering if her trip to the delivery room would occur in a similar fashion. Even more so, she remembers the terror she felt as an unforgiving virus swept through her hometown and disrupted the life she’d known for so long. These memories bring to mind a year of anxiety, a year of fear and a year of never knowing what would happen next.

Even now, with her daughter held protectively against her chest, Melendez-Adorno feels no sense of peace. In stark contrast, her entire presence mirrors that of a soldier readying for battle. Instead of easing into her new motherly role, she is constantly on guard: Watching, waiting and ultimately preparing herself for COVID-19’s next major assault.

“I feel like I have to be like a shield to my daughter,” Melendez-Adorno said. “Already I feel like I have to be that way because I’m a mom and that is my job. But with the pandemic in the picture, it makes (this role) even more intense.”

After approximately nine months of waiting and 28 hours of hard labor, nurses tenderly place Melendez-Adorno’s child into her arms and watch as mother and daughter embrace each other for the very first time. (Photo courtesy of Alejandro Gumera).

Melendez-Adorno first found out she was pregnant in the summer of 2020, only a couple of months after the World Health Organization officially labeled COVID-19 a pandemic. According to the American Journal of Managed Care’s “COVID-19 Timeline,” her pregnancy period occurred when U.S. COVID-19 cases had hit an all-time high and a vaccine was still being tested and regulated. Given that many states had begun to ease their social distancing guidelines—with her hometown of Sanford, Florida being one of them—and more and more people refused to adhere to masking protocol, the mother-to-be lived in constant fear that she’d contract the virus before her child successfully made it to term.

The concern felt by Melendez-Adorno stemmed from more than just prepartum stress and her own personal anxieties; it was further enhanced by the media and global health reports. In a statement released on Sep. 27, 2021, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention voiced some of the more serious COVID-19 implications expectant mothers could potentially face, including preterm birth, stillborn children and even ICU admission (should the newborn contract COVID-19 from their mother before or after the delivery).

At this point in time, the CDC also reported more than 125,000 COVID-19 cases in pregnant women, with more than 17.6% of those cases resulting in hospitalization. As a young woman already dealing with pre-existing health anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, the CDC’s announcement and reported statistics did anything but ease the fear the pandemic had instilled in her heart.

Exhausted from the delivery process and too emotional to speak, Melendez-Adorno spends the hours following her labor simply taking in the sight of her small daughter nestled into her chest. (Photo courtesy of Alejandro Gumera).

“I’m very hyper-aware of my surroundings and constantly worrying,” Melendez-Adorno said. “In the back of my head, I’m thinking, ‘Am I doing the best that I can for my daughter?’”

Melendez-Adorno was not the only person to be emotionally impacted by her pandemic-based pregnancy; her partner Alejandro Gumera, 28, spent all three of her trimesters wondering if he’d even be allowed to witness the birth of his coming child. In an effort to eliminate any potential risks of COVID-19 spreading to ill or immunocompromised patients, many hospitals across the U.S. took their social-distancing protocols to a new extreme.

Conducted Feb. 22-26, 2021, by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a national pulse survey sought to determine how hospitals across the nation had been impacted by COVID-19. Taken from a random sample of 397 medical centers, the Office of Inspector General interviewed administrators and representatives from 320 different hospitals—located in 45 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico—about their COVID-19 concerns and the guidelines they put in place in response to the pandemic.

Given that many hospitals were struggling to meet the needs of their COVID-19 and other long-term patients, several resorted to limiting many, if not all, outside visitors from entering patient rooms. Aware that this was Melendez-Adorno’s first pregnancy, Gumera knew she needed someone by her side when the time came for her to deliver. Together, the young couple called and researched numerous South Florida hospitals with the hope that one of them would be willing to compromise on their COVID-19 visitation policies. As it turns out, the Oviedo Medical Center was that hospital.

According to the Oviedo Medical Center’s website, its established policy allows “one named visitor to be present for (the) birth, provided that they meet the hospital’s health screening requirements.” For Melendez-Adorno and Gumera, that policy alone served as the ultimate game-changer.

Eyes lit up with pride and excitement, Gumera lovingly cradles his daughter Kaia in his arms and flashes a wide smile at the camera (held by his wife). (Photo courtesy of Heidi Melendez-Adorno).

“When it came to the Oviedo Medical Center we felt like that was a better option,” Gumera said. “They provided (Heidi) with a whole room and they didn’t keep me away. I could be there while Kaia was being born.”

As grateful as Kaia’s family was for the Oviedo Medical Center and what they offered their pregnant patients, there was one person involved in Kaia’s birth who struggled with the hospital’s limited visitation policy: Blessing Velez-Adorno, Melendez-Adorno’s 19-year-old sister. As one of the couple’s staunchest supporters, Velez-Adorno was thrilled that the baby’s father could be present when her sister gave birth; nonetheless, she still wished that the delivery room had been big enough for just one more.

“I’m not a health professional so I can’t speak to it that much, but I wish that my sister had been allowed more of a support system in the delivery room,” Velez-Adorno said. “She had to be there with only Alejandro and at some point, she was afraid that even he wasn’t going to be able to be there.”

Several attempts were made to contact the Communications Director of the Oviedo Medical Center to discuss their visitation policies but remained unsuccessful. Despite the many challenges the family faced as they prepared for Kaia’s delivery, mother and daughter alike still managed to pull through: Kaia Gumera was born on Feb. 6, 2021, with no COVID-19 complications. For the first time in a year, everything seemed perfect—until the new mother’s worst nightmare finally came to fruition: Despite being fully vaccinated, social distancing regularly and wearing masks everywhere they went, she, Gumera and her daughter all tested positive for COVID-19 in August of 2021.

Afflicted with fevers, chills and body aches, the young family did their best to combat the effects of the virus. Their experience was so severe that they ended up having Gumera’s mother, a registered nurse with 15 years of experience, come into their home to assist them through it. As horrible as the illness was, however, none of her symptoms were as difficult as the “mom guilt” Melendez-Adorno began to bear.

“I completely felt like a failure,” Melendez-Adorno said. “I was like, ‘I didn’t do what I was supposed to do to protect her—I didn’t do what I was supposed to do as a mom.’”

She hasn’t given up though. Despite having to trade social proximity for social distancing, make-up for masks, and confidence for constant vigilance, this young mother refuses to surrender to her enemy—she refuses to surrender to COVID-19. Facing and recovering from the virus has given her all the more reason to strengthen her defenses and once again become the shield her daughter and the pandemic constantly require her to be.

Sucking in a deep breath and looking down at her daughter once more, Melendez-Adorno knows deep in her heart that she’ll never forget what it was like being pregnant during the COVID-19 pandemic—or what navigating motherhood has been like since then.

By Brenna Brown

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