Hurricane Harvey: Mom recalls putting baby in helicopter to Austin

On Wednesday, staffers at Kingwood Medical Center outside of Houston told Heather Luper that her 1-week-old son, Wyatt, would need to be flown by helicopter to St. David’s Medical Center in Austin. She would be leaving the hospital where she gave birth to her son and where she works as a nurse in the intensive care unit.

It would be safer for Wyatt in Austin, staffers said, because the Kingwood hospital, located about 30 minutes north of Houston, was surrounded by water left by Hurricane Harvey. The hospital had been on lockdown since the start of the hurricane, and the staffers who had been there when Harvey hit were still there, unable to go home or get another crew in. The power had also been going on and off.

Wyatt is one of 11 infants taken to St. David’s Medical Center and Dell Children’s Medical Center because of Harvey. The infants are among 45 patients transferred to Austin-area hospitals from hospitals affected by the storm. Both hospital systems also have seen hundreds of evacuees coming to them for medical care on their own.

Wednesday, as the St. David’s transport team arrived in Kingwood, Luper was able to hold Wyatt for the first time since he was born Aug. 23 at 28 weeks of gestation and at 2.8 pounds. The transport nurse assessed him while he rested on her chest. The nurse “let me have that moment, because I was about to put my baby in the helicopter and go off,” Luper says.

“It was very emotional,” she says. “As a mom with a NICU baby, that’s hard enough, but as a mom (to hear) ‘OK, we’re going to take your 1-week-old and transport him in a helicopter’? I had never flown myself. My 1-week-old has flown now.”

Wyatt’s first week of life has been anything but routine. Heather Luper’s asthma and the drugs needed to control it were affecting her heart and making it unsafe for Luper to remain pregnant. Then the hurricane came.

“He just wanted a really interesting birth story,” Luper says. “He’s going to be a handful from the beginning.”

The hardest part of Wyatt’s first week has been the family having to be separated. Luper’s husband, T.J., had been told to go home to Tarkington, where they are from, on Aug. 26 because the hospital couldn’t feed visitors. Heather Luper was still a patient when Harvey hit, so she was able to stay with Wyatt. When Wyatt was flown off, Luper wasn’t sure if she would be allowed to go to Austin because of her own health. “I told my doctor, ‘No I need to go. I need to go to Austin,’” Luper says. “I didn’t want to be away from my baby.”

Luper’s mother and sister drove her four hours to get to Austin. Luper was quiet that whole time with worry. Her mother just kept telling her how many more miles left to go. Once she arrived, she was given support in Austin from Hand to Hold, which is for parents of premature babies, and the Ronald McDonald House, which has a room for her at St. David’s. 

“Everybody made the process completely seamless and beautiful,” Luper said of her baby’s transfer. Still, she said, “It’s been incredible stressful.”

Saturday will be a wonderful day. That’s when T.J. Luper is expected to come to Austin to be with his family.

Heather Luper doesn’t know how long the family will be in Austin. When it is safe for Wyatt to return to Kingwood, they expect to go home.

“We’ve been very blessed through the whole situation,” Luper said.

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