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A game day miracle

Born with a severe brain injury, little Abigail Powell continues to beat the odds at University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital.
Born with a severe brain injury, little Abigail Powell wasn’t expected to survive without ventilator support. Eight months later, she continues to astonish her parents and her care team at University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital.

You don’t have to spend long in the company of Michael and Erika Powell to know that they’re a special couple.

Even their first meeting was unusual – it wouldn’t have happened if Erika’s car muffler hadn’t fallen off at precisely the right moment. Mike was on his way across a parking lot when he saw Erika peering under her car. He helped her put the muffler back on, and the rest is history.

When they learned they were expecting their first child, a girl, the two were thrilled. Erika progressed through her pregnancy with no complications and went into labor at 40 weeks and 3 days. They went to Fairview Lakes Medical Center in Wyoming, Minn., where their daughter, Abigail, was delivered by C-section on November 4, 2018 – a game day for the Minnesota Vikings. Both parents took note of the coincidence. Michael is a big Vikings fan; Erika follows the Packers.

After the delivery, Abigail’s skin appeared to have a blue hue. For this reason, hospital staff chose to keep her under observation. Despite this, her parents had few misgivings.

“For the first eight hours, everything looked OK,” Erika said. “They thought she’d be able to join us in the postpartum room in the morning.” But while under observation, Abigail stopped breathing – four times in a single hour. Abigail was rushed to the Level IV NICU at University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. The following morning, she was put on a ventilator.

Our neonatal experts provide personalized, family-centered care for the smallest babies and the most complex cases. Learn more about our nationally recognized NICU services.

Preparing for heartbreak

Maternal Child Health Social Worker Rachael Stover-Haney helped the Powells as they dealt with the shock of Abigail’s condition. The next three days were a blur of testing, as the team raced to figure out what was wrong with Abigail. During that time, Postpartum Nurse Manager Cindy Osborn stopped by the family’s room to deliver a gift. Every baby born on game day at University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital receives a Minnesota Vikings swaddle as part of the Vikings’ Newborn Fan Club.

During the short visit, Osborn was struck by the couple’s emotional resilience. “You could feel the love between them,” she said. “It was extraordinary.”

On Thursday, the Powells met with Abigail’s whole treatment team. The news was devastating.

“Abigail had sustained a very severe brain injury due to lack of oxygen sometime between labor and delivery. They prepared us to leave the hospital without her,” Erika said. There were no dry eyes around the conference table that day.

Hospital staff transitioned Abigail to comfort care, moving the Powells to a private room with a dedicated, 24-hour nurse. Stover-Haney helped them talk through the options for making the time they had with Abigail meaningful. “We developed an end-of-life care plan, which is an interdisciplinary effort that involved nursing staff, physicians, social work, and spiritual care,” Stover-Haney said.

The Powells spent Thursday through Sunday cherishing every moment with Abigail, inviting family and friends to meet her, and making

 memories. The family prepared to take Abigail off life support on Sunday.

“Erika said, ‘She was born on game day and she's going to heaven on game day, too,’” Stover-Haney remembered.

But even with Abigail’s challenging prognosis, nothing was certain. On Saturday Neonatologist Sixto Guiang, MD, met with the Powells. “He told us that she could live for minutes, hours, days, weeks, or months after she was taken off the ventilator. There was no way to know for sure,” Erika said.

“We held our breath – and she took a breath.”

On Sunday, November 11, at around kickoff, Abigail was taken off life support. “We held our breath – and she took a breath,” Erika said.

Abigail did not pass away that day. “She just kept breathing,” Mike said. “We spent every minute just enjoying her.”

As the day went on, Abigail continued to fight. She was even able to nurse briefly. The Powells prepared to take Abigail home, supported by hospice care. By noon on Monday, the new family of three was on the way home, although they did not know how long this respite would last.

Incredibly, Abigail thrived at home. “The hospice team came once a week, and every time they visited, Abigail was right on track with her breathing, her heart rate and her growth,” Erika said. She was also nursing exclusively.

“When Abigail was four weeks old, the hospice team revised their prognosis up to six to nine months. We were floored,” Mike said. “At that

 point, I thought, ‘We’re done with the estimates. We’re going to do everything we have to do to help her thrive and act as if she’s going to be here forever.’”

Erika agreed, “If she’s not, that’s OK, but let’s enjoy her and not be preoccupied that she may not be here longer.” They turned their attention away from worrying when Abigail would die – and focused instead on how to help her live as well as she could.

Week-by-week progress

Abigail continued to progress, and at six weeks the Powells left the hospice program. Today, they participate in physical therapy appointments at University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital and attend the NICU follow-up care clinic. They see changes in Abigail every week. Abigail has begun to eat solid foods – mashed potatoes are a particular favorite – and she is full of smiles. Erika and Michael often dressed Abigail in the Vikings swaddle she received at the hospital, at least until Abigail outgrew it.

“I know for a fact that Michael and I will never go to another hospital, if and when we get pregnant again,” Erika said. University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital will be our hospital.”

“There is no recipe for navigating an experience like this,” Stover-Haney said. “Mike and Erika had a strong foundation entering this experience, and it carried them through to where they are now. It’s truly my honor to be part of it.”

“This little lady has touched so many lives,” Osborn said. “Watching Erika and Mike handle all of these changes, from thinking their baby is going to die, to taking her home, where she is still a part of their lives – it’s a blessing.”