Jess Dunne doesn’t remember much about the day she gave birth to her daughter, Nova Rae Schott. It was Aug. 31, nearly three months before her due date. Her blood pressure was at what doctors termed “stroke level,” so she was given an epidural to prepare for a C-section that would bring her baby into the world 12 weeks before she was supposed to arrive. A team of 30 doctors and members of the neonatal intensive care unit were in the room as Ms. Dunne struggled through a haze of nerves and panic, trying to stay calm. Her partner, Christian Schott, was processing the same emotions as the doctors delicately brought Nova Rae forth into the world, weighing just 1 pound, 3 ounces.
There is one moment from that harrowing delivery that stands out clearly in Ms. Dunne’s mind. In retrospect, it was a beacon of hope, something the couple held onto over the next two weeks as they were reeling from the trauma of the birth experience.
“She tried to let out a cry which was a really great sign, especially for her size,” Ms. Dunne said last week in a phone interview from her Cutchogue home, with her now 4-month-old daughter softly cooing in the background.
“She has a heart-shaped birthmark on her forehead, and I always say it’s a kiss from my grandmother.”Jess Dunne
Weighing less than two pounds at birth classified Nova as a “micro preemie,” and her survival was not guaranteed in the first weeks after she was born. But her tenacity and will to live were evident from the moment she arrived, and continued over the course of 77 days she spent in the NICU at North Shore University Medical Center in Manhasset. After such a precarious start to life, there was the possibility that Nova would spend her first Christmas in the hospital. But on Nov. 16, Ms. Dunne, 30, and Mr. Schott, 29, brought her home, and are now soaking up long, quiet, cozy days indoors with their daughter — who they sometimes refer to as “Super Nova” — and eagerly anticipating the joy of having her home for their first Christmas as a family. They’ve documented their journey on an Instagram page, @super_nova_rae, filled with photos and captions that detail their daughter’s progress.
Ms. Dunne and Mr. Schott were initially thrilled to learn they were expecting, but by early August, a cloud of fear and uncertainty intruded on their excitement at becoming first-time parents. Dangerously high blood pressure — a condition known as preeclampsia — had Ms. Dunne in and out of the hospital. By the end of the month, Ms. Dunne said, her condition was so dire that doctors transferred her from South Side Hospital to North Shore , even briefly considering airlifting her there.
She was checked into North Shore the last week of August and told she wouldn’t be leaving until she had the baby. After undergoing painful magnesium drips and suffering migraines, and with Nova at what doctors called “zero percent growth,” Ms. Dunne was finally told it was time. Doctors told her, , “One of you isn’t going to make it if we don’t do it now,” she recalled.
Ms. Dunne described the birthing experience as “traumatic,” admitting it’s something she’s still trying to come to grips with. She was barely showing when she entered the hospital in August, making it hard at times to process that she was even pregnant.. Ms. Dunne wasn’t able to hold Nova until two weeks after her birth, and said that during that period she and Mr. Schott were constantly on edge, dreading that a call would come telling them that Nova hadn’t survived. And, of course, it was all happening against the backdrop of a global pandemic, putting even more restrictions on how much time the new parents could spend with their daughter early on.
“We were pretty scared we were going to get a call that she hadn’t made it through the night,” Ms. Dunne said. “And we could only visit for one hour a day. It was hard to fully understand where she was at.”
For Mr. Schott, the feeling of helplessness was excruciating, especially in the touch-and-go early days.
“All I could really do was be there for her,” he said of Ms. Dunne. “I never thought I’d have to mentally prepare for the real chance that Nova wasn’t going to make it, or that Jess was going to have complications and not make it either.”
There was also the shock of learning how much Nova weighed at birth. The 1-pound, 3-ounce number was hard to hear, the parents said. They knew she’d be small, of course, but thought she’d weigh in the neighborhood of three pounds.
Nova Rae is a name the couple settled on early in Ms. Dunne’s pregnancy. She had heard the name several years ago, from a German couple that used to the visit the North Fork Roasting Company coffee shop where Ms. Dunne was a founding partner. (She is no longer involved with the business.) The couple had a baby named Nova, and Ms. Dunne said she instantly loved the name, as did Mr. Schott, when she mentioned it to him. Rae was chosen because it is the middle name Mr. Schott’s mother and grandmother share.
Ms. Dunne said she sees the influence of her own grandmother — who died in August — on her daughter as well.
“I really think my grandmother has watched over her,” Ms. Dunne said. “She has a heart-shaped birthmark on her forehead, and I always say it’s a kiss from my grandmother.”
Whether it was the presence of guardian angels, Nova’s own determination to survive or a combination, Ms. Dunne and Mr. Schott say they were blessed that their baby girl overcame an enormously difficult start to life without too many complications. Nova Rae was on a CPAP machine (which uses nasal tubes to provide respiratory support) to help her breathe while her lungs continued to develop, but was weaned off that device in mid-October. When they brought her home a month after that, she weighed 4.5 pounds.
“The nurses kept saying she was going to progress faster than other babies her size,” Ms. Dunne said. “We were very fortunate that she didn’t have any other health issues. She was just very tiny.”
Mr. Schott said he’ll never forget the day after Nova was taken off the CPAP machine, more than 30 days after her birth, and he held her.
“I could really see her face, and she had her eyes open and was smiling,” he said. “It was like I was really seeing my daughter for the first time.”
Still, recovering from everything that had happened was a process, not just for Nova but for her parents as well. Just 24 hours after being discharged from the hospital, Ms. Dunne she found herself in the ER, still battling postpartum preeclampsia and needing another painful magnesium drip. The emotions attendant with even a normal birth experience can be overwhelming, especially for first-time mothers, and the added layers of stress Ms. Dunne was dealing with, not to mention her continued physical challenges, certainly made those early days hard. She spoke candidly about her struggles with breastfeeding, how she spent time pumping even as she was fatigued and recovering from her injuries and illness associated with the pregnancy and birth, and how she recently made the transition to using formula, but had to contend with feelings of guilt many mothers experience when they make that choice.
Ms. Dunne said it was all part of what has been a two-year up-and-down personal journey for her, during which she went through a divorce and lost her share of her business. On the heels of dealing with those disappointments, however, she met Mr. Schott through a mutual friend, and they hit if off immediately, she said. Before long, they’d decided to start a family, but their joy at that prospect was tempered several months later by the complications that would lead to Nova’s premature birth — and an entirely new and even more difficult kind of heartache.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through,” Ms. Dunne said. “Nothing prepares you for not knowing if your baby is going to make it, and if you’re going to make it. I was very lucky to have Christian; he was such a rock.”
The support of family was key as well, Ms. Dunne said. After Nova was born, Ms. Dunne’s parents, Dan and Donna Dunne, made the long drive to Manhasset nearly every day, even though COVID-19 restrictions often meant they had to stay in the parking lot. Mr. Schott’s parents, Candice and Jamie Schott, often did the same, and were camped out in their car in the parking lot the night their granddaughter was born, with their son running outside to deliver the news when she arrived.
After the long months in the hospital, it was a relief for Ms. Dunne and Mr. Schott to learn they could finally take Nova home, although in many ways it was the beginning of another journey. A car parade greeted them when they brought Nova home, followed by plenty of sleepless nights early on, with Ms. Dunne and Mr. Schott taking shifts watching over Nova as she slept, finding it hard not to obsess over her breathing after all the time she’d spent on machines.
The parents say they are relatively well-rested these days and can look back on the experience from a comfortable vantage point.
“I just thought, can the universe throw me anything else?” Ms. Dunne said, reflecting on all she’s been through. “I think you’re only given things you can handle, and as much as it was really such a hard time, I only got stronger, and that made me be able to handle having Nova and be there for her. And I feel like I’m very lucky to have met Christian. It’s been like getting a second chance at life.”
As Christmas approached, Ms. Dunne and Mr. Schott said they’re doing their best to make up for all the moments when they couldn’t hold or kiss Nova during her first two months of life. They don’t need any admonishment to stay home and restrict visitors; they’re happy to hunker down and slow down, enjoying the time they’ve both taken off from work, something they’ve been able to do thanks to a GoFundMe account that was set up for them. The generous donations have allowed Mr. Schott to take a break from his work at his uncle’s company, Schott Refrigeration, and Ms. Dunne is on a break from her work as a private chef.
“We just hang out with her, take turns holding her, staring at her,” Mr. Schott said. “We don’t really ever put her down. It’s been great.”
On Christmas morning, the couple will give Nova her first holiday gift: a set of Russian nesting dolls, which Ms. Dunne said will be the start of a collection.
“My grandma always had Russian dolls, and I have a lot of her sets that she had when I was growing up,” Ms. Dunne said. “It’s something she always had around the house, and I remember loving it as a kid.”
The greatest gift of all, of course, is sharing the special day with their daughter for the first time and simply basking in the glow of having made it through a tough time.
“We both feel like a weight has been lifted,” Ms. Dunne said. “We both feel like we still have some mental healing to do, it was such a crazy experience, but it’s great to be home.”