A 21st Century Journalism Project

Change of Plans

In People on May 1, 2012 at 2:34 pm

By Anthony LoPinto

Editors note: At the request of the subjects of this story, pseudonyms have been used to protect anonymity. Names and pictures are not reflective of the subjects. Aside from the pseudonyms, the story is factual.

It’s too soon

Katherine and Neil Brisker planned everything. Both in their late twenties – and both earning comfortable wages – they had met individual challenges through their five-year marriage and enjoyed a stable life.

They contributed to a savings account and settled in a safe neighborhood with good schools in Greensburg, Pa. Their life was close to ideal when they chose to have their first child.

At first, that planning paid off. They approached the baby boy’s June 6, 2011, due date with a sense that they had taken all necessary measures to make the transition to parenthood a seamless one. But on the morning of March 20, Katherine, 29 weeks pregnant, awoke confused and concerned.

Her bed sheets soaked, she phoned her mother, asking her what the cause might be. Whether the thought had not entered her mind out of fear or disbelief, the fact remained: her water had broken, something all the planning in the world could not change.

But not too late

Katherine arrived at West Penn Hospital in Pittsburgh that day, and the expectant parents’ worries immediately shifted to the baby’s health. She was diagnosed with a preterm premature rupture of membranes (PPROM), a rupturing of the organisms that house the amniotic fluid, the water that protects the baby and provides vital nutrients.

PPROM occurs in about 15,000 pregnancies per year. It increases the likelihood of disease for both child and mother, along with the complications of a premature birth. Katherine said doctors opted for the drug Procardia and a 24-hour magnesium sulfate drip to prevent labor, staving off infection and buying extra time for the child to develop.

She spent the next five weeks in the hospital, worrying daily about her baby’s health. Compounding that worry was one of financial adjustment. The soon-to-be family of three was now living on one income.

The impetus to earn fell on Katherine’s husband Neil. He worked by day and spent hours traveling to the hospital almost every night.

“It was extremely stressful,” he said. “I wanted to only have to worry about (Katherine) and the baby, but instead I was worrying about making it to work on time and doing everything correctly because I needed the job more than ever at that point.”

His wife, though helped by the treatment of one of the nation’s top obstetrics programs, said she worried about the lack of control the couple had.

“We were terrified at that time,” she said. “We were relying on family to help a lot with gas for (Neil) to get to the hospital and back. Luckily, we had help and support at that time, or I don’t know what we would have done.”

A working poor glimpse

While the parents did not spend lavishly, they did not pinch pennies and could afford their newer Hyundai cars and sizable mortgage. But with Katherine forced to take unpaid, Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) time off from work – meaning that for 12 weeks she earned nothing, but retained a guarantee for her job – money problems surfaced.

“It was very hard on (Neil),” she said. “Our mortgage is basically $1,000 a month, which is one whole paycheck of his, so money was very tight. We stopped paying a lot on our credit cards and only paid minimum balances, which is something we never do, but we had no choice.”

Without the planning and saving the couple practiced before the hospitalization, explained Neil, they could not have paid their expenses, although they adjusted how that money was used.

“Luckily, we had a pretty good amount in savings, so I knew we would be okay for the short term,” he said. “But I knew that (Katherine) was going to have to go back to work ASAP because it was going to run out eventually. And even though I was happy we had that money to pay bills, it killed me to exhaust all of that and realize we no longer had a safety net, and we were bringing home a newborn with possible health issues.”

Born and razed

Photo by Joshua Smith. Used courtesy of Creative Commons.

On April 24, 2011, the parents ceased all worrying for a short time, welcoming Harrison into the family. Despite the extra month of growing time, the baby was small, a shade under five pounds. But, apart from a common case of premature jaundice and a slowed heart rate, he was healthy.

Katherine returned home first, taking trips back to the hospital with her husband to visit their newborn, who had to spend most of his time hooked up to a feeding tube or under a lamp designed to help his jaundice. Although he was not aware of it, he had already bulldozed his parents’ notion of parenthood and continued to affect their finances.

Used to working in the fast-paced world of public relations, Katherine often said she could not envision herself staying at home for long after giving birth. However, her attitude shifted after Harrison’s arrival.

When she returned to work after 15 weeks, the decision was not out of choice, but rather was prompted by the depletion of the parents’ savings account.

Costly care

With Katherine’s return to work came the need to enroll Harrison in daycare. The lingering effects of Harrison’s prematurity, including a significant developmental delay, meant the family qualified for medical assistance from Pennsylvania Early Intervention. This service reduced the cost of prescriptions and copays for Harrison’s needs, but the parents were left “ruled by cost” for daycare, according to Katherine.

“We felt we were in a good place financially when we had (Harrison), but we honestly hadn’t looked into daycare costs too thoroughly and really hadn’t spent a lot of time looking at the budget for formula and diapers,” she said. “It was a lot more than we anticipated.”

Early Intervention guaranteed that a therapist would work with Harrison once a week at daycare to aid in his development. Otherwise, the parents’ daycare choice hinged on affordability and proximity, according to Katherine.

“I wasn’t 100 percent happy with the daycare, but I felt it was safe, and I knew it was going to be short term so I had to do it,” she said. “It was the cheapest daycare we found that was in our location. It was still close to $700 a month, which was insane in my opinion.”

Helping to offset the cost of daycare, Early Intervention also made the parents eligible to receive aid from WIC, a nutritional program for low-income mothers and children. Without Early Intervention, the Brisker’s income level would exceed WIC’s limits.

“WIC has been a huge help in paying for formula. I don’t think we would have been able to afford it without WIC,” said Katherine.

Even with subsidized aid and two incomes, the parents say they struggled to pay their bills. They relied increasingly on credit cards and sometimes had only $100 left over at the end of the month, an amount Katherine said was “not feasible.”

Making the change

Katherine, back to work for two months, decided to propose a solution. Rather than continue to spend a large chunk of family income on daycare, Katherine raised the idea of working from home. This way, they could eliminate day care costs, ensure proper care for Harrison and save the gas costs from Katherine’s 50-mile round trip to work, she said.

Neil said he was “scared at first,” thinking he and his wife could not pay their bills if she worked part time. Eventually, he bought into what she called “a new plan for the future.”

“It took a lot of convincing and a whole lot of running of numbers before I felt confident,” he said. “I still worry. Freelance checks don’t come in as regularly as my checks, and sometimes work is slow for her.”

On pace to earn about half her former annual salary, Katherine, who has been freelancing since September, said the decision has “actually been better” from a financial standpoint. Whenever the costs of daycare and gas are removed, she said, her income is comparable to that of her full time position.

Best-laid plans

Photo by Neeta Lind. Used courtesy of Creative Commons.

On April 24, 2012, Harrison turned one. For his age, he’s reached the 50th percentile for height, but still lags behind in weight. He has yet to take his first step, but since his parents took a collective one, they have stayed on course, according to Neil.

“We don’t make any large purchases, we charge a lot of stuff if we have to have it and we really don’t have a savings, so we are trying to rebuild,” he said.

Neil said a key in that rebuilding is an increased workload for Katherine, something he thinks will allow the family to “be in better shape by next year at this time.”

Katherine’s ambitions, however, aim higher. She has been mulling a new proposal: starting her own public relations firm.

That may change in an instant, however, as the parents have already lived Robert Burns’ famous adage about the best-laid plans.


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