After spending the initial 160 days of his life in the hospital, Cullen Potter has reached one of his first milestones: he has “graduated” from the NICU. Cullen, who was born at the University of South Alabama Children’s and Women’s Hospital on March 14 at 22 weeks gestation and weighed only 13.9 ounces, was discharged on August 21.
Cullen’s nurse carried him around the hospital hallways while “Pomp and Circumstance” played in the background. Cullen was dressed in a hat and gown (borrowed from a Build-A-Bear doll) for the significant event. After learning that Cullen had only a 2% chance of surviving, Molli and Robert Potter had been waiting for five months. They were told he would have a variety of mental issues if he lived. However, the grief of Molli and Robert dates back much farther than the last several months, as the couple miscarried in May of last year and then lost a second pregnancy only a few weeks later.
“We had intended to wait another year after the second loss, but lo and behold, God had other ideas for us when we discovered she was pregnant again,” Robert, 32, explains. “It was terrifying.” Molli had problems shortly after getting pregnant with Cullen and spent three weeks in a hospital near their home in Milton, Florida. “We were terrified,” recalls Robert. “She simply kept repeating, ‘Not again, not again,’ ” says the narrator.
Doctors warned the parents, who already have a 7-year-old son named Kayden, that if Cullen was delivered before 24 weeks of pregnancy, they would not try to rescue him. In a last-ditch effort to save their unborn child, Robert contacted over a dozen hospitals to see which would be willing to rescue Cullen if he didn’t make it to that point. Molli had an emergency Caesarean section and gave birth to their son just days after relocating to the University of South Alabama Children’s Hospital in Mobile, about 70 miles away from their home.
“The first time I met him, he could practically sit in the palm of my hand. He was so teeny-tiny. Robert describes it as ‘the most exquisite small little thing I had ever seen.’ ‘He couldn’t open his eyes, and his skin was practically translucent. In his mouth, he had a tube nearly the size of his entire mouth. But it was incredible that he was there.’ Then came the waiting. ‘With each passing day, he grew more and more, and with each passing day, we had more and more hope,’ Robert recounts. ‘They were warning us he may have brain damage or that his organs weren’t fully developed, but he didn’t have anything he could have — and most certainly should have — None of them,’ she says.
Cullen was finally ready to return home after five months. And the NICU graduation was all Molli and Robert had imagined it would be for them. “It was the happiest I’d ever been in my life. Just five months earlier, we had been assured that this day would never come,” Robert recalls. “They claimed this kid wasn’t meant to be born, that this 𝑏𝑎𝑏𝑦 wasn’t supposed to live, yet there we were, watching his nurse parade him down the corridor. We were finally returning home and reuniting with our family.”