Late in May, a very pregnant Veronica Markley laid back on an exam table in a darkened, quiet room at Presbyterian St. Luke's Hospital in Denver, her red and white striped shirt pulled up and away from her belly as a sonographer gently moved an ultrasound scanner across her midriff. Her husband, Kyle, held her left hand in his right, both hands clad in protective gloves, and together their eyes peered over protective face masks to a monitor on the wall across the room.
The baby in Veronica's womb looked healthy, Jenna Pongo told them in the darkened, quiet room while she looked at her own monitor and made notes. Maybe a little small, but fine. A nurse practitioner, Debora Bellesheim, also watched the monitor and described for Veronica how the remaining weeks of the pregnancy ought to proceed, and how they would all talk soon about delivering Veronica and Kyle's second child.
This would be a birth in the time of coronavirus, with a heart-stopping twist in an already far-from-ordinary moment: Veronica survived COVID-19 while she was pregnant. It hadn't been that long ago that the 37-year-old Greeley teacher had spent two weeks in the hospital, including numerous days on a ventilator.
Veronica and Kyle learned she was pregnant last Halloween, and they were excited. But by March, the world turned sideways as the coronavirus spread through Colorado.
Veronica teaches art at Jackson Elementary School in Greeley, which went into an extended spring break to keep students safe, from March 14-29, "and I never went back." Neither did the students; to whom she was never able to say goodbye for the year. She'd started feeling ill before the break; at 27 weeks she found herself admitted to Presbyterian St. Luke's and deteriorating fast.
"I remember the doctor coming in and saying, 'We need you to sign these papers in case things get, you know, worst-case scenario type stuff," Veronica told Claire Cleveland of CPR News. "And I was kinda worried, and she was so professional and calm, but I could see the concern in her face, like when she was like giving me paper after paper, after paper to sign.”
To add to their anguish, Veronica and Kyle had to say goodbye to her son Rio, whom Kyle took to his parents' house in Ohio while Veronica was in the hospital — it would be more than a month before they saw Rio again, missing his second birthday, as well as Mother's Day. Once Veronica was home, Rio was brought home again, on May 31.
Now their Greeley home was more or less ready. Diapers were stacking up. Rio's old crib was set up one side of the nursery bedroom for the baby, his little bed was on the other. A rocking chair was in the middle and toys — including his prized Buzz Lightyear — were strewn about as Rio scurried around under the watchful eyes of his parents.
By the time Veronica and Kyle arrived back at Presbyterian St. Luke's on June 18, ready for her to be induced, the hospital was under a tight lockdown; waiting rooms were deserted, gloved and masked staff gave each other wide social-distancing berth, water fountains were taped off, hand sanitizer dispensers were everywhere.
Veronica and Kyle wore masks and gloves too, as they parked in the basement garage and then made their way up to the hospital's birth center and were led through quiet hallways to her delivery room. She donned a hospital gown, listened with Kyle as nurses described the procedures, and then she laid back as monitors were placed on her belly, blood pressure and oxygen level monitors put in place on arms and fingers, and blood drawn — all standard procedures except the only way to read her feelings was through her eyes peering above her face mask.
One thing that was different: New protocols meant that Veronica needed a final COVID-19 test. So she closed her eyes as nurse Hilary Boyd, protected with a face shield as well as mask, inserted the impossibly long swab in Veronica's nose. Then Kyle rubbed Veronica's feet and the medical staff got her ready to be induced.
To everyone's shock later that night, Veronica's test came back positive.
Veronica had felt fine — asymptomatic is the word with which the world has become familiar. And she was already in labor when the test result came back, so there was no turning back.
By the evening of June 19, little baby Luna, all 6 pounds of her, was welcomed to the Markley family. And the new COVID-19 scare was short-lived: Veronica never got sick again; the doctors said the positive test was very likely incorrect.
Now Luna is home with Veronica and Kyle and little Rio.
“It was not the birth that I would have wanted for myself and my little daughter,” she said.
“They put her on my chest for a little while, like just for a very short amount of time,” Veronica said. “With my son, I was able to like have that golden hour with him. He was able to latch on by himself just have those sweet bonding moments together. And I didn't get that with our little girl, and that was really hard. It was really hard, but I also understood it was for her safety, if for whatever reason I was contagious, I wouldn't want to pass that to her.”
So now this is newborn time in the age of coronavirus for the Markleys. Kyle will get some time off from his job at Hertz to help around the house, and Veronica is on maternity leave until November. Because of the virus and its effect on school openings and in-person classes, she still doesn't know when she'll actually meet her students and tell them her story.
CPR's Claire Cleveland contributed to this photo essay.