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The surreal experience of giving birth during the coronavirus crisis

For Sondra and Tony Pacitti, the new normal is anything but

New mother Sondra Pacitti looked at one of her newborn twins, Max, at Women & Infants Hospital in Providence.
New mother Sondra Pacitti looked at one of her newborn twins, Max, at Women & Infants Hospital in Providence.Tony Pacitti (custom credit)

PROVIDENCE — Sondra Pacitti was sitting in a prenatal yoga class last month when she started to get the feeling that the coronavirus might change everything she had ever envisioned about giving birth to her first child, much less the twins she was expecting.

It was March 8, and Rhode Island already had three known cases of the highly contagious disease. Nearly every woman in the class was asking questions about what the virus might mean for their pregnancies.

Sondra’s instincts were right.

A day later, the governor declared a state of emergency. Within a week, restaurants and shops were shutting down. Then Sondra’s husband, Tony, was told he could no longer attend checkup appointments. Too risky.

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The surreal experience of giving birth during the coronavirus crisis has been shared by more than 700 mothers in Rhode Island, and is something thousands more will undoubtedly face in the coming months.

This is one of those stories.

Sondra gave birth to Lorenzo and Max at 5:59 p.m. and 6 p.m. on April 3 at Women & Infants Hospital in Providence. The boys came early, at 34 1/2 weeks, so they were still in the neonatal intensive care unit when Sondra was released from the hospital earlier this week.

“They’ve got a lot of moms right now,” Tony said during an interview Wednesday morning, referring to the nurses and doctors who are currently taking care of the twins.

Sondra choked up as she discussed how thankful she is to the staff at Women & Infants.

“They’re putting everything out there to take care of us,” she said. “It’s amazing.”

The weeks leading up to a child’s birth are always intense for new parents, but the coronavirus only added to the anxiety that Sondra and Tony were already feeling.

Sondra witnessed firsthand the sudden change in health care delivery. By 32 weeks, she knew there was a chance the twins would come early, so she had twice-a-week appointments with her obstetrician. It wouldn’t be long before those checkups were the only time she would leave the house.

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As the number of coronavirus cases in the state started to spike, the casual, comforting feeling of Sondra’s visits to her doctor were replaced with a more formal approach. The doctor was no longer wearing jeans. It was scrubs and a mask.

“I would go in one week and things would be completely different the next,” Sondra said.

Tony had to miss out on some of the most memorable experiences leading up to childbirth. Although he and Sondra were healthy, he didn’t get to join his wife for ultrasounds in March because no one wanted to take a chance that one of them might catch the virus.

So he went shopping.

Like most couples, the Pacittis felt completely unprepared to have children. Tony started searching everywhere for the necessities: Diapers, baby wipes, and hand sanitizer. By then, the products were already flying off the shelves.

“What was really disheartening was there were plenty of diapers and there were no wipes anywhere,” Tony said.

He eventually found what he needed at the Target in Warwick, which placed its baby wipes in an unusual location: near the strollers and children’s clothes.

Jackpot.

Last Friday, Sondra received the call from her doctor. Her blood pressure was rising, so “they said you’re going to come in and have your babies today,” she recalled.

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At the time, more than 700 Rhode Islanders were infected with the coronavirus, and 14 had died. In the next five days, both numbers more than doubled: on Wednesday there were 1,450 cases and 35 people had died.

When they arrived at the emergency room, Tony and Sondra were required to have their temperature taken. They also answered a series of questions about whether they had any recent travel history or if they had come into contact with anyone with the virus.

Those questions would be asked multiple times every day for the rest of their stay. And they became used to having their temperature checked.

“It was unsettling, but it was definitely comforting,” Sondra said.

Matt Quin, the president and chief operating officer at Women & Infants, said the hospital has been mentoring all incoming patients and has implemented personal protective equipment protocols.

“In addition, we have restricted visitation processes and are reassessing daily and adjusted as needed to provide an appropriate level of preventative safety,” Quin said. “We are also prepared for anticipated surges in volume, assuring we can meet the care demands of our community.”

Because there were so few patients in maternity, the actual birth process moved quickly, Sondra said.

Lorenzo and Max were delivered and quickly moved to the neonatal intensive care unit. Lorenzo was just over five pounds; Max was around four pounds. The twins could remain in the hospital for a few weeks, but Sandra and Tony said they are healthy.

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As Sondra recovered, she and Tony were required to wear a mask any time they left the hospital room. While they’re eager to spend every minute with their sons, they both agreed that the sterile setting at Women & Infants is beneficial.

Once Sondra was ready to leave the hospital on Tuesday, reality started to set in.

Sondra and Tony had a wide network of friends and family who were excited to help them with the newborns, but those plans are on hold. Their mothers can’t come spend the day with them or even visit Lorenzo and Max at the hospital.

"We haven't kissed our kids yet,” Tony said.

Still, the new parents remain upbeat. They both said that they’re excited for things to get back to normal, and they laughed about the stories they’ll be able to tell the boys someday.

And Sondra joked that there’s now one product that she’ll never be able to live without.

“I can say that I will forever keep five bottles of hand sanitizer around the house,” she said.


Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.