Thankful after COVID nightmare: Inkster woman celebrates life with baby Saint

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

Still weak and easily winded from COVID-19, Nakia Hubbard-Heard said she is celebrating this year as her most grateful Thanksgiving ever. 

The Inkster mom's holiday will be quiet, with just her husband, children and the kids' grandparents attending. But she will be there, along with her baby boy, Saint — and she considers that a miracle.

"He's four and a half months now, and he's doing great," she said. "All of my children are healthy, and I'm grateful for everything." 

Hubbard-Heard, 46, was 22 weeks pregnant in March when she came down with COVID-19 symptoms. She was hospitalized and first tested positive at Beaumont Hospital Wayne on April 8 but was so sick that she was airlifted two days later to Beaumont Hospital Royal Oak. 

Nakia Hubbard-Heard kisses her four-month-old son Saint, in their Inkster home. Hubbard-Heard said it is a miracle she and the baby can celebrate Thanksgiving after she was hospitalized with COVID-19 in April while pregnant. She is still recovering from the effects of the virus.

"She had progressively worsening hypoxic respiratory failure," said Dr. Karoline Puder, an attending physician in maternal-fetal medicine at Beaumont Health, who was among as many as 100 people who cared for Hubbard-Heard at the health system.

"The reason she was airlifted was because she required both the ICU level care, the availability of a neonatal intensive care unit, and the availability of maternal-fetal medicine support for management and decision-making. She was very sick."

Puder noted a pregnancy itself "puts extra metabolic needs on mom, there is greater oxygen demand, there are different blood flow changes. It also complicates the management because sometimes therapies that are recommended have limited knowledge of their safety in pregnancy, so there are questions of which is the greater concern — the effect of the disease or the effect of your treatment."

Nakia Hubbard-Heard, left, and husband Janard Heard play with their four-month-old son Saint. Heard said he is praying for the many people with COVID-19 who won’t see their relatives this Thanksgiving because they are hospitalized with the virus.

In the hospital, Hubbard-Heard was not able to be with her husband, Janard Heard, or their other children, Rayne, 24, Ryan, 19, and London, 12.

Hubbard-Heard's condition required a tracheostomy or "trach" and several surgeries to repair the damage COVID-19 wreaked on her vocal cords.

She and her family worried that she or the baby wouldn’t survive the delivery.

"One of the hardest things about COVID, once she went into the hospital and got on the ventilator, you're not able to see them," Janard Heard said. "You don't know if it’s going to turn for the best or turn for the worst."

Hubbard-Heard liked the name Rocco for the baby boy she was carrying. So alone and scared in the hospital, she tapped the words "Saint Rocco" into her phone.

To her astonishment, the Inkster mother learned that Saint Rocco was a 14th-century French nobleman who gave up a life of luxury to care for the sick during the Black Death or bubonic plague that struck the Holy Roman Empire in the mid-1300s.

"He went to Rome and took care of people who had the plague — he prayed for them and nursed him back to health," Hubbard-Heard recalled of the saint, whom statues portray with a sore on his leg since he eventually caught the plague himself.

Learning the saint's story "just seemed like God already was preparing me for what was coming down the line," she said.

In July, a healthy Saint Dalton Rocco was born via C-section.

Two months later, Hubbard-Heard's trach was finally removed. Her recovery since has been slow but steady. She is getting better at climbing stairs, doing laundry and working on her recovery, she said.

Her family remains overjoyed for their double miracle.

"This Thanksgiving, I'm praying for others because there’s still a lot of people losing their life," Janard Heard said. "I’m thankful my family is intact, but others aren’t. There’s so many people who won’t see their relatives this Thanksgiving, so you just kind of say a prayer for them."

If she had to do it all over again, Hubbard-Heard said she would not have hesitated to be vaccinated, as she had during her pregnancy with Saint.

"I know it is scary to take any medication that you may feel may harm your baby, but the chance of having the difficulties I had or that other women have had, including death, is much more scary," said Hubbard-Heard, an occupational therapist. "Please consider the risks and benefits. I'm sure being unvaccinated is not worth the risk." 

At the time the Inkster mom became pregnant, the recommendation was simply that the vaccine not be withheld from pregnant women, Puder said. But sufficient data has since been collected to show that there is no increased risk of birth defect, early delivery or other problems in pregnant women who receive the vaccine, she said. 

And there is currently no evidence that any vaccines, including COVID-19 vaccines, cause fertility problems in women or men, Puder said. 

“When the vaccine first came out, there was no theoretical risk in any trimester,” Puder said. “But it’s not surprising pregnant women were afraid to try something new.”

Women who are pregnant or recently pregnant are more likely to get severely ill with COVID-19 compared with people who are not pregnant, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the vaccine can help prevent them from severe illness from the virus. 

COVID-19 vaccination is recommended for people who are pregnant, breastfeeding, trying to get pregnant now, or might become pregnant in the future, the CDC says on its website. 

Roughly a third of pregnant women are fully vaccinated, even though the risk of death is three times higher for pregnant women with COVID-19, said Dr. Barbara Ducatman, chief medical officer at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak.

"As COVID numbers continue to climb here in Michigan and at Beaumont Health this holiday season, we encourage pregnant women and the general public to take every precaution possible to protect themselves and each other by getting vaccinated and getting boosted,” Ducatman said.

Pregnant women may also receive a COVID-19 vaccine booster shot under the CDC's guidance. 

From the left, London Hubbard, Rayne Hollifield, Ryan Hollifield, Nakia Hubbard-Heard, four-month-old son Saint Heard and Janard Heard pose outside their Inkster home on Nov. 23, 2021. Hubbard-Heard couldn't see her family when she was hospitalized with COVID.

Asked what she hopes will be the takeaway from her experience, especially for women of child-bearing age, Hubbard-Heard said she hopes they will get vaccinated.

"Do it," she said.

Twitter: @kbouffardDN