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Bergen Mom Who Lost Premature Baby Didn't Think It Would Happen To Her

Ridgefield's Joeleen Corrales-Lee and husband James Lee spend time with baby Emma moments after she was born and before she died.
Ridgefield's Joeleen Corrales-Lee and husband James Lee spend time with baby Emma moments after she was born and before she died. Photo Credit: Contributed

The house is quiet. The kids are asleep. But Joeleen Corrales-Lee of Ridgefield is awake wondering what life would be like if her daughter Emma survived.

Ten days ago, she gave birth to her baby -- after 23 weeks of gestation. Corrales-Lee knew that there was a chance Emma would be a preemie, but always hoped she’d make it.

“In my heart of hearts, I was holding onto hope that she could still be okay,” said Corrales-Lee, 36. 

“I didn’t think it would happen to us.”

But then reality hit. And it happened to them.

Five hours after being delivered at Hackensack University Medical Center, Emma slipped away in her mother’s arms, her father James Lee by her side.

And so, for the past 10 days, Corrales-Lee stays up at night ruminating.

She hopes that sharing her story will make a difference for those who need it -- giving baby Emma a purpose here on Earth.

I didn’t think it would happen to us.

Corrales-Lee had no trouble getting pregnant. She and her husband had the girl they wanted, and their twin boys, 5, were excited to have a sister.

Five weeks into the pregnancy, things took a turn for the worst.

“I had some bleeding -- normal spotting,” Corrales-Lee said. “But then it happened again in January.”

That time, it didn’t stop.

Corrales-Lee was rushed to the emergency room and monitored constantly.

Doctors said that either her water was leaking or she was having a placental abruption.

She continued bleeding and bleeding, going back to the hospital each time.

No one could give Corrales-Lee a real answer -- just speculations.

The morning of Feb. 12, Corrales-Lee went to the doctor.

“They said the baby’s heart rate was strong,” she said. “Things looked okay.”

Corrales-Lee was going to be admitted to the hospital at 24 weeks -- the baby’s week of viability.

But fate had other plans for Corrales-Lee and her family.

“That night I started feeling a lot of pain,” she said. “I called my doctor and was trying to figure out what to do.

“I realized shortly after that I was in labor.”

Back pain every few minutes. Contractions.

Corrales-Lee was was going to have a baby.

She called an ambulance and was completely dilated when she arrived at the hospital.

The baby was breached, so she went into an emergency C-section.

Baby Emma was born at 11:12 p.m., and died around 4 a.m. the following morning.

She was resuscitated moments after being delivered because her heart stopped.

“I got to touch her and hold her while she was alive,” Corrales-Lee said. “We were able to stay with her for as long as we wanted to hold her and just be with her physically.”

Doctors said keeping Emma alive would be difficult because her blood pressure was so low, and even if she did make it, her quality of life would be low as well because she was so deprived of oxygen -- and her lungs weren’t ready.

And so, the new parents had a choice to make. They decided to have the baby put into comfort care, where they got to spend the rest of her life with her.

“We sang songs like we did to our other kids,” Corrales-Lee said. “We talked to her. She was reactive.

“We got to feel her little warm body but ultimately, she was really sick. There wasn’t much the doctors could do.”

Corrales-Lee doesn’t remember exactly when Emma slipped away -- it was all a blur.

“I knew there was a chance she’d be premature,” the mom told Daily Voice. “But I read stories about women who had babies at 23 weeks and it worked out.”

Preterm birth complications are the leading cause of death among children under five years of age, responsible for approximately 1 million deaths in 2015, the World Health Organization reports. 

Each year, an estimated 15 million babies are born preterm before 37 completed weeks of gestation -- and this number is rising, the WHO says.

Ever since she left the hospital, Corrales-Lee has been wondering where she went wrong.

She thought maybe if she had rested more or been in the hospital earlier, her baby would have survived. She wishes she’d found answers on her own.

She wonders how the twins would be with their baby sister.

If not for the support of local organizations, friends and family, Corrales-Lee says she’d be in a darker place.

The Ridgewood-based The Forget Me Not Foundation provided Corrales-Lee -- and many other moms suffering loss of premature babies -- with a memory box complete with flower seeds, crocheted hats, blankets, measuring tapes and cameras, and a list of local resources.

Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep is an organization comprised of volunteer photographers who visit moms in the hospital who have just lost or are going to lose a newborn.

“Take the pictures,” she urged other parents. “It might be hard now but you might want to look at them one day and see the little keepsakes.”

Corrales-Lee hopes that her story might save the life of someone else’s baby.

“If you’re pregnant and bleeding, and no one is giving you a clear answer, you have to be your own advocate,” she said. “Find your own specialist. Do it yourself.

“Maybe your doctors don’t have clear answers but there might be someone else who could.”

She also suggests getting blood donations from family members if you’re having complications in your pregnancy so they can be readily available at the hospital if necessary.

Grieve. Cry. Talk, she says.

Accept the support from others. It might help you heal, she says.

And most of all, Corrales-Lee encourages those in mourning to accept every sign they cross.

“It was a beautiful day on Wednesday,” she said. “I called it an ‘Emma day.’

“I try to honor her every way I can.”

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