When I went to the doctor on a cold November evening to find out whether I was having a boy or a girl, the last thing I was expecting to hear was that my child was in danger. At 20 weeks, I was dilating, so when my water broke three weeks later, I had to make a life-or-death decision: Give birth to a baby that had zero chance of survival, or continue the pregnancy and risk infection and death. Ultimately, I chose the latter.

When I arrived at Cooper University Hospital in Camden, I was on bed rest for a week before delivering baby Kent, who was born weighing 1 pound, 3.2 ounces. He fit easily right into his father's hand. Doctors told me that Kent's survival would depend on their being able to place a breathing tube into his tiny, premature airway.

I didn't find peace until after I heard they were able to insert the breathing tube. From that moment, I knew there was hope. It was overwhelming to see him for the first time. He was red and tiny, and his eyes were still fused shut. While he had a long journey at Cooper's neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), I didn't miss a single one of his 101 days there.

My oasis was the Ronald McDonald House Family Room at Cooper, a place for the immediate family of children in the NICU to rest, relax, and recharge away from the environment of the hospital. Parents like me could stay just steps away from their children day and night. Not only was it a bonus to be so close to Kent, but it also allowed me to better communicate with his medical team.

Then, from Thanksgiving, to Christmas, and on to New Year's, I was able to stay at the Ronald McDonald House of Southern New Jersey, right in the backyard of the hospital. Kent had a slim chance of surviving, and this gave me easy access to him.

kent 1200x675Kent is shown at Cooper Hospital in Camden, New Jersey. (Courtesy of Joyanna Wentzel)

Seeing the kids at the house, hearing their stories, really put things into perspective for me. I knew I was not alone. It was vital to my support system. I remember staying up until 3 a.m. some nights just talking to other families about my day. It was encouraging and uplifting, especially when my husband couldn't be there because of his work. And it allowed me to focus on nurturing Kent each day.

There was not one day I missed being with him, building memories each day. He heard my voice, he felt my touch. After his first 17 days of life, I was able to hold him. I have had him in my arms ever since.

The day before Valentine's Day, I received the best gift I could have ever asked for: discharge papers. Finally, after 101 days in the NICU, 101 days of walking the short distance from the House to his crib, 101 nights of singing him to sleep and being by his side for every test, I was able to wrap my arms around Kent and take him home.

joyanna 1200x675The author is shown wheeling her son out of the Ronald McDonald House Family Room at Cooper Hospital. (Courtesy of Joyanna Wentzel)

Now that I am back home in Egg Harbor Township, I am filled with a sense of relief and wonder. As a first-time mom, I never expected so many challenges in caring for my child.

When I think about how I will tell Kent about his birth story, I want to share with him how amazing it was to be at the House. I did not fully grasp its reach or meaning until I walked through its doors. I want to one day serve and give back with Kent. I want him to know how good it is to help others in need, because we received so much goodness from the very beginning. For the time being, I am walking on sunshine, at home with Kent.