Grad School and the NICU, by Julie Skinner Sutton

“Why are you here today? You need to go home and rest. Let’s catch up in a few days.” Those words from my supervising professor for my mathematics PhD were so comforting. The words may not be exact, but the sentiment is. I can’t remember who asked me first if I was OK; was it my advisor, or someone on my committee? I remember walking into the seminar I was helping with; then I was in the hallway with my advisor; it was early July and campus was pretty much empty. “I had a miscarriage.” Just saying the words were hard enough. The compassion and kindness that I was met with made all the difference. Not that I expected anything less; I had been very open from the beginning that I wanted to have kids and I was already 34 entering my 4th year of a BS-to-PhD mathematics program. The plan for Fall 2013 was to interview students in an undergraduate calculus class (some of whom were in a special program working on more intense questions in a group setting) and to teach a large section of pre-calculus. I found out I was pregnant on a Sunday, and by the next Sunday we were in the ER because I was having cramps. By that fateful Wednesday as I entered the seminar, it was over. I went home to rest, as instructed. Then, we went to one final appointment. “There’s a heartbeat.” I remember being shocked. My husband found his voice before I did, “How is that possible?” Within a few minutes a nurse was handing me a prescription. “Take these and start tonight. It probably won’t be enough. The heartbeat was too low.” This is not at all how I pictured pregnancy starting. I took the progesterone, afraid to tell anyone what was going on, and we waited.

At MathFest that summer (how was it hot in Hartford?), I was miserable. I slept so much. Thankfully, a dear friend was there, and I could confide in her. She brought me lunch more than once when I couldn’t muster the energy to leave the hotel. As classes began that fall, it seemed as though everything was working out. When I told my chair about the pregnancy, he exclaimed, “This is wonderful news!” He told me that in the late fall, we could figure out how to handle the spring semester. People kept asking how we managed to get Pi-Day as a due date. I didn’t realize the rarity of my having such a supportive department. I assumed that people would be accepting because women have babies all the time, and the department that I was in had lots of families and kids. The only time I heard anything negative (from a single, older male), one of our tenured professors corrected the person.

Then, I got sick. I had migraine headaches that the doctors couldn’t control. I was hospitalized over and over again. We had to delay the start of data collection for my dissertation research. It seems like it took months to get everything rescheduled. I came to class when I could (and my amazing officemate covered for me when I couldn’t), and somehow my interviews were completed. We joked that Fall 2013 was the worst time to have a baby. That semester, I had the worst teaching evaluations of my life: “She takes attendance but can’t bother to come to class herself.” Some days, my meds didn’t work, and I would pass out from the pain and end up in the hospital again. But somehow, I made it to Chicago for the PME-NA (North American Chapter of the International Group for the Psychology of Mathematics Education) conference. I remember walking around the city with a friend who lives there. She’s a physician, and I think that’s the main reason I felt comfortable going. It was raining so hard that my maternity pants kept falling down from the weight of the water soaking into the legs. I didn’t look 6 months pregnant, and almost no one knew. My health finally stabilized, and we enjoyed Thanksgiving with my family, talking about the new little one that would join us next year. The day after Thanksgiving, my wedding rings wouldn’t fit, and my shoes were uncomfortable. I met a friend from high school to go shopping and she brushed off my symptoms. “That happens. It’s nothing.”

The following Wednesday was my last interview for my study. Somehow, in the midst of all the pain and exhaustion, I had made it! I remember walking up the steps to the building, feeling winded. I was tired and looking forward to the break. A faculty member saw me walking in and asked how I was. I will never forget her telling me, “You look puffy,” before I reassured her that I was fine. “Let’s do lunch,” she offered. After that last interview, I caught up with my dissertation advisor. He was also concerned about me, but I had a doctor’s appointment that afternoon and promised I was fine. I would start transcribing my interviews over the break and into the Spring. The department had offered to let me be a grader for a few classes and I could teach a special seminar until I had the baby. We had meetings scheduled to finalize the plans.

“Get back on the scale again.” I looked at the nurse, confused, but I did as she said. “Your doctor will be right in,” she told me as I sat on the cold table, my husband playing on his iPad. In less than 30 seconds, the door opened and my doctor entered. “You’re going to the hospital. You’re going to stay there until you have the baby.” Shocked, it was again my husband who first recovered enough to speak, “That’s 15 weeks!” She just nodded. I had gained 35 pounds in less than 4 weeks and had high protein in my urine sample. I had preeclampsia. I remember trying to tell my husband what to pack in a bag because, of course, I hadn’t packed one yet. It was a balmy 70-degree day in early December, and somehow, he found the rattiest nightgown and holeyest pajama pants I owned. And he forgot the shampoo. The nurses and my doctor did their best to comfort me as I moved into the hospital’s ante-partum floor, “You can have your baby shower downstairs if your blood pressure is low enough,” and (my favorite) “You’ll make friends on the floor!” (I did, in fact, meet a woman two years later who had been on the floor with me). That night I cried, alone in a hospital room. As soon as it was ‘decent’ to text someone on the East Coast, I reached out to a math professor I knew who had had premature twins. She had also had preeclampsia. I remember the care in her voice as I apologized over and over again for calling. “This is what we do – we support each other.” Word got around that I was going to be in the hospital for a long while and people texted and called. My doctor friend from Chicago called – she’s a pediatric hospitalist and I was her sounding board throughout her NICU rotations in residency. When I said I was 25 weeks, she responded, “Oh, Sh-t!” I hung up. We had so much stacked against us. Then it snowed. (Remember the 70-degree day?) Well, in fewer than 48 hours, the DFW airport had turned into a hockey rink. They cancelled exams at my university (which doesn’t happen in Texas!). All day, my blood pressure kept rising. I finally called my husband. “Get here, I need you.” He hemmed about the weather but came up. I ordered dinner and got in the shower. There was a nurse with an IV waiting when I got out and, at 9:01pm (so, technically AFTER classes ended in 2013’s Fall semester), my 640g (1.4lb) daughter was born via c-section. Our families couldn’t get there because of the weather. It was just us.

A few days later, my department sent out an email saying that I’d had a baby and I received so many congratulatory emails (and some saying, “We didn’t know you were expecting!”). My advisor and his wife (who is also a math faculty member) came up to meet my daughter in her little isolette in the NICU.

And this is where I thought the story would end: with me and a Master’s degree. But that wasn’t the end. My department let me grade and coordinate a set of classes, and there was a grant I could contribute to as a research assistant for the next semester. I kept in touch with my advisor, but most of the contact was when I initiated it. My daughter had complications, and we moved to a children’s hospital. She had more surgeries. After 173 days in the hospital, she came home on May 28th. I taught a class over the summer, and I did eventually get my transcriptions done. We had to navigate the world of in-home nursing instead of daycare and nanny shares. Throughout all of it, though, I knew that my department was behind me. In fact, after my daughter was born, it seemed like there was a baby boom among the graduate students! We all finished our PhDs. They instilled in us that we were worth investing in, and then they did just that. I’m not saying that everyone got a semester to grade instead of full teaching duties—mine was certainly a special case—but no one was made to feel like they had “messed up” by getting pregnant during their education. Even now, when I go back to my Alma Mater to have a meeting or teach a class, people ask first about my family. It’s been 6 years, and they still think I’m worth investing in. And, I am.

Julie Skinner Sutton is a researcher in Undergraduate Mathematics Education who teaches at The University of Texas at Dallas in the department of Mathematical Sciences and is affiliated with the department of Science & Math Education as a Senior Lecturer. She has found a passion for teaching those students who choose a path into the liberal and fine arts disciplines and considers herself an ambassador of mathematics.

Julie first attended The University of Texas at Austin with plans to become a Chemical Engineer, but quickly determined that life in a cubicle wasn’t for her. In fact, after a tenured faculty member commented (to her father) that she would “be a fine entertainment director on cruise ships,” her dreams of even attaining a Bachelor’s Degree became dark. Eventually Julie decided to continue the chase – this time at The University of Texas at Arlington – to obtain a teaching certificate and teach high school math. However, a faculty member took an interest in Julie and invited her to apply to graduate school. After receiving a GAANN fellowship at UT-Arlington, Julie also worked on a large NSF-DOE grant researching the impact of group learning on calculus outcomes. Through the Association for Women in Mathematics, Julie was awarded several Sonia Kovalevsky grants with faculty at UT-Arlington and routinely worked with middle school students at events.

After completing her dissertation, Julie took her position at UT Dallas. She enthusiastically teaches pre-service and in-service teachers and those working to obtain a non-science degree. She won a TENSOR foundation grant at UTD and hosted 45 students from a local Title I high school on campus for a day of mathematics fun. Routinely she spends her summers showing students how fun mathematical exploration can be! In 2019, UT Dallas awarded Julie the Non-Tenure Track Teaching Award from the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.

Julie and her husband have a healthy (and energetic) 6-year-old now. She went home with a feeding tube and oxygen, but is now just as normal as the rest of us (well, as normal as we can be).


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