Away from home with a preemie: How Jeneece Place saved the holidays for one Nanaimo family

In 2015, Robyn Hewer and her husband, Jackson, were prepared to cancel their holidays entirely.

It was just one week before Christmas Day when Robyn and Jackson’s lives were turned upside down. The couple had just moved back home to Nanaimo from Calgary, and were getting ready to raise their son on the Island. Robyn had already finished her last day at work, and was ready for her final 10 weeks of pregnancy.

Except baby Weston had other plans. At 30 weeks pregnant, Robyn went into labour.

“Being first-time parents we, perhaps naively, assumed it was false labour. We went to the hospital just to get it checked out, and the doctors told us I was going to be air-lifted to either Vancouver or Victoria to deliver,” says Robyn.

But Weston couldn’t wait. He was delivered at Nanaimo Regional General Hospital before being immediately transported by air ambulance to Victoria General Hospital. Robyn was transported to Victoria General Hospital, where she would be a patient for four days, by ambulance, and Jackson followed in the family car.

Born weighing only three pounds, 12 ounces, Weston spent his first few days fighting for his life in the NICU. He had jaundice and was kept on a respirator.

“I remember feeling terrified,” says Robyn. “Maybe I wasn’t mentally prepared – I thought I still had two and a half months of pregnancy! I was just very fearful.”

The days leading up to Christmas were a blur for Robyn and Jackson. But within 24 hours of arriving at Victoria General Hospital, a social worker told the couple about Jeneece Place. A couple of days after that, a spot in the home away from home opened up for them. Staying at Jeneece Place offered Robyn and Jackson some semblance of calm and normality.

“It was so overwhelming being in the hospital with Weston, and there was so much going on at that point. But with Jeneece Place, I just remember feeling that everything was easy…We didn’t have to think about where we were going to stay or try to book a hotel during the busy Christmas season,” says Robyn. “We didn’t have to make any more decisions – we were making decisions on the life of our child all day long. For the social worker to just say, ‘you can stay at Jeneece Place, you can walk there from the hospital and here’s your parking stall,’ was a relief.”

Jeneece Place became their Victoria home, just steps from their son in the NICU, and Robyn says it was so much more than a place with just a bed and a shower. For the couple, it was a place to connect with other parents. It was a place to decompress after all the stresses at the hospital. And, unexpectedly, it was a place where they still got to experience holiday festivities, even though all their energy was focused on their preemie.

Robyn distinctly remembers how festive Jeneece Place was. As they walked through the doors, they saw a big Christmas tree decorated with ornaments. There were gingerbread houses and other tiny touches that filled the home with holiday spirit. Robyn remembers the smells in the house even reminded her of the holidays, as volunteers baked Christmas cookies in the kitchen.

“I’m a Christmas person, and being in Jeneece Place [made] that Christmas spirit come back to me. It was so beautiful. I remember coming down [from our room] first thing in the mornings to get a cup of coffee and the tree was lit…it made me so grateful to have that experience. After that moment, I never felt like we were missing out or that people should feel sympathy for us because we were going to be in the hospital for Christmas,” says Robyn. “We got to experience the beautiful giving of Jeneece Place volunteers, its staff, and volunteers in the community. They all contributed to making sure that we did get a Christmas.”

Robyn and Jackson were even surprised by a container of thoughtful gifts outside their room on Christmas morning and by a delicious feast, shared around a table with other grateful Jeneece Place residents, that evening.

The Hewers stayed at Jeneece Place for almost two weeks, after which Weston was cleared to go back to Nanaimo Regional General Hospital, where he stayed for a month.

Today, Weston is almost three years old. He had some ongoing respiratory issues and has experienced some delays developmentally, but Weston is doing great, is lots of fun, and like any three-year-old, is excited for the holiday season.

For Robyn and Jackson, Jeneece Place rekindled the joy of the holidays at a time when they were more than ready to cancel festivities altogether. And because of that, Jeneece Place will always feel a little magical.

Some Island families have to miss out on the holiday season altogether. They give up holiday festivities and togetherness to be by their kids’ sides. But you can help families like the Hewers.  

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