A Florida couple packed three young children in the back of their Ford van Friday night and headed north toward Georgia.
Due to Hurricane Irma, Robert Evans, 24, and Schawanene Hensley, 27, were forced to evacuate their Brooksville home, about an hour north of Tampa.
They were headed to Hensley’s mother’s house in the Atlanta suburb of Buckhead on back roads to avoid clogged interstates.
Hensley, who was 28 weeks’ pregnant, was in pain.
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“I was trying to be quiet and good because I didn’t want to scare my babies,” said Hensley, who had Zach, 8, Chase, 5, and Kinneth, 3, riding behind her.
They stopped for her to use the restroom in Clinchfield in south Georgia.
“I just pulled over and I thought it might be her back. Then she told me it was labor pains and cursed me out a little bit,” Evans said.
Hensley had already had a close call in July when she had to have emergency surgery to remove her appendix when her baby girl was 20 weeks along.
“I was supposed to be on bed rest,” she said, but the massive storm forced her from her bed.
An EMT named Summer was in the gas station and knew just what to do.
Another woman, whose name Hensley didn’t recall, held her head.
“She was the sweetest lady I’ve met in my life,” Hensley said.
The 25-bed Clinch Memorial Hospital sent an ambulance, but not fast enough for that baby girl.
“I scared those boys in the back of the ambulance,” Hensley said as they told her they needed to examine her as she felt the baby coming.
“You’re going to have to check down there. Placentas don’t wiggle,” she told them.
They told her the breech baby was coming out legs first.
She took a deep breath and told herself, “OK. I got this.”
The baby was born in the back of the ambulance at 11:42 p.m., still parked in the gas station.
“She literally wiggled herself out of me,” she said.
Already those tending to her were asking if she was going to name the baby Irma.
“That made me mad when they said that,” she said. “She deserves to be her own self.”
Laura Gracie Evans weighed a little over 2 pounds and was rushed to the small Homerville hospital, which doesn’t even have a delivery room.
Dr. Mitch Rodriguez, who heads the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the Medical Center, Navicent Health, said Hensley would have been transferred to Savannah under normal conditions, but their patients were diverted after Irma evacuations earlier in the week.
“Mama was very lucky,” he said.
With potentially life-threatening issues, Hensley was airlifted to Macon and the hospital’s neonatal ambulance was rushed to south Georgia to bring back Laura Gracie.
“She’s lived up to her name,” Hensley said, noting the grace afforded to the fragile infant, who was doing well Sunday afternoon in the packed unit that is also housing more than a dozen premature infants from Savannah.
Rodriguez praised the EMTs and hospital workers from Homerville, who don’t normally handle such critical situations.
“I think they did a fantastic job in stabilizing the baby and making sure (the mother) was stable,” he said.
Hensley took her first helicopter ride and found it quite relaxing.
“I was nodding in and out of it,” she said Sunday before visiting her tiny baby in the incubator.
Dr. Dennis Ashley, director of trauma at the Medical Center, Navicent Health, said the network developed with other hospitals over the past 10 years not only saves trauma patients but speeds care to others suffering potentially deadly conditions.
“I think we’re seeing dividends from the system coming together,” he said. “This particular day it happened to be a pregnant mom and a baby girl delivered premature.”
Baby Laura Gracie will be staying at the Macon hospital in the coming days, but could be transferred back to the Tampa area once things settle down.
Typically, preemies are monitored until near the due date, which in this case was late November.
Mom and dad will be moving from the downtown hospital to shelter at Carlisle Place, due to capacity at the Ronald McDonald House downtown on Forsyth Street.
“I can’t wait to hold her,” Hensley said.