Seven months after giving birth in Puerto Rico, Roxannie Vazquez still can’t hold her son in her arms. To even go near him inside the neonatal intensive care unit in Macon, Georgia — a thousand miles from home — she has to scrub in like a surgeon. Her son’s tiny body shakes as the oscillator pumps air in and out of his lungs.
Still, Jacob is a lot bigger than he used to be.
“He looks like a baby now,” Vazquez said. “Jacob is a character of his own. They all call him sweet boy because he’s really sweet when he’s up. But, at the same time, if he doesn’t like something he’ll give you a dirty look.”
His doctors in Georgia also call Jacob a miracle baby. He was born prematurely in southern Puerto Rico at only 25 weeks. Now, he has chronic lung disease from being on a breathing machine his whole life.
Recovery for baby Jacob has been uncertain. There were cracks in Puerto Rico’s health care system before Hurricane Maria. After the storm, the challenges only grew. Tens of thousands of patients and doctors fled. Hospitals closed, and toxic mold rose to record levels.
Jacob weighed less than a pound when Hurricane Maria shredded the roof of the pediatric hospital in San Juan, where he had been transferred after he was born. Then, mold crept into the building and, Vazquez said, into Jacob’s ventilator line.
“I was like, ‘No, I know it’s not happening,’” Vazquez recalled. “I cleaned it on the outside. It wasn’t in the outside, it was inside.”
While many of Puerto Rico’s small hospitals closed after mold infiltrated, the big hospital where Jacob went stayed open. There was nowhere else to go.
The family spent two months appealing to the government for a medical evacuation.
“If Jacob stays here he’s not going to make it,” Vazquez recalled thinking.
Then they got it — a flight to Macon, Georgia. Vazquez had never heard of the central Georgia town, but after she and her son landed, doctors hooked Jacob up to a mold-free breathing machine at the hospital. While it was a vast improvement, doctors recommended he go to yet another site for specialty care. They worried he might need a lung transplant.
Like his health, baby Jacob’s insurance has been precarious. A special program through FEMA extended his Medicaid benefits. But off the island, some hospitals would not accept Jacob’s coverage.
Doctors in Georgia urged the family to send Jacob to a children’s hospital in Houston. Vazquez was told getting another transfer would take months.
Before all this, Vazquez was a school teacher in Puerto Rico, and was also raising a daughter. Now, it’s like their lives are on hold.
“Jacob has been there fighting every single day, every single minute, every single second,” she said. “So as long as he keeps on doing that, I’m going to keep on doing it with him.”
Eventually Baby Jacob made it to Texas for more specialized care. Now his mom is preparing for another milestone: his first birthday.
Her wish? For him to get well, and to leave the hospitals behind.