Base rallies around tiny baby, grateful mother

  • Published
  • By Susan Griggs
  • Keesler News staff
Nadia Antruneet Johnson has big brown eyes that light up her tiny face. Her rosebud lips smile as her dainty hand curls around her mommy's finger. Nearly 11 months old, Nadia weighs just 10 pounds, 8 ounces.

"She's very petite, but she's very happy and in good health," said her mother, Pam Tunstall, a voucher examiner in the 81st Comptroller Squadron.

Ms. Tunstall, who's worked on base for 15 years and serves as Keesler's Federal Women's Program manager, credits her Keesler family for overwhelming support since her daughter's birth. Other federal employees on base donated about 482 hours of personal leave to allow Ms. Tunstall to care for her daughter long after her own leave was depleted.

Nadia was born Oct. 25, more than 11 weeks before her Jan. 9 due date. She weighed only 2 pounds.

"I had an appointment with a high-risk obstetrician in Mobile at 8:30 that morning," Ms. Tunstall remembered. "In the next hour, I was being taken by ambulance to Mobile's Women and Children's Hospital. Everything went fast and crazy, and by 2 p.m., Nadia had entered the world."

By December, the tiny baby weighed 4 pounds, 6 ounces, and Ms. Tunstall and her husband, Lester Johnson, were hoping and praying that they could bring their daughter home to Biloxi.

"I was driving to Mobile almost every day," Ms. Tunstall recalled. "Nadia would be coming home on a heart monitor. I attended every class there was for premature babies. Nadia was having problems eating and forgetting to breathe. She couldn't finish a bottle without tiring out and falling asleep.

"People from my job and across the base were calling and visiting," she continued. "At a time when I felt like I didn't know which way I was going, I needed all of those encouraging calls and visits."

One Saturday Ms. Tunstall went to visit Nadia, and the cardiologist was there. She was told that if Nadia didn't start eating well within two weeks, she'd have to go to the University of Alabama-Birmingham for heart surgery. He said Nadia's weight had to increase to 5 pounds or an additional surgery would be required later.

"I didn't go home," Ms. Tunstall explained. "I was blessed that the hospital put me up in the Ronald McDonald House, and I went to the hospital every three hours to feed Nadia."

Jan. 21, Nadia was flown to Birmingham, and surgery was performed two days later.

"Nadia stayed in the surgery intensive care unit, because fluid built up around her lungs," Ms. Tunstall said. "Because her organs were so small, it would have taken another surgery lasting hours to search if they had nicked something. There were many up-and-down health issues."

Finally in March, Nadia was able to come home with her family. In addition to her mom and dad, she has a 6-year-old brother, Leonard Tunstall. Because of the leave donations from Keesler personnel, Ms. Tunstall was able to stay home with the baby until she returned to work in July.

"So much help has been given to me -- I don't think I can ever repay everyone," Ms. Tunstall admitted. "I was so blessed to have leave donated to cover my time off. I don't even know all the people who gave up their leave, and I can never tell each person how thankful I am.

"I've learned that you never know who you may have to call on for help, so always help when you can," she added.

She said her squadron has provided a true example of family. Members collected gas money to help with her trip to Birmingham and kept in close contact with calls, cards, visits and gifts for Nadia. The commander's secretary, Celeste Schmitt, even came to her aid when her son was sick.

"I was in Birmingham when the school called to tell me Leonard was very sick," Ms. Tunstall explained. "My sister who was caring for him couldn't leave work. I called to my job, and Celeste said she'd pick Leonard up, take him to the doctor and keep him until my sister could get off work. I am very grateful to her -- it's hard to be miles away taking care of one baby and worrying about the other."

Her religious faith has been reinforced by the outpouring of support. "I am so grateful to be employed at Keesler," Ms. Tunstall remarked. "I want to thank everyone who helped our family. I know God will reward you for your good deeds."