Court Wakefield: Not a NICU Mother or Father, but a Parent
As a podcaster for justice, I stand with my sisters from the Women of Color Podcasters Community. We are podcasters united to condemn the tragic murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and many others at the hands of police. This is a continuation of the systemic racism pervasive in our country since its inception and we are committed to standing against racism in all its forms.
This podcast episode contains some salty language, not for little ears.
I had a lively and illuminating conversation with Court Wakefield (they/them), a digital marketing leader in the healthcare industry in Dallas, Texas, and host of the For Folx Sake: Cultivating Inclusive Communities podcast. After growing up and surviving life as a queer in the Bible belt, Court and their wife Hollis underwent three rounds of in vitro fertilization followed by 97 days with their baby, Kepley, in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Hollis was also hospitalized for 25 days, and Court nearly lost them both.
Court began to come out in the sixth or seventh grade, describing themselves as “an obvious queer kid.” When Court was 12 or 13, after their mom found some things that made her think Court was questioning their sexuality, she confronted Court.
“I remember feeling a lot of shame about it, but I also remember feeling that my mom was coming from a place of love and protection….and I think that laid some really great foundational frameworks for my mom and I to maintain our relationship and for her to go on a journey with me to be accepting and open and ultimately celebratory of my queerness.”
Being decisively honest with their Assembly of God church about their identity was the most painful part of coming out. Court had gotten the message that if they were quiet about their queer identity, and if they were “working on it,” it was okay. When Court came out fully, the church asked them to step down from their leadership roles. Later, the church told Court that if they were quiet about their sexuality, they could return.
“I felt used and abused, and I didn’t return to the church for another 6 to 7 years.”
Everywhere else in their life, their experiences have been extremely positive. When Court came out as nonbinary, their wife’s reaction was exactly what they needed. Court’s parents are now extremely supportive, and they feel supported by the people who matter most of all—Hollis and their parents. In addition, Court is fortunate to work in a queer-friendly environment.
When they met, Court’s wife Hollis had been attending a small but mighty progressive church that is involved in social justice work. Being involved in this church has helped Court heal from the wounds caused at their previous church.
“That really helped me heal that wound. I don’t think I dealt with that trauma head on until after, having the opportunity to reconcile in that way.”
I asked Court about their pronouns, and they explained that they use they/them pronouns when they’re in a formal setting. Court leverages their privilege to generate visibility for people like them. They prefer nonbinary pronouns but don’t bristle at he/him or she/her, but that’s not the case for every nonbinary person.
“Each pronoun is a reflection of some part of my identity, so no pronouns are wrong…although they/them pronouns feel more accurate.”
Court met their wife Hollis when they were both volunteering for Art Conspiracy, a nonprofit community that conspires to bring artists and musicians together, raise funds, and activate awareness for regional creative programs and causes. Both of them are digital marketers and graphic designers, and they met doing that kind of work for the nonprofit.
They started trying to have a baby as soon as they got together. Their situation was complicated by the fact that Hollis had cancer several years ago and had her cervix removed. They went through a couple of rounds of intrauterine insemination and then moved onto IVF, which resulted in a successful pregnancy.
Because of Hollis’ biology, she had to have a cervical cerclage to keep the baby in. But 22 weeks in, the cerclage started to cause some tearing. As Hollis’ and the baby’s lives were put in jeopardy, the doctor said they needed to start talking about options.
Facing questions of what to do, Court feels lucky they didn’t have to make some of the hard decisions that many families have to confront. Hollis was able to keep the baby in a bit longer, with 2-1/2 weeks on bedrest.
Kepley arrived at 24 weeks and 5 days gestation, barely past viability. She did okay initially until she was around three weeks old. After Hollis was released from the hospital after spending 25 days there and almost dying. Court and Hollis allowed themselves one night of celebration because Kepley seemed to be doing well.
But after they got home, they were awoken by a call from the NICU. They were having problems placing a PICC line, and they’d run out of veins for IVs. So Kepley had to be transferred to Children’s Health hospital in Dallas in the middle of the night, where Court is the director of digital strategy.
Court's daughter had a rough few months in her new hospital. She had to have a PDA ligation, a surgery to close an opening between the two major blood vessels leading from the heart, extremely common in micropreemies (preemies born weighing less than 1 pound, 12 ounces or before 26 weeks gestation).
Kepley also had post-PDA syndrome, which can happen after the PDA ligation. It’s been 24-1/2 years since my son Christopher was in the NICU, but I discovered during this conversation that this is exactly what prompted one of his near-death experiences. Much has changed in neonatology in two and a half decades!
Also suffering from a pneumothorax, Kepley had to be on a really intense ventilator. Trying to manage her treatment was a day-to-day game, but eventually she got bigger and healthy enough to transfer to the step-down unit and eventually go home on oxygen.
Kepley will turn two in January. Now the only thing she’s dealing with is feeding therapies. She is still quite small, and they are trying to fatten her up. We shared experiences of putting oil in our children’s food and doing other unusual things to add calories.
Court learned an important lesson as a patient in the hospital where they worked. Court describes the hospital as really inclusive, with the right benefits for LBGTQIA employees and their partners and employee resource groups. Court’s team is a queer-positive environment. But when Kepley was transferred to that hospital at 2 a.m., Court discovered the intake form had a place for mother and a place for father, but no place for their name. Literally, they could not figure out what to do. Their logical brain figured it out, crossed out father and wrote their name.
“It made me realize that having a chief diversity officer and having the right benefits for employees and having all these things, they might influence the experience of our patient families, but having this centralized diversity & inclusion really wasn’t going to do it…Every organization needs to decentralize diversity & inclusion in order to make it effective. You can’t just have the diversity & inclusion officer in charge of it, and you can’t just have HR in charge of it. You’ve got to have everyone in the organization feel responsible for making sure the experience they create for patient families is inclusive.”
Court decided to create the For Folx Sake: Cultivating Inclusive Communities podcast to examine topics through the lens of diversity and inclusion, so people can become better advocates.
Inclusion is a part of family-centered care. The last thing you need is to feel excluded when you’re in crisis.
Court views their job as doing everything possible to make it easy for patient families to find information on the website. Court’s experience, in a crisis, really solidified their awareness that it’s the smallest things that can create friction and anxiety.
“It’s not enough to have a commitment to the bigger picture of inclusion. We have to get the details right.”
I asked Court about how their marriage changed since going through infertility and the NICU. Court reflected on how they communicate better than they used to…especially after surviving the experience of having them both on the hormone-intensive IVF medication at the same time.
“It forced us to get better at apologizing…it forced us to get better about communicating our needs. It forced us to both go to therapy…We’re both so committed to our family that we thought, what are we going to do to make this work?...We’ve been through so much together. Trauma changes you. We had the option to grow together or grow apart, and I’m grateful that we decided to grow together.”
We compared stories about our PTSD from our babies having procedures after leaving the NICU.
I asked Court what they have been reading or listening to, and they told me they’ve been getting a huge lift from the Brene Brown podcast. When we recorded the interview, I hadn’t yet listened to that podcast, but I have now.
Court’s answer to whose grit and resilience story inspires them was Kepley herself.
“She went through so much and was so resilient and so courageous…she went through heart surgery, this crazy ventilator, needles in her eyes, and all these things…and she’s still such a happy kid and so resilient…When I think about her and her story, I think about how resilient we are as humans and how much we can go through and still…we may have some really dark times…we may almost lose our lives, we may make some mistakes along the way because of our trauma, but we can always be redeemed, we can always have that success story, as long as we have the right support around us…as long as we have the right resources. And when I think about that, I think about how grateful I am that we did have all the right resources.”
Court clearly understands the privileges they had going for them (and we did, too) in comparison to some of the people they shared their NICU journey with.
I told Court I believe preemies have this wisdom about them way beyond their years. Court said to say hello to my son Chris, because it’s other micropreemies like him who have made it to adulthood that got them through the NICU and give them hope.
Next I interview Carol Gavhane, who survived seemingly endless infertility and pregnancy loss. Her son Henry finally arrived early and small and had an NICU stay like Court’s daughter and my son. She and her husband founded Asha Blooms, a handcrafted purposeful jewelry company. Carol started this business from her walk with secondary infertility.
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