WHEN Serika Sterling was being anaesthetised for her Caesarean section to deliver her premature triplets in 2017, she knew that there was a high probability that she would not wake up again. The doctors explained to her that although they would do their best, there was no guarantee that either she or any of her babies would survive the surgery. Miraculously, the mother and all her babies made it out of the operating theatre, but she knew that after being born at just 27 weeks with several complications, it would be an uphill battle for her babies to make it out of the hospital. The largest of the triplets, Eli, passed away after five days.
“That's when reality set in that it's not going to be a walk in the park. We weren't going to just have kids in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), and then all walk home and be fine and be happy,” Sterling told All Woman last week, as World Prematurity Day was observed on Tuesday. “It was hell from there on out. We spent a total of four months in the NICU, and for the four months, it was hell every single day. Every day it was something else.”
The second of the three boys, Adam, passed away peacefully in his parents' arms after battling numerous complications for two months.
“It was very, very stressful, I couldn't comb my hair, I didn't want to do anything,” Sterling, who also had to care for her then 10-year-old son, remembered of the seemingly endless days she spent visiting The University Hospital of the West Indies. “But guess what? My husband had to go to work and my son had to go to school, and I had to run my business because we had to pay the bills.”
Among the mounting bills was the hospital bill, which was almost $5 million when Sterling and her husband finally walked through the doors of the NICU for the last time in September 2017. They only walked out with one baby, Seth, and though they were happy to bring their baby home, they knew the fight wasn't over.
“Even after we just got him home, he went back to the hospital twice for a few days, because he got ill again, but he strived,” she said, bursting with pride. “He is still here, and he has a little developmental delay, which is common for premature babies, but otherwise he is very healthy, happy and sociable.”
But even after Seth had left the NICU and the family tried to process all that had happened over the course of that year, Sterling knew that she still had more work to do. She founded the Preemie Foundation of Jamaica later that year.
“What I found while I was going through the whole experience was there was no resource in Jamaica on prematurity,” she lamented. “There were no readily available statistics, there was no foundation, there was absolutely nothing that I could find, except what the doctors told me. But when I researched overseas, and when I saw how many families came and went through the hospitals with premature babies feeling alone, I realised that it was something that happened quite often.”
Sterling made it her mandate to not only create a supportive local community for the families of premature babies, but to also advocate for more to be done on a research and national policy level to give other preemies a fighting chance.
“The factors that contribute to premature babies are so far and wide, and I think we need a lot more research, and we need a lot more facilities to take care of them,” she said passionately. “But it's something that is not spoken about, and we have to start talking about it if anything is going to ever change.”
One of the main things that the foundation set out to do was to raise funds to assist with purchasing a ventilator for every major hospital in Jamaica, as they were woefully lacking across the island before COVID-19 brought the dire need to national attention. While she knows the fight is not over, the mother is happy for the small victories along the way.
“In starting the conversation, we have been really happy with the response, and a lot of people have become more open with sharing their stories,” she said. “A lot of people, including corporate Jamaica, are also coming on board and are willing to help, and the Ministry of Health and Wellness has become a lot more responsive now in terms of their initiative to save mothers and paying more attention to maternal, neonatal and infant health.”
While she is dedicated to leading the foundation, Sterling is also a dedicated mother, wife, accountant, law student, and entrepreneur. Having been a C student in her high school years, the Montego Bay native gave herself a fresh start when she got married and moved to Kingston in her early 20s.
“I wanted to make something of myself, so although I didn't have many subjects or excellent passes at the time, I did what I needed to do to get into university,” she shared. “When I graduated from The University of the West Indies with my accounting degree in 2010, I did so with first class honours.”
Eager to help her husband shoulder the expenses and to set a good example for her firstborn, who was three years old at the time, the graduate landed her first job with Ernst & Young accounting firm, before moving to KPMG. In January 2016, just months before she got pregnant with the triplets, she started her own business — Senior Accounting Services.
“We are almost at five years now,” she said of her business that has grown from strength to strength, even as she journeyed through pregnancy, sleepless nights at the hospital, anxiety, grief, and the challenges of marriage and motherhood.
Then last year she decided that she wanted to accomplish more.
“I'm studying law as a direct entrant, so I am doing my law degree in two years instead of three, so I'll be finishing in May,” she said. “I am looking to use my law degree to better serve my clients, and I am also looking at ways in which we can innovate business processes to minimise the amount of manual work my clients have to do when it comes to accounting and taxation.”
The 36-year-old is keen on working hard now and building a company that she and her family can be proud of, and ensuring that she leaves a beautiful mark on the world.
“I want to leave a legacy, not only in the business world, but one that can testify that I did not leave the world the way I came and saw it,” she said. “I want to make an impact on Jamaica somehow, and make it a better place.”