Austyn Evans was worried when she received the kind of news no mom-to-be wants to hear: her baby’s heart rate was dropping, and he needed to be delivered early.
As soon as he was born, baby Conrad got rushed to the neonatal intensive care unit, where he met a NICU nurse named Carly Miller. Little did anyone know that this meeting between a tiny patient and a dedicated caregiver would lead to a lifelong relationship.
“Carly was instantly charismatic and funny. She kept talking about how cute Conrad was,” Evans, 28, told TODAY Parents. “The way she talked to him when she was doing his vitals or she was taking blood, she was constantly talking to him in this really cute little mom voice and trying to be as comforting as she could even though he was extremely sedated.”
For his first five days in the NICU, Miller worked closely with Conrad for “continuity of care.”
“It was pretty critical for Conrad. We weren’t really sure the direction he was going to go,” Miller, 27, a nurse at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, told TODAY Parents. “I got to spend a lot of time with (Conrad’s parents) at the bedside.”
Conrad had kidney problems, and he also had such serious breathing difficulties that he needed to be on a ventilator. When a 20-week anatomy scan detected that Conrad had a type of kidney blockage and Evans had no amniotic fluid, doctors relocated her from her local Florida hospital to the Pavilion for Women at Texas Children’s Hospital to help her baby grow as much as possible. They also suspected the infant would need extra support after birth. Then Conrad's heart rate dropped on Dec. 15, and Evans delivered him when she was 35 weeks pregnant.
For the next 37 days, Evans and her husband, Branden Williams, could not hold Conrad as he relied on machines to help him become stable and grow. Miller often provided Evans with updates.
“Carly’s voice was the voice I heard when I called for a check-up,” Evans said. “I would hang out to chat with Carly because that was the only communication I had — and she was the only one who really knew Conrad.”
Evans and Williams didn’t have a lot of support locally, and many of their loved ones hadn’t even met Conrad.
“We were so isolated because of COVID and being away from our family,” Evans said. “A relationship (with Miller) that was so professional over time became so personal to me.”
When doctors planned to move Conrad to another pod so he could start continuous renal replacement therapy, a type of dialysis, Evans learned that Miller wouldn’t be his primary nurse anymore. She asked whether Miller might be able to move to be with Conrad. At first Miller hesitated because of her lack of experience; this type of dialysis machine was being used for the very first time with the hospital's NICU patients.
“It’s like a big (external) kidney,” Miller said. “This goes on for 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s a very very critical point to be at and there’s a lot of things that can go wrong with this.”
Doctors worried that Conrad wouldn’t be able to handle the treatment. While a little wary, Miller agreed to stick with Conrad.
“A lot of the doctors did not think he was going to make it,” Miller said. “He was one of the smallest babies we’ve ever put on the machine, so it’s pretty groundbreaking for them to have Conrad get through it.”
If the family had questions that Miller didn’t know how to answer, she’d find a way to track down the information they needed. Miller's steady presence at so many crucial moments, such as when Evans first held Conrad, created a bond between the family and the nurse. What’s more, the infant consistently responded to Miller.
“I would come in and say, ‘Hi’ really loud and immediately he started looking around to try to figure out where (I’m) at,” Miller said. “It really makes your heart swell.”
Evans said Miller understands the best way to swaddle Conrad and knows how to soothe him in ways no one else can. On bad days, Evans jokingly texts Miller “to come get her (baby).”
“One of the nights that I was leaving Conrad I was waiting for Carly,” Evans recalled. “He was just super fussy — I mean ridiculously so. And the moment he saw Carly his eyes lit up. He was super smiley. And when I tried to grab him go give him a hug before I left, he shooed me away.”
When Conrad was leaving the hospital after six months, Evans felt the urge to ask Miller to be his godmother — but she panicked and didn’t ask. So she invited Miller to come visit and presented her with flowers and a note from Conrad asking her whether she would be his godmother. Before Miller finished reading, she said, "Yes," much to Evans’ delight.
“We kept everything as professional as we could in the NICU but just the conversations we had sitting in his hospital room or the victories that we celebrated and we cried over together were really important to me,” Evans said. “Thinking about leaving that place and having to never see Carly again was heart-wrenching.”
Miller said she feels honored that she will get to be a part of Conrad’s life for years to come.
“I started bawling. I was like, ‘Are you serious?’ … Then I asked her if she ran out of people to ask,’” Miller said. “It is hands down the coolest thing that I’ve had happen.”