Immigrant Stories: Going back to where she started in the NICU
Intro: Molly Hemmen is a senior at Glenwood Springs High School. She has devoted her senior capstone project to the study of her family’s origins.
Hemmen: My father’s ancestors came from North Holland, that’s really big agriculture and farming country. And there just wasn’t enough room anymore, from what I gathered. And they weren’t making enough money, so my family emigrated to Iowa, where they just did the same thing, agriculture and farming.
Gallacher: Well, Iowa looks like Holland without the water.
Hemmen: Yes, just like North Holland.
Gallacher: Many immigrants are looking for a place that reminds them of the home they had to leave.
Hemmen: Yeah that’s definitely what I noticed. I just had the opportunity to go to the Netherlands and visit the places where my family came from.
Gallacher: Tell me about your trip.
Hemmen: We started in Amsterdam, and spent a week there. My ancestors were from a small town called Finsterwolde, up in North Holland. And it’s right on the coast. It’s just fields and fields, and water. So really good place for agriculture, just like Iowa.
Gallacher: Do you know when your ancestors came?
Hemmen: The earliest record I have of my family coming to the United States is from 1907. It would have been my great-great-great-grandfather and -grandmother. And I think at the time they had three children. And then later on had one more. So they came before World War I, and then Holland was almost completely starved out by the Nazis during World War Two.
I’ve been able to trace the family back to 1757 to great-great-great-great-great-grandmother. She was also near Finsterwolde. It’s funny looking at all my family; they were never more than 20 miles away from each other in the towns they lived in. She was actually from a really small town in Northern Germany. And when I say 20 miles, I mean really like almost spitting distance from the border of Germany. They were both very close. And they just moved between towns.
For over a century, my family was in agriculture and farming up in North Holland and North Germany. So, yeah, I think they just ran out of things to farm. They’d been doing it for so long.
Gallacher: What about your mother’s family?
Hemmen: My mom’s maiden name is Bonett and has a French origin. But it was interesting, when we did the DNA we didn’t find much French. It was mainly Swiss and also some Dutch, German and Northern European. But the name changed from Bonett to Bonet. Both of my parents’ family names were changed. My dad’s was originally Heigen, and now it’s Hemmen.
Gallacher: How did that happen?
Hemmen: I believe when they came over, and they landed in the United States, it doesn’t seem like immigration authorities were listening for every letter within the name, it was just more like, “I’m going to write down what I heard you say. And that’ll be it.”
Gallacher: Yeah, that name changing happened a lot to immigrants. Immigration people were dealing with hundreds of immigrants in a given day, and a lot of times they were none too careful with the spelling of the immigrant’s name.
Your ancestors had their share of challenges when they first arrived. I want to talk about the challenges you faced when you first arrived. Can we talk about the difficulties surrounding your birth?
Hemmen: Sure. My mom got preeclampsia and was really sick while she was pregnant with me. She got so sick that she was eventually airlifted, to Presbyterian St. Luke’s in Denver, where I was born at 26 weeks, almost four months early. I was in the hospital for 85 days after I was born. I had to stay in an incubator for the first three months of my life.
Gallacher: So you were right on the line between life and death.
Hemmen: Yes. I got very, very sick on Mother’s Day, 20 days after I was born. The doctors gave me a medicine that went in the wrong place. Somehow it corrected itself over night. The doctor told my mom that it was pretty much medically impossible to re-correct itself. So my parents called me their Miracle Baby.
Gallacher: Right. Well, you were.
Hemmen: I was. I have a plaque at Ronald McDonald house, and at Presbyterian St. Luke’s in Denver.
Hemmen: My mom stayed at the Ronald McDonald house, a couple of blocks away. My dad would commute back-and-forth from Glenwood Springs. I was born at one pound, seven ounces. And I was eight inches long. I had all sorts of tubing, and I couldn’t breathe. And so the tubing scratched my throat, nothing serious. A lot of preemies have complications where some can’t walk.
I’d say I’m definitely one of the lucky ones. I made it out of being born prematurely with a scratched throat that gave me asthma, and I have a learning disability in math and some sensory issues. The noise of the vacuum cleaner always bothered me as a kid.
Preemies have fewer brain neurons. And, as a result, we don’t have the same learning capabilities as those born at nine months. It’s kind of weird to explain to people because as a kid in middle school, people would say, “Oh you’re kind of bad at math. Like why?”
And I would tell them, “Well, you know, everybody’s different first of all.” But I never liked to say I can’t, because I can, and I always passed my math classes. It just took me extra time because I don’t have the same brain structure as many who were born at nine months do.
Gallacher: So how did your early start make you special?
Hemmen: I’d say, well after the treatments I’ve had, I’m definitely less sensitive. But I feel that growing up around the medical community has made me strong. I think I have used my challenges to my advantage. Health care has been an inspiration to me. I was in the NICU, which is neo-natal intensive care unit, for the first months of my life. Now, I am planning to be a NICU nurse.
Gallacher: So you’re going back to where you started.
Hemmen: Yes, that’s what I’d like to do. I’ve always been as comfortable as someone can be in the medical facility. I know hospitals gross some people out, but they’re pretty interesting to me. I was born at 26 weeks, and I am somehow alive. I mean just the science of medicine, it’s very, very crazy to think about.
Gallacher: It’s almost like you … even though you don’t have memory of it, you’re drawn to it. Some people would be repelled by the experience. But you’re like a staff member.
Gallacher: Wouldn’t it be nice if you could apply all those hours you spent in the NICU toward your degree?
Hemmen: Yeah, I wouldn’t even need to be an intern because I’ve already been there.
Gallacher: That must have been a terrifying time for your parents. How has that experience shaped your relationship with them? Do you think it’s been different because of your early experience?
Hemmen: You know, I can’t say. I don’t know any different. It was very stressful for them, as you could probably imagine. I know my parents struggled to have me, and I don’t have any siblings because they didn’t really want to go through another dangerous birth.
Gallacher: So there was a good chance that would have happened to your mother again?
Hemmen: Yes. And so I think that’s one thing that has shaped me. I’m very close to my parents as an only child. I’m very independent. You know, for example, I make doctors appointments on my own, and I just found out that’s not really a thing other kids my age do. Which is interesting to me because I’ve done it for years. I’m just very independent and very close to my parents because of it.
I have been drawn to nursing most of my life. As a kindergartner everyone wants to be a ballerina. But when I was in first grade, I told my mom I wanted to work with babies.
And for a while I wasn’t sure I wanted to work with babies. I was so small and fragile when I was born. The thought of dealing with babies like me was scary. And so I turned away from the NICU nurse idea for a while.
But I have given it a lot of thought and finally realized that there’s some very strong babies out there who are born early and fight for every breath. And just hearing the stories of my birth, and how many people came to the hospital to support me and my family, is very inspiring. I want to go back there and help other families.
Note: Molly Hemmen will graduate from Glenwood Springs High School this spring. In the fall, she will finish her nursing prerequisites at Colorado Mountain College. Next year she will enroll in the nursing program at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction.
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