Bridgette Bissell weighed just 1½ pounds when she was born but has weathered long-term health effects as a “micro-preemie” with the help of University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital.
The Muscatine teenager and her twin sister, Madeline, were born in Dallas, Texas. Sadly, Madeline died shortly after birth, and Bridgette was in the neonatal intensive care unit for 100 days before coming home. A work transfer for her father, Geof, brought the family to Centerville, Iowa, when Bridgette was 1.
“Bridgette had retinopathy of prematurity and a vitrectomy (eye surgery) among other things, during her time in the NICU, and needed to continue care with a pediatric ophthalmologist when we moved to Iowa,” her mother, Suzanne, recalls, noting Bridgette’s eye doctor in Texas connected the family to pediatric ophthalmologist Ronald Keech, MD, at UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital.
“We were very nervous about leaving her health care team in Texas because she was so high risk for many health issues, but once we met Dr. Keech, we knew we were in wonderful hands,” she adds.
The nearly three-hour drive from Centerville to Iowa City was worth the trip, she says, as Bridgette received care not only from ophthalmology, but other pediatric specialties, as well.
“We had everybody we needed; all the specialists that Bridgette could possibly ever need were there. It was such a relief to know we were in good hands.
The family moved out of state when Bridgette was 3, as Geof was transferred for work again, but returned to Iowa 10 years later, this time to Muscatine.
“It was like coming home,” Suzanne remembers of their return to the hospital, as Bridgette continued seeing pediatric ophthalmology specialists.
In 2019, Bridgette faced a different set of health issues, with digestive problems, joint pain and weight loss.
Doctors searched for an answer as her condition worsened, and after a number of tests she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease affecting the gastrointestinal tract.
“Crohn’s has been very rough on Bridgette,” Suzanne says. “Her joint pain with Crohn’s got so bad that she couldn’t walk and had to use a wheelchair. We’ve seen many more specialists at the university to help get things under control.”
Bridgette had a feeding tube placed in January 2020, receives infusions for Crohn’s disease, and has since improved.
“Everyone was amazing,” her mother recalls. “The nurses in pre-op had Bridgette laughing even though she was nervous.”
Bridgette also has autism, Suzanne notes. “She gets overwhelmed sensory-wise: lights, people, sounds, smells,” but was home-schooled the past two years and recently graduated from high school.
Now 18, she enjoys bowling, Special Olympics, spending time with her pet rats – something she’s known for within her health care team – and is a singer and musician.
“I love music,” Bridgette says, recalling playing the ukulele with her hospital music therapist while singing Christmas carols with a visiting Santa Claus and elves. “I play the piano and the clarinet, and the accordion. Well, I’m learning how to play the accordion, and I love it.”
She even looks forward to hospital visits.
“Everyone’s so nice and I love them,” Bridgette says. “It’s like a second home, and that’s why I call it the home away from home, because everyone there is just awesome.”