Published: May 2024

Emmy Cogan was extremely tiny when she arrived in this world, but the impact of her birth was big. Born at 23 weeks gestation, she weighed only 515 grams — that’s just over one pound. Emmy was one of nine babies enrolled in a world-first cell therapy trial to heal the lungs of preemies and was the first in North America to receive the therapy. Now, that promising trial is ready for its next phase.  

Her early arrival happened not long after first-time parents Alicia Racine and Mike Cogan returned from a trip to Hawaii. Alicia was back at work as a 911 operator for the Ottawa Police when her water broke.   

“My sister works with me, and she brought me to The Ottawa Hospital’s General Campus. I was in a lot of pain, and I wasn’t too sure what was going on. And then we found out that it was contractions, and I started dilating,” explains Alicia. 

Born at 23 weeks gestation, Emmy Cogan weighed just 515 grams.

The baby would hold on for another six days before being born on February 20, 2023. Those few extra days in the womb were critical to give Emmy a chance at life. “It changed the game entirely for us and her. She was able to be intubated, and she just started fighting from that moment on,” explains Mike.

Health challenges lie ahead

Initially, Emmy was cared for in The Ottawa Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), followed by 10 days at CHEO before returning to our hospital. 

Emmy’s first month of life faced many challenges, including a duct between her heart and lungs that wouldn’t close, gastro-intestinal issues causing her to become septic, and concerns of a blood infection. Once Emmy got through those life-threatening issues, she was extubated and put on a high-flow oxygen. “We got to hold her for the first time at that point and my parents were able to be there for that, which was really nice,” says Mike. 

Emmy also developed bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD). This is a condition known to affect many preemies. Because these infants are born so prematurely, their tiny lungs are underdeveloped and require extra oxygen to help them breathe properly. But giving this oxygen — critical for survival — can damage their tiny lungs. It’s like starting life with emphysema. 

The devastating impact of BPD

In Canada, 1,000 babies are diagnosed with BPD every year. That number jumps to approximately 150,000 worldwide. Often, babies with BPD develop other chronic lung diseases, such as asthma, and may require prolonged oxygen and ventilation.  

Additionally, they have a high rate of hospital readmissions in the first two years of life. Babies with BPD often have problems in other organs as well, such as the brain or eyes. There is currently no cure, but this world-first clinical trial led by Dr. Bernard Thébaud, a senior scientist and neonatologist, hopes to change that. 

Two decades ago, Dr. Thébaud’s team discovered that stem cells from the umbilical cord — known as mesenchymal stromal cells (MSCs) — could heal lung injury and prevent BPD in newborn rodents. Since then, the team has worked tirelessly, here at home and collaborating with other scientists around the world, to bring this novel therapy to babies and their families through clinical trials. While other trials have tested MSCs for treatment of BPD in premature babies, no other group has used MSCs taken from the whole umbilical cord and processed them the way that Dr. Thébaud’s team has.  

What is bronchopulmonary dysplasia?

Bronchopulmonary dysplasia — or BPD — is a chronic lung disease that most often occurs in premature or low-weight babies who have received supplemental oxygen or received mechanical ventilation for long periods.

“In our rodent research, we’ve used stem cells isolated from the umbilical cords of healthy newborns to prevent lung injury or even to some degree regenerate the damaged lung,” says Dr. Thébaud. “We foresee that these stem cells, given during a certain time during the hospital stay of these babies, could prevent the progression of the disease.”

Shortly after Emmy’s birth, her parents met Chantal Horth, a clinical trial coordinator, and were introduced to Dr. Thébaud. “Chantal came to us and said Emmy qualified for the trial,” remembers Mike. “It sounded like a great opportunity.”

"Being a preemie, she’s going to have some health issues, and anything that could help her, we wanted to give her that extra shot."

— Alicia Racine

Saying ‘yes’ to a world-first clinical trial

The couple met with Dr. Thébaud, and he answered a long list of questions they had about the trial. “He’s a very personable guy, and it was very easy to talk to him. We trusted him. Being a preemie, she’s going to have some health issues, and anything that could help her, we wanted to give her that extra shot,” says Alicia. 

To qualify for the trial, the premature babies — born at 23- or 24-weeks’ gestation at The Ottawa Hospital — had to be seven to 21 days old and treated in the NICU. They also had to require 35% oxygen. This level of oxygen puts them at 60-70% risk of developing BPD. Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre recruited one baby, becoming the second site involved.  

On March 3, 2023, at 11 days old, Emmy received an IV infusion of umbilical cord tissue grown from the donated cords of healthy newborns. It was a special moment for everyone involved. She was the first baby in North America to receive this kind of therapy. 

"This is the first trial of its kind in the world, and what could be more rewarding than helping preemies?"

– Dr. Bernard Thébaud

“Dr. Thébaud administered the stem cells, and everyone clapped,” says Mike. “She will have follow-up appointments at different stages for two years, and then she’s going to be followed up by phone for 10 years.”  

For Dr. Thébaud, it was a moment he and his team had dreamed about. “It was an exciting and huge milestone when that day arrived — after 20 years of work we were able to test this therapy for the first time in a patient. This is the first trial of its kind in the world and what could be more rewarding than helping preemies?”

The next step for this stem cell trial

Thanks to those nine tiny patients, including Emmy, recruitment for the Phase 1 trial is now complete. The purpose of this trial is to test the feasibility and safety of the stem cell therapy. The next phase will test safety as well as how effective it is.

"All the stars lined up to have her be a part of that little piece of history — something that could impact babies like her in the future.”

– Alicia Racine
Emmy with her parents.

“Now we can determine if this therapy will make a difference in patients,” explains Dr. Thébaud. “There will be two groups in the next phase — one that will receive cells and one that will receive the placebo — it’s a randomized controlled trial. We’ll need 168 patients to determine if these stem cells make a difference.”

While babies for the first phase were recruited from NICUs at The Ottawa Hospital and Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, the next phase will be a multi-centre trial across the country. Dr. Thébaud hopes it will begin by the end of 2024 and it will take two years.

“Working with babies is, I think, the most beautiful job on Earth. Because they’re born, and they have all their life and all their potential in front of them. Our task is to give them a great jumpstart,” says Dr. Thébaud.

As for Emmy, she left the hospital five months after she was born, and while Mike and Alicia don’t know if the stem cells impacted her health, Emmy is doing well. “We don’t know what she would be like without it, but she’s awesome right now,” says Mike. “We felt very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time for our little girl.”

It’s something Alicia feels makes Emmy all the more unique. “All the stars lined up to have her be a part of that little piece of history — something that could impact babies like her in the future,” explains Alicia.

That’s certainly what Dr. Thébaud is hoping for. “It would change the way we care for premature babies. It’s my hope that these tiny patients have a chance to thrive, grow up, and have an impact on the world around them.”

Emmy doesn’t know she’s made history, but that’s ok. For now, she’s keeping her parents busy. She’s pulling herself up and will be walking in no time. She’s also been off oxygen since November 2023, giving her even more mobility. “It was really fun to have her free. We had a cordless baby for the first time! That was a big step when she didn’t need to rely on the oxygen anymore,” smiles Mike.

This Phase 1 trial is funded by the Stem Cell Network with in-kind matching funds from MDTB Cells GmbH. Dr. Thébaud’s research is also possible because of funding from the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, The Ottawa Hospital Foundation, and the CHEO Foundation. 

In 1998, Sandra Schmirler — known as Schmirler the Curler — led her team to the first ever Olympic gold medal in women’s curling. Tragically, Sandra died of a rare tumour just two years later, in March 2000. A champion curler, Sandra was also a dedicated mother who left behind two young daughters, along with her husband. Over 20 years later, the Sandra Schmirler Foundation is helping premature and critically ill babies get well and grow up to be champions in their own right.

Thanks to a generous donation from the Sandra Schmirler Foundation in 2021, The Ottawa Hospital Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) is able to purchase a Giraffe OmniBed Carestation. The controlled microenvironment machine allows caregivers and parents better access to improve the care and love babies receive while in hospital.

The Giraffe OmniBed is just one way The Ottawa Hospital NICU is helping premature and critically ill babies and their families, and it wouldn’t be possible without the support of donors like the Sandra Schmirler Foundation.

Sandra with fellow Canadian Olympic athletes at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

Q: How does your foundation’s generous support of NICUs honour your namesake Sandra Schmirler’s curling legacy?

Nothing meant more to Sandra than being a mom. The sense of accomplishment that comes from being a champion, the rush that comes from a nation cheering you on in front of the world, the thrill of competing at the highest levels … none of it came close to the joy Sandra felt when she was with her two daughters, Sara and Jenna. The founders of our Foundation determined the best way to honour Sandra was to pay tribute to her love of family. By supporting NICUs through the purchase of lifesaving equipment to help babies born too soon, too small, or too sick, the Foundation hopes families can experience that joy Sandra felt when she was with her daughters.

Sandra waving to the crowd at the 1998 Scott Tournament of Hearts in Regina, SK. 

Q: How does your support of initiatives like the Giraffe OmniBed at The Ottawa Hospital change the lives of premature babies?

By supporting initiatives like the Giraffe OmniBed, the Foundation hopes families can rest assured that their premature and seriously ill babies have access to state-of–the-art, lifesaving equipment. Because the Giraffe OmniBed allows better access to the baby, without needing to move them, it can help reduce stress for the whole family and the healthcare team.

Q: Why is it so important for the local community to keep caring about, and giving to, The Ottawa Hospital NICU?

The equipment available in a local community NICU can make the difference between a baby staying close to their homes, family, and friends or having to be transported to a NICU at a hospital with more advanced equipment. The Sandra Schmirler Foundation believes by supporting NICUs in local communities, more babies will have the chance to grow up and become champions, like Sandra was.

The Ottawa Hospital is a leading academic health, research, and learning hospital proudly affiliated with the University of Ottawa.

When Wardha discovered she was pregnant, she prepared herself for any challenge that might come with giving birth during the COVID-19 pandemic. But she didn’t expect to have a premature baby, weighing just 610 grams, only 25 weeks into her pregnancy. Following an emergency C-section, this young family was cast into a world of unknowns — filled with daily visits to The Ottawa Hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) during a global pandemic. They never lost hope and placed their trust in our experts to give their daughter the best chance at survival.

A 610-gram baby

Up until the day baby Aya was born, Wardha was having a normal, healthy pregnancy. Just starting to feel her baby move in her belly, she relished every moment. So it came as a complete shock when her water broke early one morning — 15 weeks early. As a healthcare worker herself, Wardha knew this was far too early and their baby was in danger.

Baby Aya in a NICU incubator at The Ottawa Hospital.

Wardha’s husband, Omar, called an ambulance and she was rushed to our hospital where a healthcare team was waiting, ready to care for her.

After an ultrasound and several tests, Aya’s heartrate was dropping — she was in distress. An unborn baby is dependent on a steady stream of blood through the umbilical cold to receive oxygen and other nutrients. If blood flow is reduced, abrupt dips in the infant’s heart rate will occur. Over an extended period, this can become harmful for the baby, particularly for an already vulnerable premature infant such as Aya.

“It felt like we built a bond with Dr. Jankov. That really helped us come out of the dark.”

— Wardha Shabbir

Wardha was rushed into an emergency C-section, both for her safety and that of her baby. “I truly believe the quick action of my healthcare team in deciding I needed an emergency C-section saved my daughter’s life,” said Wardha.

What Wardha didn’t realize at the time was the trust and bond she would develop with Aya’s NICU team as they worked together to care for her.

Caring for a ‘miracle’

Wardha Shabbir feeding Aya.

The first time Wardha and Omar properly saw their daughter was after she was placed in our NICU. In the midst of wires and tubes, Aya, whose name means miracle, looked so small and fragile. “It all seemed to happen so quickly, I think I was still in shock, but it was so great to finally meet her and spend some time together as a family.” said Wardha.

On that first day, Dr. Robert Jankov, Aya’s primary caregiver, paid Wardha and Omar a visit. He took the time to carefully explain every step of Aya’s care, including each test she would undergo, potential complications that could arise throughout her development, and what they planned to do to mitigate the risk of infection. “It felt like we built a bond with Dr. Jankov,” said Wardha. “That really helped us come out of the dark. He took the time to ensure we understood Aya’s care and treatment plan and what would happen during her stay in the NICU. It was really reassuring.”

Seeing their little miracle in the incubator, it was clear they had a long road ahead of them. And tests would soon prove this to be true.

A severe breathing disorder

Aya was born so prematurely that she needed to be hooked up to IV’s and a central line to continue to receive the nutrients she needed to grow. She also required a ventilator to help her breathe. But over time, the oxygen and ventilator that Aya was on to save her life also caused her to have bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD), a disorder that causes irritation and inflammation in the lungs, preventing their normal development. It is one of the most common causes of death in premature babies.

In Canada, 1,000 babies are diagnosed with BPD every year. Many develop other chronic lung diseases, such as asthma, and require prolonged oxygen and ventilation. Currently, there is no treatment for the disease, but one of our experts, Dr. Bernard Thébaud, is leading a Canada-first clinical trial to test the feasibility and safety of umbilical cord stem cell treatment in premature babies with BPD.

Thanks to the care Aya received, she was able to go home without oxygen or therapies for her lungs.

Dr. Bri, The gitte Lemyre
Dr. Brigitte Lemyre

Retinopathy of prematurity

Although Aya’s chances of survival improved by the day, she still had an upward battle with one health concern after another. A diagnosis that worried Wardha and Omar the most was Aya’s retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), a potentially blinding disease that involves the abnormal development of retinal blood vessels in premature infants. ROP occurs when a premature babies’ retinal blood vessels haven’t finished growing. Aya developed concerning ROP and received injections of medicine in her eyes.

“These babies have a lot of resilience.”

— Dr. Brigitte Lemyre

“I remember feeling really overwhelmed and like a failure,” said Wardha. But she felt hopeful Aya was in the care of some of the brightest minds who were determined to go above and beyond to ensure the very best outcome.

Advancing care of premature babies

Due to advances in treatment, we can care for babies who are born as young as 22 weeks. Many grow up to live healthy lives. To better address the needs of micro-preemies, the Extremely Low Gestational Age (ELGA) multidisciplinary working group was created, comprised of physicians, respiratory therapists, nutritionists, pharmacists, and preemie parents, like Wardha. Together, this group developed a care bundle including vital information on how to best treat extremely preterm babies soon after birth and during their critical first week, to ensure their best chance of survival.

“These babies have a lot of resilience,” explained Dr. Brigitte Lemyre, a physician who leads this highly committed working group. “What’s most important is the partnership with the parents and their presence at the baby’s bedside, because this affects their outcome.”

“The journey was really difficult, but we had a support system and people who care about the well-being of our daughter. It made it easier.”

— Wardha Shabbir

As a member of the ELGA working group, Wardha was able to provide insight and perspective as a mother of a premature baby. This helped guide and inform our experts on how to improve treatment and care of our tiniest patients. Wardha was able to feel heard and contribute to her daughter’s care in a meaningful way during their time in our NICU.

Compassionate care angle

Aya remained in our care for four long months. Not only did our healthcare team provide lifesaving and compassionate care to Aya, but they also looked after Wardha and Omar. Due to visitor restrictions set in place as a safety precaution during the COVID-19 pandemic, they took turns visiting Aya and were only able to visit together twice per week. This took an emotional toll on the first-time parents. “The journey was really difficult, but we had a support system and people who care about the well-being of our daughter both at home and at the hospital. That made it easier,” said Wardha.

“When we got home, we had NICU withdrawal because Aya’s caregivers became a part of our family.”

— Wardha Shabbir

Each time they visited Aya, her care team took the time to answer their questions. “No matter how many questions I had or how many times I asked them to show me how to change Aya’s diaper, they always stopped what they were doing and took the time to support me. They are all so busy and yet so patient. I really appreciated that,” said Wardha.

Back home and healthy

Now just seven months old, Aya is home and doing exceptionally well. Although thrilled to finally be discharged after four months in our NICU, leaving our hospital left Wardha and Omar with a feeling they didn’t expect. “When we got home, we had NICU withdrawal because Aya’s caregivers became a part of our family,” said Wardha. Grateful for their holistic care and how they worked together to ensure Aya would not only survive, but thrive, the NICU care team is a part of their daughter’s life story Wardha and Omar won’t soon forget.

Omar and Wardha with Aya.

The Ottawa Hospital is a leading academic health, research, and learning hospital proudly affiliated with the University of Ottawa.

For an update on Meagan’s story, click here, to see how the family is doing.

At just 28-weeks pregnant and in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Meagan Ann Gordon was admitted to the hospital with placenta previa. Alone and unable to see her husband and young daughter, she began an unexpected journey of resilience, optimism, and compassionate care in the midst of an uncertain time.

The beginning of a special journey

Meagan's Ultrasound

Just a few weeks into her pregnancy, Meagan Ann Gordon went for her first ultrasound appointment. Her husband, Kyle Gordon, was out of town and unable to join her. Having already gone through a full-term and healthy pregnancy together with their first child, Maeve, Meagan felt confident going to this appointment on her own. After all, what could be so different this time around?

What her appointment revealed was an unexpected and happy surprise — twin boys! This was the beginning of many unanticipated turns Meagan would experience throughout the duration of her pregnancy — including the emergence of a novel coronavirus that would alter life in previously unimaginable ways.

Pregnant with twins

Pregnancy comes with so much anticipation and excitement. When Meagan discovered she was having twins, she was elated. Aside from standard nausea and mild discomfort, her pregnancy was going smoothly — up until midway through her second trimester. Her doctor observed that her placenta, shared by both babies, was covering her cervix — Meagan had placenta previa. This can cause significant bleeding throughout pregnancy — a reality that Meagan was all too familiar with. She experienced several bleeds that required her to stay at the hospital overnight so that her doctors could monitor her health and that of her babies. But at just 28 weeks pregnant on April 22, 2020, she experienced a bleed so large they called an ambulance. She was once again admitted to the hospital, where her care team felt she needed to stay until delivery.

Megan Gordon's sidewalk message
On Mother’s Day, Kyle and daughter Maeve, visited Meagan outside of her hospital window, leaving her a sweet message to remind her how much they love her.

For five long weeks Meagan remained at the hospital, confined to her room, away from her husband and her three-year-old daughter, Maeve. Due to the emergence of COVID-19, like many hospitals across the globe, The Ottawa Hospital has been under visitor restrictions, preventing Meagan from receiving any visitors or being able to leave the unit to visit loved ones. Pleasures that she might normally experience had she been at home, like having a baby shower with her family and friends or decorating the nursery, she missed out on.

“Being away from my husband and my daughter was really hard,” said Meagan. “But I wasn’t alone. I was with my boys and I was doing what was best for them and their health. I was also being so well taken care of by the nursing staff. They knew how hard it was to be away from my family, especially on Mother’s Day and they went above and beyond to be kind and supportive.”

Throughout the duration of her stay, nurses treated Meagan more like a friend than just a patient, helping to bring a level of comfort in a time when she was so isolated from her own friends and family. “They stopped by my room even if they weren’t assigned to me on their shift just to say hello and to chat. They shared stories of their life outside of the hospital walls and met my family over FaceTime. They even treated us to donuts and coffees. But it’s less about what the nurses “did” and more about how they made me feel,” Meagan explained.

Emergence of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped how patients are cared for across the country and the world. More than 1,700 individuals have tested positive for COVID-19 in Ottawa, many of whom have received treatment at The Ottawa Hospital. As a result, even the most well-thought-out birthing plans are being adjusted.

Given Meagan’s unresolved placenta previa, she required a scheduled cesarean delivery at 34 weeks pregnant which would prevent her from going into labour naturally. Her boys were to arrive on June 3, 2020, but they had other plans. At 2 a.m. on May 25, 2020 Meagan’s water broke. Her husband rushed to the hospital just in time to see Meagan for a few moments before Teddy and Rowan were delivered by emergency cesarean. “It was a huge relief to see him before I went into surgery,” said Meagan.

Up until that moment, Kyle had only seen Meagan’s growing belly over FaceTime. When he walked in the room, and saw Meagan for the first time, he gave her a big hug before putting his hands on her belly. Feelings of pride and excitement washed over him. Kyle was in awe at how much her belly had grown since he last saw her in April. Meagan remembers their last hug before she went into the operating room. One of the twins kicked him in the chest. “It was a big moment for us because we often talked about how he might not get to feel the twins moving again, knowing I was there in the hospital until I delivered,” explained Meagan.

Meagan Gordon with Teddy and Rowan.

Due to COVID-19 protocols set in place to protect patients and hospital staff, Kyle wasn’t allowed in the operation room throughout her delivery. But he was by her side over FaceTime, supporting her every step of the way. “It was definitely a very unique experience. I was happy to be able to see Meagan and talk with her and experience the births from her perspective while it was actually going on. I just kept telling her how strong she was… And being able to hear the boys cry for the first time over FaceTime,” said Kyle, “it was as good as we could possibly hope for given the current circumstances.”

Meagan’s team of nurses and doctors even went so far as to take photos and video footage of Teddy and Rowan’s first breath. The boys were then admitted to the NICU. While Meagan recovered, Kyle was able to meet the boys and get a report on their health. Shortly after, he was back by Meagan’s side where they reminisced about the delivery and marvelled in the fact that life had changed so quickly. A few hours later, Meagan was out of the recovery room and well enough to visit her boys in the NICU for the very first time. “It was the beginning of the next stage of our adventure – the NICU journey!” exclaimed Meagan.

The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU)

For the first three days, Teddy and Rowan remained in the NICU at the General Campus. While recovering from the cesarean in hospital, Meagan was finally able to have Kyle stay with her. This allowed both of them to visit their sons in the NICU frequently. With each visit they learned how to care for their premature babies, who were born at just 5lbs 2oz, including learning how to bathe them and change their diapers. “The staff was great about welcoming us into the NICU, giving us full updates and really involving us as part of the care team for the boys, which was different than caring for our full-term daughter,” says Meagan. “I found it was a very supportive environment.”

Though the twins were healthy and growing, measuring the size of a head of lettuce right before her cesarean at 33 weeks, Meagan knew her mandated cesarean would take place before the twins reached full term. This meant that her boys would stay in the NICU once born until they had grown enough to safely go home.

Home at last

After spending just over two weeks in the NICU, Teddy and Rowan were healthy and strong enough to go home where they could finally meet their older sister for the first time. “We’re settling really well into our new norm as a family of five,” said Meagan.

“We’re just so grateful for the incredible care we received as a family. Everyone we encountered was so compassionate and kind. It made a hard situation one that I will look back on fondly.”  – Meagan Ann Gordon

Ever grateful for the care she received at The Ottawa Hospital, Meagan is quick to express how thankful she is for her doctor, Dr. Karen Fung-Kee-Fung, Maternal Fetal Medicine Specialist at The Ottawa Hospital, Dr. Samaan Werlang, who delivered her boys, and each nurse that took part in her care and that of her boys.

Almost one year later

Teddy and Rowan.

Twins Rowan and Teddy are almost 10 months old and it’s certainly not the maternity leave Meagan had expected — but neither was her pregnancy.

The days can be long and feel repetitive during the winter of a global pandemic but there’s been lots to celebrate. While the boys are identical, they have very different personalities according to their mom. “Rowan is very giggly and chatty, while Teddy is very sweet and cuddly.” Meagan adds, “Rowan’s first word was ‘dada’ so I’m working hard to make sure Teddy’s first word is ‘mama’. Big sister Maeve is incredibly loving and such a good helper.”

While Meagan was a patient in our hospital during those early days of COVID-19, she’s now helping our researchers learn more about the impact of the virus as a Patient Partner. Her perspectives on pregnancy, labour, delivery, and postpartum care during the pandemic can help researchers ensure their studies are relevant to this patient population, and more likely to improve care.

As Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors of Ottawa Victim Services (OVS), Meagan, was a good fit for this research, led by the OMNI Research Group, as it explores sexual and gender-based violence, with a focus on pregnant and postpartum populations. More recently, it has evolved to examine how restrictions related to COVID-19 affect how survivors access care.

Meagan says the timing was right to get involved, “Honestly, the stars just kind of aligned. They were looking for someone during my time as an inpatient. I bring the patient lens, but also have experience from my involvement with OVS. I also have a background in research so that also made me a good fit.” The Ottawa Hospital is leading the way in partnering with patients like Meagan on research projects.

While Meagan takes time to work on the research, together, the family plans to spend the final months of winter enjoying the outdoor rink built by Kyle, who is teaching Maeve to skate. They are grateful to be healthy and spending time together in the safety of home.

Listen to Pulse Podcast, where Meagan Gordon reveals what it’s like to be pregnant with twins during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Ottawa Hospital is a leading academic health, research, and learning hospital proudly affiliated with the University of Ottawa.

Update: In early 2023, Dr. Thébaud’s team treated the first baby in their clinical trial that aims to prevent BPD in premature infants. This is the first trial of its kind in in the world. Read Dr. Thébaud’s Q&A to learn more about his critical work and what motivates him.

Published: August 2020

Little Olivia Eberts had oxygen tubes in her nose until after her first birthday. Because she was born prematurely, her tiny lungs were underdeveloped, and she couldn’t breathe without oxygen. Ironically for Olivia, and many premature babies like her, the oxygen that saved her life also damaged her lungs, causing bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD), which is like starting out life with emphysema. But a clinical trial at The Ottawa Hospital led by Dr. Bernard Thébaud, which uses stem cells to heal the lungs of premature babies, may be a game changer.

An unexpected early birth

Jamie Eberts was 22 weeks pregnant with twins when she started feeling some discomfort. She arrived at the General Campus of The Ottawa Hospital and was admitted — she was going into early labour.

Thankfully, the doctors and nurses at The Ottawa Hospital were ready for any scenario Jamie, her husband Tim, and the babies faced. Each day, there were gentle conversations about how the babies were doing, the process of delivering them, and the chances of survival. Every hour counted. Then, one of the babies developed an infection and all three lives were at risk — the babies had to be delivered.

Baby in NICU
Baby Olivia in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

“Our babies, Liam and Olivia, were born at 5 a.m. on January 29, 2017, at 23-and-half-week’s gestation. Liam was born first. He was small, red, and didn’t make a sound,” remembers Jamie. Olivia weighed one pound, two ounces and Liam weighed only a few ounces more than she did. Both babies required oxygen and mechanical ventilation to keep them alive. As a result, both developed BPD — the most common cause of death in premature babies.

Sadly, baby Liam passed away a few weeks after he was born while Olivia remained in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at The Ottawa Hospital for nine long months.

BPD in Canada

Jamie Eberts carrying baby Olivia.

In Canada, 1,000 babies are diagnosed with BPD every year. Often, babies with BPD develop other chronic lung diseases, such as asthma, and many require prolonged oxygen and ventilation. Additionally, they have a high incidence of hospital readmissions in the first two years of life. Babies with BPD often have problems in other organs as well, such as the brain or the eyes.

When Olivia was finally discharged, she went home with an oxygen tank. During the first year of her life, Olivia spent more time in hospital than out.

“Even now, a simple flu that put me in bed for a couple of days put her in hospital and turns into pneumonia. It’s scary,” says Jamie. The doctor told her that with Olivia’s respiratory issues, she may require hospital intervention for the rest of her life.

Lack of treatment options

“Currently there is no treatment for this disease,” says Dr. Bernard Thébaud, a neonatologist and senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital. With that being said, he’s determined to improve the outcome for babies, like Olivia, who have BPD.

 “In the laboratory, we discovered that a particular type of stem cell can prevent BPD or regenerate newborn lungs.”

— Dr. Bernard Thébaud
Dr. Bernard Thebaud, neonatal intensive care unit, The Ottawa Hospital
Dr. Bernard Thebaud in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at The Ottawa Hospital.

“Our research uses stem cells, isolated from the umbilical cords of healthy newborns, to prevent the lung injury or even to some degree regenerate a damaged lung in the laboratory. We foresee that these stem cells, given during a certain time during the hospital stay of these babies, could prevent the progression of the lung disease.”

Unlike traditional stem cells that can directly replace damaged cells and tissues, the stem cells that Dr. Thébaud is studying work by producing healing factors that promote regeneration and repair.

Clinical trial offers hope

Dr. Thébaud and his research team have launched a phase I clinical trial to test the feasibility and safety of the stem cell treatment in premature babies. The team is doing everything in their power to make this clinical trial a success, including consulting with healthcare providers and parents of premature babies.

One thing they’ve learned from these consultations is that many parents don’t feel like they know enough about stem cells and clinical trials to decide if they want to enroll their child in the trial. So, Dr. Thébaud and his team created an animated video to explain these concepts and help parents make an informed decision. Parents can share the video with family members if they’d like a second opinion.

Jamie was involved in these consultations and her firsthand experience provided valuable insight to the research team as they planned this project. This is just one example of how researchers at The Ottawa Hospital are partnering with patients and caregivers to improve the quality and success of their research.

Dr. Bernard Thébaud looks at a premature baby in an isolette.
Dr. Bernard Thébaud looks at a premature baby in an isolette.

Dr. Thébaud and his team held a “dress rehearsal” for the clinical trial. “The dress rehearsal lets us test and tweak our tools for approaching parents, including the video, so we know what works best once we’re ready to begin offering the experimental treatment.”

If this initial trial is successful, Dr. Thébaud and his team will launch a larger Canadian clinical trial. “This is a critical step towards providing a potential breakthrough therapy that could help premature babies in Canada and around the world,” says Dr. Thébaud.

The made-in-Ottawa clinical trial is supported by The Ottawa Hospital’s Ottawa Methods Centre and Biotherapeutics Manufacturing Centre, and the Blueprint Translational Research Group.

First trial of its kind in Canada

“Stem cell research is incredibly innovative. Here, we have a very promising, emerging therapy that could prevent lung injury but also improve brain development and eyesight,” says Janet Brintnell, Clinical Manager of the NICU who has seen dozens of premature babies with BPD.

“It’s amazing when you think of what it may be able to do for the quality of life for the child, for their family, and for our healthcare system. It could reduce length of stay, hospital admissions, and improve long-term outcomes. It could help these little ones lead healthier lives.”

— Janet Brintnell

“We are the only ones doing this kind of stem cell research in Canada, and there are only a few other teams in the world that are doing this.”

— Dr. Bernard Thébaud

Yet, three years ago when Olivia was in the NICU, this treatment wasn’t yet available. Now, Jamie and Tim are self-described “cheerleaders” of Dr. Thébaud’s research and are hopeful for what it might mean for future preemies and their families.

“I believe this is our future,” says Jamie. “When I think about what this could have done for our family, I wonder if Liam could have possibly survived. Olivia may not be facing the delays she’s experiencing today. Even to this day, if we are asked to put Olivia in the trial as an older candidate, we will.”

Jamie also adds the there was an impact from a mental health and financial perspective. “Our oldest child, Jacob, has had a very unusual first four years of his life because of how adaptable he has had to be during these difficult times. As a family, this entire experience has been very challenging financially due to a variety of therapies for Olivia and having to get used to becoming a single income family for several years in order to manage Olivia’s complicated schedule. All of this could have potentially been avoided if Dr. Thébaud’s research were available to our twins.”

A new beginning

Olivia is now a happy, active toddler who loves copying what her older brother Jacob does. Although, she still has BPD, it is increasingly manageable, and she no longer requires supplemental oxygen. While Olivia may suffer respiratory illness her entire life, one day a stem cell treatment developed here in Ottawa could mean that the next generation of babies with BPD won’t.

Jamie Eberts with her daughter, Olivia
Jamie Eberts with her daughter, Olivia.

Listen to Pulse Podcast and learn how one day stem cells could heal the lungs of premature babies with Dr. Bernard Thébaud and what it could mean for parents like Jamie Eberts.

The Ottawa Hospital is a leading academic health, research, and learning hospital proudly affiliated with the University of Ottawa.

They were born at The Ottawa Hospital on December 22, 2006, three and a half months premature. Rhys was 1 lb 8 oz, his identical twin Cullen was 1 lb 4 oz, brother Liam was 1 lb 10 oz, and his identical twin Daniel was 1 lb 3 oz.

“We knew it was quadruplets when I had the first ultrasound at eight weeks. There were four heart beats,” said Nora Shipton, the boys’ mother. “We had two sets of identical twins born by caesarean section. There was an amazing team of 25 people in the delivery room.”

The boys were born exceptionally early at 26 weeks and two days. Babies born before 35 weeks are considered high risk—their lungs and hearts aren’t fully developed yet.

Specialized Care at The Ottawa Hospital

Liam and Rhys at 2.5 months old
Liam and Rhys at 2.5 months old

When the White quadruplets were admitted to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at The Ottawa Hospital’s General Campus, making sure they kept breathing was critical. Liam didn’t need a tube to open his airway but received oxygen through a nose tube instead. The other three boys, however needed to be intubated (a breathing tube needed to be inserted). On top of breathing problems, Rhys and Liam also had heart surgery to correct faulty heart valves and were operated on the same day.

Sadly, despite every effort brother Cullen passed away on January 16, 2007 and brother Daniel two days later.

“The care that we received at the NICU was beyond excellent. The nurses and the doctors were so caring and attentive and helped us through the roller coaster that all NICU parents ride. We will forever be grateful to them for the love and the care that they gave to all of our babies.”     

– Nora Shipton

A Bittersweet Return Home

Liam spent 88 days and Rhys 98 days in the NICU. It was bittersweet for Nora and Rob when Liam and Rhys finally came home.

Three months after losing two of their sons, Nora and Rob White decided that they wanted to give back; to help support the NICU team who had helped Liam and Rhys survive their early entry into the world. Initially, they were inspired to contribute towards a twin water bed that was needed. The boys were in individual water beds but co-sleeping was proven to help healing. They realized, however that the water bed was a one-time gift and preferred something that would continue to give over time, as a need would arise. Nora’s late father, Ralph Shipton, researched Legacy Endowment Funds, it was just the thing they were looking for. The family then created the Cullen James and Daniel Morgan White Legacy Endowment Fund, which would contribute over the long term to meet the endless needs of the NICU.

The NICU graduates today

Liam and Rhys on the first day of Grade 7.

At 13, the boys are active and busy. They enjoy downhill skiing, swimming and camping. Their grandparents own a farm, so they like to go out on their ATVsdrive the tractors and fish. Rhys is a voracious reader and loves swimming. Liam also enjoys swimming and does horseback riding. Like many children, they struggle in math a little bit. They are happy, healthy boys. 

Running for a Reason

In May 2020, Liam and Rhys are doing something extraordinary for The Ottawa Hospital NICU. They are running 5kms as a family-team in the Ottawa Race Weekend. On top of doing something fun and healthy, they are running to raise money for the NICU and running for their two brothers Cullen and Daniel, in the hope of keeping future families like theirs together. 

Money that is raised through the Cullen James and Daniel Morgan White Legacy Endowment Fund (aka Preemies 4 Preemies), gets put towards things that the babies need.  It may go towards helping purchase a large item like an incubator or a waterbed, which helps maintain a baby’s body temperature when they come out of the incubator, or smaller items like waterless milk bottle warmers, positioning aids, cell phone sterilizers or kangaroo care chairs. The endowment fund was set up in memory of Cullen and Daniel and it will continue to help other families who will need the latest, most innovative care for their preemies. Thanks to the forward thinking of their grandfather, their brothers’ Legacy Endowment Fund can keep on giving into the future. 

The Ottawa Hospital is a leading academic health, research, and learning hospital proudly affiliated with the University of Ottawa.