A Mother’s Day Story – Taking Work-Life Balance to the Extreme

Published on: May 10, 2021

Caring for a premature baby is an emotional rollercoaster for any new mom. Navigating life with twin toddlers – who were born as micro preemies – during a global health pandemic, while managing a high containment biosafety laboratory where Sanofi’s COVID-19 vaccine research is being conducted, might be unthinkable for most.

Not for Jennifer Umstead. She is extremely adept at adapting to new and unfamiliar territory.

Her twins Ryder and Rylee, now 4, were born months early at 27 weeks, each weighing just 2 pounds and with severe heart and lung issues. At the time, Jennifer was working in Sanofi’s global clinical immunology clinical testing group and powering through a high-risk pregnancy. One day she was at work and then suddenly in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) the next, beginning a long journey of constant medical care, sleepless nights, fear and worry. 

Jennifer and her husband Rick hold their twins, Rylee and Ryder, for the first time

Over the next few years, Jennifer settled into a new routine with her twins on top of starting a new role at work. Jennifer manages operational support for one of Sanofi’s biosafety research labs focused on vaccines. Then, COVID-19 hit. The lab, set to open months later, morphed into ground zero for COVID-19 vaccine research operations and went live in just weeks. Her new job suddenly had a new focus: a previously unknown and highly infectious virus, and all eyes were on it. 

Jennifer has an uncanny way of finding herself immersed in unexpected challenges, traversing them with resolve and can-do spirit. During Mother’s Day, we share Jennifer’s story and celebrate all moms who juggle, adapt, pivot and meet adversity head on.

What’s her secret? 

“It’s all perspective,” Jennifer notes. “I could go down that path of ‘poor me,’ but what’s that going to do for you? My twins are my source of strength. When you watch your tiny children literally fight for their lives, you learn the true spirit of determination. They’re better off watching their mom be a successful and strong woman. That is also a lesson I learned from my own mother – my greatest inspiration. Nothing is ever going to come easy. They learn by watching me navigate life and take on challenges.”  

The challenges associated with premature birth can be enormous. Ryder spent 62 days in the NICU, required mechanical breathing support for over a month and a feeding tube for nearly two months. He had a hole in his heart and a defect in his aorta, causing fluid buildup in his lungs. Jennifer calls him the easy one.

Rylee was not breathing at birth, required intubation and had a feeding tube for 70 days. She had poor strength and lung function, brain and lung bleeding and she needed emergency surgery for a double groin hernia after 86 days in the NICU, once Ryder was already home. She had the same aortic defect as her brother, although hers would require heart surgery at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) at age 3 when the pandemic was in full swing. The twins needed in-home care for their first two years of life.

Against all odds, Ryder and Rylee today are thriving and developmentally on track. “My twins are little miracles,” Jennifer says. “In the NICU we watched them fight for their lives and we were told their chances of developmentally keeping up with their actual age was slim to none.” 

Despite having a strong support network and help from her husband Rick, parents and in-laws, Jennifer suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and had difficulty learning to manage her fears once they left the NICU. To help in her healing process, she became an advisor for St. Luke’s Hospital, traveling and attending conferences to share her experience to help other parents of premature babies. 

“Sharing my story is what helped me overcome the hardest years of my life. It allowed me to face my fears,” she says.

When the pandemic started, she found the worry and concern resurfacing. But her twins have taught her something about not giving up. 

“Preemies have a fight inside them like no other. They amaze us every day with their will to overcome every setback thrown at them.” 

A lot like their mom.