At 25 weeks, Brittney Crystal’s second pregnancy with her daughter, Iris, seemed to be stable.
Because her son was been born prematurely, Crystal’s doctor had performed a cerclage — a cervical stitch meant to prevent preterm birth.
Then her water broke.
Crystal was taken to Danbury Hospital, where she texted Joy Vink, a doctor she visited for a second opinion who serves a co-director of Columbia University’s Preterm Birth Prevention Center.
An ambulance took Crystal into the city, where she stayed for two weeks.
Her life became a waiting game — if she made it to 28 weeks before giving birth, her daughter stood a much better chance of survival.
Things were looking good up until 27 weeks and five days into her pregnancy.
That’s when “things went very wrong,” she told The Press.
Crystal went into labor, and was rushed down the hall for an emergency C-section. Within two minutes, Iris was born.
“I had Iris on July 15, 2017, Crystal said, “she was born and died on the same day.”
Crystal and her husband Jose Aleman came up with the name Iris eight weeks into her pregnancy, she said.
The name came from Greek mythology — Iris is the goddess of the rainbow.
Crystal said the name represents “a hope and an anchor at the same time.”
That hope lives on through The Iris Fund, a philanthropy Crystal set up to fund Vink’s research into preterm birth prevention.
“I think I set up the fund about a week after her death,” Crystal said.
In the aftermath of losing her child, Crystal was shocked to learn how little doctors still know about a woman’s pregnancy, and what causes babies to be born prematurely.
“We started asking the basic questions,” said Crystal, “... like if a woman’s water breaks, how can you not stop it? We got a rover on Mars, you can whiten your teeth with tape — surely we can do better for women?”
She was soon shocked to learn that doctors still don’t fully understand what triggers a woman’s body to go into labor even at full term.
“That was when we were like ‘oh, this is just ridiculous,’” Crystal recalled.
About 500,000 children are born prematurely in the U.S. each year — about the population of Fresno, Calif., Crystal explained.
Doctors don’t even fully understand the tissues that make up a woman’s cervix, she said.
Most of the research doctors do have on the basics of pregnancy dates from the 1940s, Vink told her.
As luck would have it, Dr. Vink is one of the people looking for those answers.
At the Preterm Birth Prevention Center, Vink provides well-known treatments, like progesterone shots and cerclages that have been shown to reduce the chances of a preterm birth, but it also works on experimental treatments, like a vaginal pessary, a piece of silicone designed to support the uterus at the cervix.
Vink, whose research was recently featured by NPR, is also looking at the specific tissues that make up a woman’s cervix with her colleague Kristin Myers, who teaches mechanical engineering at Columbia.
Myers is a mechanical engineer who grew up working on cars in Detroit and looks at novel approaches to viewing pregnancy through an engineer’s eye, like answer questions such as, “What’s the load bearing capacity of a cervix?” And creating models that answer such questions.
Myers’ lab focuses on comparing the cervixes of women who experience normal pregnancies, versus women with abnormal cervixes that are thought to contribute to premature birth. The goal is to learn what triggers full-term birth to eventually stop it from occurring early — ending pre-term birth.
In a little more than 18 months, the fund has raised over $160,000.
In some ways, Crystal was uniquely qualified to organize the funding.
As a former aide worker for the United Nations and Save the Children, she spent most of her professional life managing funds for disaster relief.
She worked for eight months in Japan after the 2011 tsunami, and helped in the Philippines after the islands were hammered by Super Typhoon Yolanda.
Crystal said she’s not necessarily a subscriber to the theory “everything happens for a reason.”
I don’t know that I believe that, but I did feel like I had a skillset to build something in her memory because of my background in philanthropy,” she said.
She hopes Vink’s work will help give women peace of mind when they ask their doctor about what to expect.
“Just walking into your doctor, women should have these basic answers,” Crystal said. “And I just felt like, I don’t have a million dollars. I can’t be some big philanthropist giver. But I know some people, and I know how to organize, so maybe we’ll do this and see where it goes.”
To learn more about The Iris Fund, go to www.theirisfund.org.