Every day, ICU nurse Ashlee Schwartz arrives at work at Mercy Hospital in Arkansas and immediately checks their COVID-19 stats. She said the cases had surged in the summer – and most of the patients were unvaccinated. One August day, a patient stood out to Schwartz – Emily Robison, who was just 22 years old.
"I literally got up from my chair and walked over to her room," Schwartz told CBS News. "And I had just talked to her nurse and was like, 'What is her story?' And I learned she was 28 weeks pregnant."
The CDC says battling COVID-19 while pregnant can lead to severe complications. They urge all people over the age of 12 to get vaccinated – including pregnant women.
Robison's husband, Eric Robison, told CBS News neither of them were vaccinated when his wife was admitted to the hospital.
Knowing Robison's condition, Schwartz was concerned for her and her baby, who would be named Carmen. "I knew that, more than likely, Carmen, their little girl, would be home well before Emily would be," Schwartz said.
"All I could image was, if Emily could truly overcome COVID, and she made it home and she just walks into her house and she doesn't have much of anything for this little girl, and she just looks around and just says to herself, 'Why couldn't have someone helped me?' So, I literally just felt called to make sure Emily had what she needed," she said.
Schwartz said she later met Eric, who is 23, and he said they didn't have much for their baby, except for clothes. He also didn't know what a baby registry was, Schwartz said.
"I happened to just walk down the hall and I saw Eric sitting in this chair, just staring into Emily's room. I just all of a sudden thought to myself, 'This could be me,'" she said. "And you know, it's the truth with COVID, I mean any patient's story that's in our ICU could very well become our own story. I mean, I could be the one laying in the bed. Or I could be the one sitting in Eric's chair."
After meeting Eric, Schwartz was compelled to help the couple. So she wrote in a private Facebook group for fellow nurses, asking if anyone would be interested in chipping in for a baby registry.
She made two registries – or lists of specific gifts for expecting couples and their babies. When nearly everything was bought off those registries, she made a third.
The story spread on social media and on the local news. In less than two weeks, strangers had sent the Robisons hundreds of baby gifts.
"I got to do the fun part. I got to do the registry and be like, 'Oh, I'd want this and I would want this.' But then, it's the community and it's the nation that's coming together and just gifting this little girl," Schwartz said.
She had a vision of Robison going home to be surprised by the gifts. But that didn't happen.
Robison died on September 20, but her daughter was born via emergency C-section at 29 weeks. Born at 2 pounds 9 ounces, Carmen is still in the NICU. But Eric said she should be able to come home in seven days.
While Eric still has to deal with Emily's death, he doesn't have to worry about filling Carmen's room with things she needs – thanks to Schwartz's outreach. "Emily was a tremendous spirit, the kind that could lift you up no matter the mood," he told CBS News. "And Carmen will know all of those who have donated and helped during this process, I promise."
Schwartz said she never expected the story to touch so many hearts.
"Especially when you're an ICU nurse, life can just become so depressing, the reality of this virus. When you walk through those doors, it's just a whole different life," she said. "But I tell you, this registry and just seeing these people come together for this little baby, it has just brought my life so much joy."
The nurse said this story is not just about paying it forward, but about how serious the virus can be. Eric said he decided to get vaccinated, receiving his first dose on Tuesday.