Grandmother Robbie Montgomery, a Mississippi-born and St. Louis-raised entertainer and entrepreneur, has many claims to fame, including touring and singing back-up vocals as an Ikette for Ike and Tina Turner. Currently, Miss Robbie’s fame centers around her steady climb to successful restaurateur (along with son, Tim Norman) of three St. Louis-area Sweetie Pie’s restaurants, nationally known for the down-home menu items Robbie’s mother taught her to make when she was a girl. They say you can never get show biz out of your system, so the restaurants’ success, coupled with Miss Robbie’s entertainment background, landed the family a prime time network slot on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) with a reality show/docuseries called “Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s.”
For Miss Robbie’s grandson Timmy — or TJ, as some family members call him — there was a time when being the center of attention wasn’t just about being cute. During the first five months of Timmy’s life, that attention had little to do with performances and focused on live-saving and life-sustaining measures from a team of caregivers in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital. Since arriving at exactly 27 weeks gestation, less than 12 inches long and weighing 1 pound 6 ounces, Timmy has been the center of attention of not only parents Jenae Wallick and Tim Norman, their family and friends, and the adoring viewers of “Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s,” but the world-class caregivers in the NICU.
Yes, Timmy was born a star and already has quite a following, but it was his premature life debut that initially caused such a stir. NICU Medical Director and Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Saint Louis University School of Medicine Farouk Sadiq, MD, says that Timmy was “a little smaller than you would expect” at 27 weeks and attributes that to his mother’s onset of high blood pressure (preeclampsia) early in her last trimester.
Wallick will never forget that visit to her obstetrician — the first time she and fiancé Norman allowed the OWN production crew to accompany them and capture that element of Season One’s storyline — when what should have been routine turned emergent with an unusually high blood pressure reading. “I’d had no risks during pregnancy. Everything was perfect — I was over the top on doing everything just right,” Wallick says. “They just happened to be here for the scariest moment of my life, for all the world to see,” she continues. An ultrasound, further testing and examinations by specialists determined that her baby needed to be delivered by Cesarean section the next evening.
Although apprehensive about Timmy’s early arrival, it was love at first sight. “He was tiny. I could have held him with one hand,” Wallick says. Timmy’s parents spent only five minutes with their tiny son before he was transported to SSM Health Cardinal Glennon. “I got to touch him and hold his hands, but I didn’t get to hold him for almost a week,” she continues.
“My initial reaction was a mixture of fear and unconditional love. With TJ being so small, I knew it would be a while before I would feel comfortable holding him, but I was a dad at that very moment,” Norman says.
Dr. Sadiq says Timmy arrived at the NICU with many of the health problems common to babies of early gestation. “He had breathing difficulties because the lungs are immature. Because of the small size, these babies need to be in an incubator to keep them warm. Feeding and nutrition is a big problem because we can’t feed them the full amounts they need right away,” he explains. While Timmy initially experienced all these problems, Dr. Sadiq says he was weaned from mechanical ventilation quickly and progressed very well.
Throughout most of Timmy’s five-month stay in the NICU, his fairly uneventful and routine progress — breathing on his own and gaining weight gram by gram — was documented by the “Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s” crew. Onsite throughout Timmy’s stay, the crew respected SSM Health Cardinal Glennon’s privacy, security and infection regulations.
“It worked out fine,” says Dr. Sadiq. “They didn’t film while we talked to Timmy’s mom and dad in our daily conferences.” He compliments Wallick’s management of Timmy’s needs with the crew’s desire to document his progress, saying, “Mom was very, very particular. Jenae’s a fantastic person and a fantastic mother.”
In fact, it was Wallick who imposed additional restrictions on the crew. “There were times I’d say, ‘No, you can’t come back,’ if Timmy was having a rough time or anything was going on,” Wallick says.
After progressing without setback, and just about the time Timmy’s NICU caregivers were looking toward his discharge, he developed an infection so severe that he ended up back on a high-frequency ventilator and required medications to support his blood pressure and heart. “He was very critical at that time. He had been here for 3 1/2 months and was doing so well when he became so sick. It was a very difficult time for his mom and family,” Dr. Sadiq says.
Through it all, Timmy had an extraordinary support system from the Wallick, Norman and Montgomery families. Whether it was Wallick, her parents or other family members, “We always had someone here with him,” Wallick says.
With the difficult challenge of managing a business and a “family in crisis,” Norman says he somehow juggled each responsibility. “I came to the hospital every day, and nights I stayed in the parents’ rooms downstairs. I went to work because it was better for me to deal with the situation by getting back to normal. I knew TJ was in good hands here,” Norman says.
His ever-vigilant grandmother also visited Timmy daily in the NICU. “TJ was my first priority then, and still is now,” Montgomery says. She’s extremely proud of her grandson and hopes that, from her, he will learn to “stay prayerful and trust that prayer answers everything.” She also hopes that as TJ grows, he’ll learn that “patience and perseverance is the way.” Montgomery is testimony to that life lesson, explaining, “My proudest moment was the opening of Upper Crust (Sweetie Pie’s most recent addition in Grand Center). It’s my own building and in a neighborhood where, as a young girl, I wasn’t even allowed to eat in restaurants due to my race. Now, I am an owner and living my dream. Living his dream is what I wish for my grandson.”
After recovering from his setback, Timmy left the NICU at 5 months of age and a developmental or adjusted age of 2 months. “It’s how the doctors adjust for the delays in development and milestones for preemies,” Wallick explains. “He’s been hitting all his milestones. There really isn’t anything they’re concerned with, and that’s fantastic. We’ve been very, very blessed and fortunate.”
Miss Robbie’s hopes and dreams for her Sweetie Pie’s family include continuing health and happiness. “I want TJ to be healthy. As long as he is healthy, he can do whatever his heart desires. I pray that Jenae and Tim make it down the aisle next year. They have had a rough year, and they deserve to be happy. I also want them to have a couple more grandchildren for me to spoil!”
As the entertainer/entrepreneur knows so well, “patience and perseverance is the way.”