Age: 14. Born March 27, 1996 at 24 weeks
When I found out I was pregnant on January 8, 1996, in the middle of one of the worst snowstorms that Western Massachusetts had seen in years, I began looking forward to the huge belly and swollen ankles, the cravings in the middle of the night and feeling my baby move for the first time… etc.
Little did I know that few of those things actually came to pass.
I was in and out of the ER for the next couple of months, with explanations for my pain such as “mild pregnancy related discomfort” to “round ligaments stretching”. The only glimmer of joy in that time was my first ultrasound, showing a normal, healthy 18-week baby boy.
When I woke up on the morning of March 25, I felt as if I’d been run over by an 18-wheeler and as I stood to get up from bed, I felt my first contraction. For the next eleven hours, I was on the phone with my doctor on an hourly. When the contractions started coming every ten minutes, they finally decided that it might be a good idea for me to come in.
Upon arrival at the hospital, I was found to be three centimeters dilated and in full active labor. It was ceased immediately and, after struck with a high fever, I had a battery of tests run. My amniocentesis returned with results that none of us wanted to hear; I had an infection in the amniotic fluid and delivery of my baby was imminent.
I was only 24 weeks pregnant.
At the time, the odds I was given for his survival were not good –15-20% if he hadn’t been infected, 5-10% if he had, and the risk of physical complications were very high due to his extreme prematurity. I remember realizing that I wouldn’t be hearing my baby cry when he was born, because he wouldn’t be able to breathe on his own. That I wouldn’t have him placed on my stomach after that final push. That I was barely even showing yet, and I was already in a delivery room.
At 1:03 am on March 27, Dakota Christopher was born weighing in at a “whopping” (doctor’s words, not mine) 1lb 7.6 oz, and measuring 13 inches long. And after one brief glance at my brand new baby boy, he was whisked out of the room to the NICU and I didn’t see him again for another six hours. Another baby in his “pod” had been born only hours before and wasn’t going to make it through the night, so the pod was closed off to all visitors out of respect for the parents; a harsh and all too frequent reality in any NICU.
Nothing could have prepared me for the first time I saw my little boy. Tubes and needles everywhere, his skin so translucent that he was bright red, and his tiny chest vibrating from the oscillator he was attached to. The “huge” warming bed he was on made him appear just that much smaller, and his little hand barely fit around my index finger.
As with most preemies, there were tiny steps forward and many setbacks, but amazingly, we were extraordinarily lucky. Although there were countless blood transfusions, bouts with apnea and bradycardia, jaundice, and very slow weight gain – which delayed holding him for the first time for more than a month when he finally reached two pounds – he was otherwise very healthy and had no brain bleeds or required any surgery as many other babies in the NICU did. Out of the five preemies born that same night, he was the only one who made it home.
At the time, the hospital would not allow the babies to be discharged until they hit the five pound mark, and he finally did on June 16th, and preparations could finally be made for him to come home. And on June 20th, almost a month before his due date, I walked out of the hospital with my baby, oxygen tank and heart monitor in tow, which he would have until his first birthday.
I’ve always been a firm believer in the saying “everything happens for a reason”, and though it took me a while to figure it out, I always knew that was the case with this experience as well. Being the mom of a preemie, both before and after they leave the hospital, brings out a strength in us that we’d otherwise never know we had. You never think about how tired you are, or that the hospital staff is more familiar with you than the rest of your family… everything ceases to be about you. You learn to never take anything for granted, even something as simple as a pregnancy, and, in my case, always trust what your body is trying to tell you.
I may have never gotten the big belly or the swollen ankles, and barely even felt my baby move. My baby shower may have taken place 2 ½ months after he was born. I may have watched my little boy go in for two separate hernia surgeries when he was seven and eleven months old, and worked through horrific winters with his chronic bronchiolitis and Albuterol updrafts every 2-4 hours for years, and even more years of physical and speech therapy. But I know what it’s like to experience a true miracle and I’ve cherished every single day I’ve had with him. And now that tiny baby who once literally fit in the palm of my hand is fourteen years old, and beginning to tower over his mom at a “whopping” 5’8”.
However, I’ll say again, I am one of the extremely fortunate. You think when you become pregnant that it can only happen to everyone else, and I am one of those who now know it can happen to anyone. And without the efforts of the March of Dimes, success stories would be even fewer and farther between.