The night my son, Jackson, came barreling into the world four months too soon, my husband and I shakily stood at his bedside in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and listened to the neonatologist compassionately but matter-of-factly explain the many challenges Jackson would face during the first hours, weeks and months of his NICU stay. The first of which was just to breathe. The doctor went on to explain that Jackson might be deaf or blind, he may have Cerebral Palsy or mental retardation, he may have life-long respiratory problems, he may have speech and learning delays. We were in a state of shock! How could this have happened? Why us? Why Jackson? Were we prepared to be the parents this tiny, medically fragile baby needed us to be?
I admit it took months before I would allow myself to envision Jackson as a NICU graduate. I was so afraid of losing him, I could not allow my heart and my mind to picture rocking him in his nursery, helping him take his first steps or blowing out birthday candles. I certainly would never have dreamed of him playing football in seventh grade. And never could I have imagined him guarding a wide receiver three times his size, intercepting a pass and darting for the end zone. But recently, this dream played out in full color on a brightly lit football field in Texas. While he did not score, to this preemie mom, it was so much more than a touchdown! As I screamed and rang my cowbell as if it were Super Bowl Sunday, I could not hold back the tears. It seemed like a defining moment in our family’s quest to overcome prematurity.
Maybe it is only something another NICU parent can fully understand, but this was so much more than an interception, it was a symbol of the resiliency and strength of preemies and babies born with special health care needs. It was a reminder of our tremendous blessings and the insurmountable obstacles hundreds of thousands of NICU families must overcome to ensure their child meets their full potential. It was victory over respiratory infections, surgeries, occupational, speech and physical therapy, sensory integration disorder, ADHD, learning delays and hours upon hours of doctor’s appointments and consultations with teachers, therapists and tutors.
During November (Prematurity Awareness Month), Hand to Hold celebrates the resiliency and strength of our NICU super heroes through our national photo and essay contest, Preemie Power. NICU parents from across the U.S. and three other countries flooded our Website with stories of tiny babies that beat the odds. There are many who will endure lifelong medical and developmental challenges, but each brings so much joy and light into the world and the lives of all who know them.
While great strides have been made during the past decade to reduce the rate of preterm birth, the parents of more than 15 million babies born preterm each year worldwide (about 500,000 in the U.S.) must have access to support, resources and ongoing education to equip them to be meet the needs of their medically fragile child to ensure their tiny super hero reaches his/her full potential.
In celebration of World Prematurity Day today and to honor the preemies in the U.S. and around the world, I ring my cowbell for all the amazing preemies who inspire me daily to never give up and to enjoy life to the fullest! A special shout out to Bryce for his stellar performance in the Miracle League and Andie who skis competitively! Three cheers for Hanna and Rachel who excel on the track, and Casey and Brooklyn for their beautiful ballet! Spencer, keep mixing it up in martial arts. Lauren keep wowing the crowd with your back handsprings and Ella bring down the house with your Irish dance! You are what Preemie Power is all about!
In honor of all the precious children born early, I would love to hear about the defining moments of the preemie(s) in your life.