‘Once a preemie, always a preemie:’ Mother reflects on her son’s remarkable journey from the NICU
When Shalece Kimble watches her 4-year-old son, Shea, barrel through the house at top speed or navigate his bike outside, she can hardly believe he is the same child who was just a fragile 2 lbs., 3 oz. when he was born prematurely on March 28, 2016.
Shalece was 30 weeks pregnant when she went to UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital for a follow-up sonogram. At a routine prenatal appointment the week before, doctors felt the baby was smaller than he should be, so they asked her to come back for a second look.
She told her husband, Dion, not to bother calling off work; convinced that there was no danger, she brought her aunt instead, and the two women made plans to go for lunch after the appointment.
“When I got down there, they did the first sonogram. I could tell by their reaction that something was wrong, but they didn’t want to alarm me,” she recalled. “They said, ‘We’re going to send you upstairs for a uterine sonogram and a monitor.’”
Her older son, Dion 2nd, was born at full term 11 years earlier with no complications. So while her aunt panicked, Shalece — a former nursing assistant — remained calm: “I’m not a person who panics a whole lot,” she said, adding that throughout the process, she was thinking, “It’s only 30 weeks. I’m not having this baby today.”
And then the doctor on duty came in and said that, in fact, she was. The blood in the umbilical cord was flowing backward, preventing the baby from getting vital nutrients. She would have to undergo an emergency Cesarian section.
According to Dr. Yoel Sadovsky, MD, executive director of Magee-Womens Research Institute, the reversal of blood flow in the umbilical cord is usually caused by a dysfunction in the placenta — a complication Dr. Sadovsky and other researchers at the institute study.
In such cases, delivery is induced in an effort to save the baby’s life, he noted: “If you don’t deliver someone who has these kinds of findings, some babies don’t even make it.”
But at that moment, Shalece was in denial, even though the staff advised her to call her husband and get him to the hospital.
“I was absolutely not going for it,” she recalled. “In my mind, it wasn’t happening to me; it was happening around me.”
Finally, her aunt called her husband, who arrived in time for the emergency delivery. Their son was born at 1:33 p.m., but Shalece’s blood pressure skyrocketed, so she only glimpsed him before he went to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
Once she stabilized, the staff wheeled her, still in her hospital bed, to meet her tiny son.
“There were more cords and plugs than baby,” she said. “I was able to see him, really see him. From there, it was me and him.”
Little Shea spent two months and three days in the NICU. After seeing her older son on the school bus in the morning, Shalece traveled back to the hospital, where she would sing to Shea, read to him from the Game of Thrones series, and talk.
“I told him, ‘You’re a squatter in this NICU. You’re coming home,’” she said. “I willed this baby into coming home.”
Of the 380,000 babies born prematurely in the United States each year, rates are up to 50 percent higher among women of color, according to the March of Dimes. Black children face an infant mortality rate that is more than twice as high as other infants, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, making prematurity the largest contributor to infant mortality disparities.
Shea spent the first few hours of his life on oxygen and was treated with bilirubin lights for jaundice. He went through several blood transfusions and experienced a brain bleed, but no surgery was required. He also had retinopathy of prematurity, an eye disorder caused by abnormal blood vessel growth in the retina of premature infants, and wears glasses now. He also undergoes physical therapy for mild cerebral palsy.
About a quarter to a third of preterm births are medically induced, Dr. Sadovsky said. Less than 5 percent of all babies need to have a medically-induced preterm delivery for growth restriction, and in the majority of these cases, the placenta is the cause.
“This is a typical case of what we’re studying in our lab,” Dr. Sadovsky said. “One of the major goals of our research is better diagnosis, and importantly, prevention of these kinds of stories.”
Despite the long odds, Shea is now in preschool, and most people don’t realize he has had difficulty walking or climbing steps in the past. He adores sports and superheroes, and he looks up to his big brother.
“He’s your average 4-year-old boy. He is loud. He is fast,” said Shalece.
She knows his premature birth will always influence other parts of his life; she’ll have to be careful about his participation in sports because of his early brain bleeds, and she pays attention to how he learns things, or even how he holds a pencil.
“Once a preemie, always a preemie. You are always on high alert,” she said. She belongs to a support group for mothers of premature infants, where she both draws and offers encouragement.
Asked what advice she would offer to a new mother of a preemie, Shalece said: “Take it one day at a time. Don’t hesitate to cry; crying is good. Don’t feel bad, and reach out for help.”
She remembers how worried she was, and looks at her 4-year-old son riding a bike and realizes how far he has come.
“You have to try a little harder as a parent,” she said, but added, “Being born premature doesn’t mean they aren’t going to be the kid you thought they were going to be.”
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