Saturday, July 16, 2011

To participate in a miracle: new hope for preemies

Thirty years ago, a beautiful baby was born into our family. She was extremely premature, only 26 wks. gestation. She was born in a very remote town that happened to have one of the newest NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) facilities in the country. (What are the odds?) She weighed 1 lb. 1 oz. at her birth.

I remember the phone call to my parents. The worry and the prayers. The trip to the little town in the middle of nowhere. The months of waiting and hoping, watching and marveling over the new procedures. The efforts of the medical staff to keep my niece alive, to help her to have a future. The chance to witness the science God had inspired to allow babies every chance to know life -- to participate in a miracle.

A 14 July story in the National Catholic Register featured the story of a 21 wk. preemie born in Germany, weighing 1 lb. 1 oz. Little Frieda is a miracle, too. The difference between this story and my niece's is one of gestational age. According to Pam Caylor, former executive director of First Choice Pregnancy Services in Las Vegas, NV:
“In the United States, that pretty much doesn’t happen before 22 weeks, no matter if the parents want the babies. You pretty much can’t force them (the doctors) to do it. That kind of became the medical standard across the U.S.”
At 21+ wks., doctors in Germany decided that Frieda's life had value, that she deserved a chance to fight for her life. Whether they realized it or not, they allowed God's grace to operate. They believed there was a chance, even though statistically the prognosis was poor.

The chances of survival are greatly diminished the younger the gestational age of the baby. It stands to reason, the longer the baby is in the womb the better the chances of delivering a healthy child. That places the physicians in a difficult spot ethically -- to treat or not to treat with such a poor chance of survival. After all, the medical costs alone are staggering -- Neonatal Intensive Care specialists and a hospital stay that lasts for months -- not to mention the toll it can take emotionally. But, what price can one put on the potential of the human spirit, the will to survive and the grace of God?

Perhaps Frieda's story will universally inspire doctors. Five weeks meant a future for my niece thirty years ago. Would they have fought as hard if she had been younger?  I hope so, because she's an amazing woman, and because every baby has dignity and deserves a chance to thrive.

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