The Preemie Prism: As her twins enter high school, a mom reflects on their perilous journey
The flashbacks don't come as frequently as they used to, not since my twin boys became teenagers, shot up a few inches and started sounding like men. But the memories still rush back at the oddest times, such as the evening last fall when I was sitting in the stands at one of their football games. It was a home game on one of the nicest artificial turf fields in Howard County. Our team, the Columbia Ravens, had already scored. Now, the spectators were on their feet again.
"Get him! Get him," they yelled.
I had been looking down at my BlackBerry, but hearing the excitement, I glanced up in time to see the football sail through the air and into the hands of an opposing player. He was wide open, about to make a run for the end zone. Then, out of what seemed like nowhere, one of our players broke free from the crowded line of scrimmage and sprinted to the ball carrier, tackling him to the ground.
I blinked and adjusted my eyeglasses. "Did I just see what I thought I saw?" I whispered to my husband, who was sitting next to me. "Was that Cameron?"
"Yep," he said, staring at the field. He was thinking what I was thinking. Our son Cameron, who was so small at birth that he could fit into the palms of our hands, had just taken down a pretty good player.
I watched as Cameron popped off the downed player and strutted to his teammates, his slight but muscled body disappearing into the jumbled huddle. My mind flashed back to the neonatal intensive care unit and the doctors and nurses hovering over him.
"He's a fighter," I remember a doctor saying to me. "But he's very small. The first 24 hours will tell how he'll do. ..."
I'm sometimes surprised -- even shocked -- when Cameron and his brother, Matthew, now 14, shine on the gridiron, in the classroom or in other ordinary achievements. It's not that I have low expectations of my children, but I can never forget their precarious start in life. When they were born nearly 11 weeks before their due date in 1996, my husband, Benjamin Lumpkin, and I weren't even sure our boys would make it, let alone be able to play sports, take up the violin or sing in their school chorus. For the parents of a preemie -- a baby born before 37 weeks gestation -- the experience can range from awful (the baby's death) to blessed (survival with few, if any, lasting medical issues).
These days, more women are giving birth to preemies, partly because of the increased use of fertility drugs, which tend to result in multiple births. Many of these babies spend their first days in the neonatal intensive care unit -- the NICU, also the name and focus of a new television series that debuted last month on the Discovery Health Channel.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, preterm birth rates rose by more than one-third from the early 1980s until 2006, when they hit 12.8 percent. In 2008, 12.3 percent of babies were born premature. The medical costs are staggering, more than $26 billion in 2005, according to a report by the March of Dimes, a leader in the effort to improve the health of babies. Because of advances in science and medicine, the chances of survival for preemies, even those born before 24 weeks, are better than ever, says Alan Fleischman, medical director for the March of Dimes. But many of these children suffer developmental and medical problems that can be temporary or life-long.
This is the preemie prism through which I've viewed my boys' accomplishments. When I cheer at their football games, I do so not just because they make a key tackle but because, against scary odds, they can walk and run. When I applaud at their school concerts, I do it not just because they perform beautifully, but because Cameron and Matthew are up there with the rest of the kids. And this month, when my sons go off to high school, I'm sure I will shed a few tears, not just because I'm proud they've reached this milestone, but because 14 years ago, I feared this time might not come.