Tiny Miracles: Premature Babies Attest to the Dignity of Life

Baby Saybie and other little ones like her reflect the precious quality of their lives.

Above, Saybie, shown happy at home, was released last week from Sharp Mary Birch Hospital's NICU. Below, Anna and Jesse Ray’s son Joshua is shown at two days old, weighing less than 4 pounds. He is now a healthy teenager.
Above, Saybie, shown happy at home, was released last week from Sharp Mary Birch Hospital's NICU. Below, Anna and Jesse Ray’s son Joshua is shown at two days old, weighing less than 4 pounds. He is now a healthy teenager. (photo: Courtesy of Sharp Healthcare and the Ray family)

He weighed less than 10 ounces when he was delivered by emergency caesarean at 24 weeks and five days. His veins were too thin to administer intravenous drips. His mother described him as “so small … it seemed as if he would break if I touched him.”

When he was released from a Japanese hospital six months after his birth, he had grown to more than 7 pounds. According to a registry maintained by the University of Iowa, this micropreemie holds the record for the smallest newborn boy to be discharged from a hospital in good health.

Now, another baby has been recognized by the registry.

“The smallest surviving baby in the world was released this month from a San Diego hospital after being born at just 8.6 ounces,” Fox 5 San Diego reported May 29.

Saybie, born at 23 weeks and three days in December, weighed 5.6 pounds when released from the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Read more about Saybie here.

These tiny babies reflect a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine that found that there are premature babies surviving outside the womb earlier than doctors once thought possible.

“Now, 90% of babies born at 28 weeks will survive,” Dr. William Stigall, a Catholic pediatric intensivist at Cook Children’s Medical Center in Forth Worth, Texas, told the Register. “Now 23-24 weeks is the age of viability, meaning 50% of those babies will survive.”

For parents of prematurely born babies, issues of statistical viability can take a backseat to faith, fervent hope and determination.

Linda Raleigh’s youngest two children (Nos. 6 and 7) were born prematurely, one four weeks early and the other five. In both cases, it was her high blood pressure that led to the premature births. “There wasn’t enough amniotic fluid; it was going to be bad for the baby not to be born,” she explained. But in both cases, she was fortunate to be diagnosed early and to receive what she describes as “the best care.”

During her last pregnancy, one OB-GYN asked Raleigh, “Are you willing to go through with this?”

Raleigh, a Catholic, shared her exchange with the doctor: “I said, ‘I’m 100% pro-life,’ and she said, ‘That’s exactly what I want to hear.’”

Both of Raleigh’s prematurely born babies spent weeks in the NICU, but now that they are 15 and 11 years old, it’s clear that being born early did not negatively impact them in mind or body — although, Raleigh notes with a dry chuckle, they are her only two children who wear glasses.

“It really made me trust God a lot,” she added. “He wants these little people born. They’re willed into existence by God.”

“It gave me a lot of faith in medicine, too, honestly,” she added. “They did amazing things.”

Giving a preemie required treatment is not always simple — or inexpensive. That’s where the line of viability can come into play, with some health care providers declining to treat infants born at an earlier stage. That New England Journal of Medicine Study, for instance, found that hospitals vary widely in their approach to 22-week-olds: A few offered no active medical treatment, and, at the other end of the spectrum, a handful offered assertive treatments such as ventilation, intubation and surfactant, a treatment that improves the functioning of the newborn’s lungs.

Stigall explains that there are differences between ordinary and extraordinary interventions — something one must do and something one can do.

And many factors can impact what’s considered ordinary and what’s considered extraordinary: money and geography, for instance (extraordinary interventions may not even be available in every locale).

“What doesn’t change is the infinite worth of that person,” he said. “The primary concern is the patient.”

For Jessica Spradlin, that seemed obvious when she went into preterm labor and her son Kailor Dean was born at 22 weeks and four days, at the local hospital — closer than the facility where her specialist worked, which was 45 minutes away. But the local hospital’s policy was to provide care for babies born at 23 weeks — and Kailor was a few days younger than that. So he received no medical assistance, and he died 51 minutes after being born.

“This is a baby that was prayed for, wanted and loved from the beginning,” recalled Spradlin. “They could have tried and failed, but at least they would have known every effort was made.”

Now Spradlin is focused on raising awareness of the fact that hospitals can have different policies for providing care to preemies — a fact that could literally make the difference between life and death.

“Preemies are fighters. They first fight for the will to live, the will to go home from the NICU, and the will to prove that they were worthy of the fight put up by medical professionals to get them through it all,” she said.

Even with assertive treatment and care, not every prematurely born baby will survive. But the miracle of life is clear, no matter how short its span. Catholic mom Anna Ray has experienced that firsthand. She is raising a family of eight with her husband, Jesse, and also had three miscarriages.

She was 21 years old when she gave birth to her first son, Joshua, at 33 weeks and five days. She’d developed a pregnancy-related complication known as pre-eclampsia just a few weeks earlier and actually had a brief hospital stay before returning for an emergency caesarean section. But it was time enough to provide Ray with treatments to help speed up her baby’s lung development.

Now 16 years old, that prematurely born baby is a driving, piano-playing, potential future law student.  “I do think the argument that it’s just a ‘clump of cells’ should be unraveling,” his mother said.

The three baby boys that did not survive to birth miscarried at about 12 weeks and their life was apparent, Ray emphasized: “I had ultrasounds of the babies — clearly boys, perfectly formed.”

Elisabeth Deffner writes from Orange, California.