Vickroy: Local families thankful 2012 was year of miracles
By Donna Vickroy email@example.com Twitter: @dvickroy December 28, 2012 5:26PM
Dennis and Bridget Lenihan, of Oak Lawn, with their children Gabby, 5, Clare, 11 months, and Jimmy, 7, Wednesday, December 19, 2012. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 31, 2013 6:07AM
Some of medicine’s greatest feats have come in the form of tiny heartbeats.
Premature babies who not only survive but thrive are symbols of how advanced medicine, technology and science are today.
They are also symbols of hope. In a world where there is too much sadness, too much unfairness and too much darkness, teeny, tiny bundles of life are proof that humanity’s light endures.
And that is why we close out 2012, a particularly painful year for many, with a look at three little miracles.
Cameron and Violet Sheppard came into this world 14 weeks before expected. They’ve had their share of challenges and have given their parents enough to worry about, but now the twins are doing well. Both are expected to get clearance to head to their Orland Park home in time to celebrate their actual due date, Jan. 26.
Meanwhile, to look at Clare Lenihan today, you’d never know she was born premature and that her family came so close to losing her that the chaplain was called in.
Clad in a ballerina tutu, the Oak Lawn infant is clapping her hands, playing with toys and getting ready to create some serious toddler havoc.
Siblings under stress
They were born Oct. 23, both weighing just over 2 pounds. First-born Violet has had it a bit easier than her brother. Cameron endured heart surgery within two weeks after birth. He continues to lag behind his sister’s progress, but all signs are good that he eventually will catch up.
Their mother, Elisabeth “Betsy” Sheppard, was awakened at 3:30 a.m. Oct. 19 by painful contractions. They were 10 minutes apart when her doctor told her to get to the hospital.
By the time she and husband Dennis reached 95th Street, en route to Christ Medical Center that Friday, the pains were two minutes apart.
“It was unreal,” Betsy said. “Still, I thought, ‘They’ll probably just give me something to make them stop.’ ”
Dennis recalled how things were calm and quiet in the emergency room until test results started coming back.
“We went from having one person in the room to 15,” he said. “They told us the babies were coming.”
Betsy asked her doctor what the babies’ survival chances were. She’ll never forget the answer.
“They said, ‘60 percent,’ ” she said.
Dennis and Betsy asked the ultrasound technician to tell them the gender.
“We wanted to give them names and pray for them and think of them as real people, just in case,” Dennis said.
With medication, doctors were able to stop the labor for a few days.
While the couple were watching Monday Night Football, the contractions returned. This time, there was no stopping them. The babies were born Tuesday morning, just before 6 a.m. Each was whisked off for tests and treatment.
“The worst part was not hearing or seeing them for hours,” Betsy said.
The best part came when they learned their son and daughter were OK, even though they weighed about the same as a quart of milk.
“Being able to stop the labor from Friday to Monday made a huge difference,” Betsy said. “Because they were able to give Cameron two doses of steroids while in utero. That helped him a lot.”
Violet spent three days on a ventilator, while Cameron was on one for three weeks. Cameron also had a PDA ligation, a procedure to close a vessel linking the heart and lungs, thus enabling his lungs to work more efficiently.
Prognosis is good
Mario Sanchez, a neonatologist at Christ Medical Center, said while science has not made any major dents in stemming the myriad causes of premature births, technology has come a long way in terms of saving these babies and bringing them up to speed.
Sanchez was a fellow at Loyola when the medical center welcomed the world’s smallest baby, weighing less than a can of soda.
More important than weight, though, he said, is gestational age. A baby can be small and still survive if he has enough weeks of development under his belt.
“The youngest we tend to resuscitate is 23 weeks,” he said.
The big issues with preemies are lung development and learning how to eat.
Before birth, a baby does not need the use of his lungs; oxygen travels through the bloodstream. After birth, the lungs are called to duty. If they aren’t developed sufficiently, the lack of oxygen to the organs can cause major damage.
Sanchez credits modern ventilators with saving many premature babies.
For a baby to be discharged, he must have sufficient lung development and display signs of feeding readiness, Sanchez said.
Doctors like to see the preemies breathing on their own, but they can be sent home with an oxygen tank, if necessary.
Nurses look for signs of oral sucking and swallowing. Once they see those, Sanchez said, bottles can be introduced. Because preemies typically don’t have any body fat, they can’t be sent home unless they are able to eat on their own.
Most premature babies go home a month before their due dates, Sanchez said.
Violet recently took part of a bottle.
“She’s doing well; Cameron’s not showing any signs he wants to take a bottle yet,” Betsy said. “He’s the one I worry about in the middle of the night. He’s the one who stresses me out.”
Ultimately, summed up neonatologist Dr. Corryn Greenwood, “The babies are in charge.”
Betsy, a seventh-grade reading teacher at Veterans Memorial School in Blue Island, spends all day, every day, at the hospital. Dennis, a software developer, comes by in the morning before work and again after his day at the office.
“I know it’s not going to be normal even when they do come home. It’ll be crazy,” Betsy said. “I just want to hold them when I want to hold them. In the beginning I was so scared all the time. ‘Will they be OK? Will they be OK?’ Now I just miss them so much. I want to hold them and feed them and change their diapers.”
“I want to see them in their cribs in their own room,” Dennis said. “It will complete the picture.”
Sanchez said a preemie’s development is continuously monitored.
“If they’re going to catch up, they will do so by 2 years old,” he said.
Close call for Clare
When Clare Lenihan was born five weeks early, her parents, Bridget and Dennis, did not panic.
“We were quite calm about it all,” Bridget said. “We knew what to expect.”
Their oldest child, Jim, was born premature.
Clare remained in stable condition that first night and all the next day. But by the following morning, Bridget was told her baby girl’s right lung had collapsed. Doctors immediately inserted a chest tube.
“I asked to see her, and while the doctor was showing her to me, she crashed again,” Bridget said.
Clare was put on a ventilator, but for some reason she rejected the breathing machine.
“They told us she needed to be transferred to University of Chicago Medical Center,” said Bridget, who taught elementary school before becoming a full-time mom.
For what seemed like forever, but was likely just a half-hour, the Lenihans waited in terror while medical staff at Little Company of Mary Hospital used a hand pump to keep Clare alive while they awaited the medivac.
“It was so frightening,” Bridget said.
Dennis, a plumber, rode in the ambulance with Clare to the Chicago hospital.
“There were so many things going through my mind. First, I was hoping she’s going to make it,” he said. “It’s not promising to see a team coming for your kid. You don’t know what’s going on and the only thing anyone can tell you is that they’re doing their best.
“When a priest shows up in the intensive care unit,” he said, “you realize you’re on a string of hope.”
Somehow, some way, little Clare pulled through. On Feb. 13, three weeks after she was born, she came home and was welcomed by her sister, Gabrielle, 5, and big brother, Jim, 7.
Today, Clare’s pediatrician can find no signs of developmental delay, even though she went nearly two minutes without oxygen during the ordeal, Dennis said.
She weighs a healthy 20 pounds and will celebrate her first birthday Jan. 24.
“She’s such a happy baby,” Dennis said.
Bridget added, “She’s the baby that people dream of having.”
“We call her our little miracle, our Clare Bear,” Dennis said.