Stephen weighed 13 ounces when he was born. At nine months old, with his parents Dave and Lianne, he weighs 18 pounds.
It was only 25 weeks into her pregnancy, and Lianne McInerney knew something was wrong. Her blood pressure was extremely high, and the medical staff at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston said her baby boy, weighing just 13 ounces, would need to be delivered that day.
"Doctors gave us lots of options that we didn't want to hear at that point," Lianne says. "From the beginning, we always thought that there could be a chance that he would be okay." The Cesarean section delivery was successful, but the arduous journey for tiny Stephen McInerney—as well as Lianne and her husband, Dave—was just beginning.
With Stephen confined to an incubator, the McInerneys couldn't hold or even touch their baby for the first three weeks of his life. He suffered an additional setback with a bilateral grade three brain bleed. Lianne was eventually able to hold Stephen for brief periods of time with the assistance of a respiratory therapist, but his condition was still extremely critical. Though his prognosis was bleak, the McInerneys never gave up hope.
"He had pneumonia and sepsis and was one and half pounds," Lianne said. "But I refused to buy a casket."
Stephen's case is severe, but the incidence of premature births—babes born earlier than 37 weeks into a pregnancy—is not uncommon. November is National Prematurity Awareness Month, and November 17th is World Prematurity Day. The goal: to increase understanding about what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) deems a "national public health priority."
According to the CDC and the March of Dimes:
- About one in every 10 births in the United States is premature, making the American preterm birth rate among the worst of high-resource nations
- Premature birth and its complications are the number one cause of death of babies in the United States, accounting for 17 percent of infant deaths in 2015
- Babies who survive premature birth often have long-term health problems, including cerebral palsy, intellectual disabilities, chronic lung disease, blindness and hearing loss
- Risk factors include age, socioeconomic conditions, health-related behaviors (such as tobacco or alcohol use) and pregnancy history
Following several years of decline, the rate of preterm births nationwide has risen in the last two years. The CDC cites several factors that can help reduce the rate of premature births, including access to health care for women, early identification and treatment of at-risk women and avoiding elective deliveries prior to the 39th week of pregnancy.
For Stephen, those critical first several weeks included a stay at Boston Children's Hospital for a tracheotomy before he was transferred to Franciscan Children's in Brighton, Massachusetts, for post-acute rehabilitation. There, Dave and Lianne help care for Stephen by giving him his medications, changing his clothes and giving him baths. His rehabilitation protocol includes regular speech and physical therapy treatments.
Now at 9 months old and weighing 18 pounds, Stephen's remarkable progression has enabled him to finally go home in the midst of National Prematurity Awareness Month. For his proud parents, taking Stephen home marks another milestone in his incredible journey.
"Some people told us that Stephen would never walk, eat or see, but minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, he's proving them wrong," Lianne says. "We are hoping that things get easier and that we've hopefully been through the worst of it, but anything life throws at us, we know we can deal with it."
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