I was born on October 25, 1956. My timing was a bit off; I wasn’t expected until the second week in December, a sort of early Christmas present from the stork. Instead, I was an early birthday present for my mother, who was born in mid-November.
I jumped the delivery gun by seven weeks.
I didn’t actually plan this. If I had, I’m sure I’d have been in the proper position for launch. As it was, the first part of me the startled doctor saw was my tiny, skinny, wrinkled butt (a physical state I’ve never been able to duplicate, though at this particular age, I’m working on the wrinkled part and feel sure I’ll achieve it before long).
It was a real big pain for my mom, my premature birth. Dad was caught off guard but he took it all in stride. All he had to do was pace the waiting room, smoking, wondering which flavor he’d gotten and hoping he’d know soon so he could go buy cigars to hand out. Mom was the frightened, brave girl-woman with her feet up in the cold steel stirrups, though, unprepared for any of it, no anesthesia, no Lamaze training – hell, no cigarettes. They had a hard time getting me out – I guess maybe I realized my mistake and changed my mind. Anyway, my birth took a long time. Mom endured it, terrified as she was.
I’m flip about this now, 53 years later. But the fact is, Dad was terrified for my mom and for me, because being born prematurely in the middle of the 20th Century was pretty dangerous situation. It still is, but today medicine can save the lives of premature babies who would surely have died back when I was born. I was terribly early and breech to boot. I’m lucky to be here at all.
They kept me at the hospital, in an incubator, for seven weeks. During that time my parents visited me every day, but they weren’t allowed to hold me. A nurse would get me out of the incubator for a minute or two and bring me to the window so Mom and Dad could look at me. At least once she held me up, cradled in and balanced in one hand, so my Dad could take a photo.
I gaze at that old, faded and yellowing black-and-white print in something like awe. My head wasn’t even as wide as her palm. My bare feet – each with the correct number of toes – couldn’t have been more than an inch long. And my toes: think baby corn kernels.
“You were like a baby doll,” Dad used to tell me, wonder in his voice, “but you were alive.” I had yellow jaundice because my premature liver wasn’t ready to work on baby formula yet. I had yellow fuzz on my head. Today my left ear lacks the curl-over along the top, making it sort of pointed, like an elf’s ear, because I wasn’t quite finished when I came off the assembly line.
I like to think that perhaps there’s an elf in my ancestry.
I’ve never met another preemie, but I know of one other, a man who’s a year older than I, and who, in a quirk of coincidence, is also of Finnish ancestry. Stephen Kuusisto is a poet, an author, and a professor of writing and disability studies at Iowa State University. He’s a speaker, a blogger, an advocate for people with disabilities and a Fullbright Scholar.
Kuusisto is also blind, a victim of the pure oxygen that was pumped into his incubator to help keep him alive. The trouble was the oxygen sometimes damaged the delicate eyes of premature babies.
The medical world realized this mistake the same year Kuusisto was born, 1955. Unfortunately, the practice wasn’t stopped in time to save his vision. By the time I was born, they no longer used pure oxygen in the incubator. My peepers were just fine, though I wear glasses and have for the last ten years or so. My eyes are getting old right along with me. Once again, I was very lucky.
I was a preemie, but I grew up to become an average-sized woman. I was on the slow end of the pediatric growth charts for the first seven years of my life, though, prompting my doctor to worry, privately, that I might be a midget.(He only told my mother years later.) Then I had my tonsils out and started growing like a weed.
Sevens have always been important in my life.
According to the March of Dimes, there are 31 percent more babies being born prematurely since 1981, the year my own daughter was born (right on time). Prematurity is the number one killer of newborns and can lead to lifelong disabilities. These babies aren’t only diminutive. They’re unable to suck, and often unable to breathe on their own. Their tiny bodies – their organs, brains, circulatory systems, renal systems and lungs aren’t ready for life outside the womb yet. That’s just not good. In fact, it’s tragic.
The March of Dimes – and millions of moms and dads and prospective moms and dads all over the world – would like to know why so many children are born before they’re “done.” Because right now, there’s no good, solid answer. Premature births happen without warning and often, without discernable reasons.
Many people are donating funds toward finding the answer, and a solution, for premature birth. You can be one of them, as I am. Visit http://marchofdimes.com/prematurity/index.asp for more information about how to do that, and how to raise awareness of this serious issue during November, Premature Awareness Month. Join us in the March of Dimes’ Fight for Preemies.