For 123 days, Ashley Coffey drove the 60-mile round trip from Killeen to visit her baby at the Scott & White neonatology intensive care unit in Temple.
During the first four weeks, she could only look into the incubator sustaining Levi Coffey, who weighed just 1 pound, 10 ounces, when he was born May 14, 2012 — just 24 weeks into Coffey’s pregnancy.
“I was there every day, which was not typical. I was even there on my (older) son’s birthday,” Coffey said. “I was fortunate to be able to do that.”
The trip wasn’t always easy, but the mother said she just couldn’t stay away. She wanted desperately to be involved in every stage of Levi’s progress.
During those months, Levi had ups and downs and was given a 50-50 chance of surviving, but he eventually grew into a healthy baby, leaving the intensive care unit exactly four months after his birth, weighing a healthy 9 pounds, 2 ounces.
“We are so incredibly blessed,” Coffey said. “It was a really hard year. It was emotionally taxing and life-changing, but I wouldn’t call it the worst year of my life. How could you say that about the year your baby was born?”
Nearly a half-million babies in the U.S. — about one in nine births — are born before 37 weeks gestation and considered premature, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Premature birth rates in Texas and Bell County are similar, with about 13 percent being premature.
Dr. Madhavi Koneru, a neonatal specialist with Scott & White, said the first year of a premature baby’s life is very different than that of a full-term baby. Preemies typically stay in the NICU until the mother’s original due date, then have a series of follow up appointments to track progress and growth. Many typically have issues with their eyesight, digestion and breathing, according to the CDC. Some lifelong effects include hearing loss and intellectual disabilities.
The average stay in the unit is about three months, Koneru said.
“You develop a very good bond with the family. You pretty much become (the) babies’ family and it’s very rewarding,” Koneru said.
The day she can send a baby home is both the best and hardest part of her job.
“You are so happy to send some babies home, but so nervous also, because this is a controlled environment and you are sending them out to an uncontrolled environment,” Koneru said. “The fact that somebody went home and can be a normal kid, that’s what brings us to work every day.”
Coffey still doesn’t know what caused the issues that led to Levi’s emergency birth. She carried her older son, Parker, 3, full-term with no issues. “Most days I don’t think about it. If you dwell and think about those horrific things — why would you torment yourself like that?” she said.
Levi is healthy today, but still faces challenges. He struggled to learn to eat and Coffey never took him out of the house during winter, because a common cold could be fatal for his underdeveloped immune system. He’s had two surgeries and aside from a pediatrician, Levi also sees an opthamologist, urologist and respiratory therapist, which had him at a clinic twice a week for several months.
Levi has learned to crawl, he’s trying to sit up and he laughs and smiles, Coffey said.
“He’s worked so hard to get where he is today. It took six to seven weeks to learn to eat from a bottle,” she said. “So many babies out there are not as fortunate, so those things don’t even cross my mind.”
Between 12 and 18 months old is when premature babies begin to catch up and level out with their full-term counterparts, Koneru said. Growth and keeping them away from infection are the two main focuses, as well as tracking developmental progress. Research is ongoing to determine long-term effects of premature birth, because only in recent decades have babies as premature as Levi had such a strong shot at surviving.
“In our world, we have a saying, ‘Once a preemie, always a preemie,’” Koneru said. “You never know when the consequences of being a preemie will surface. ... Parents need to have that in the back of their minds.”
On Saturday, the Coffeys celebrated Levi’s upcoming first birthday with family and friends.
“He’s incredible. He’s overcome so much already,” Coffey said. “He’d definitely changed my perspective on everything.”