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A Tiny Miracle : Infant Born 17 Weeks Premature Is Beating the Odds

June 06, 1993|DICK WAGNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SOUTHEAST AREA — Emillee Young, born four months ago and way too soon, was back in a hospital incubator recently, resting after eye surgery. Her right eye covered by a patch, her fingernails tinier than bits of confetti, her left leg twitching as if from a dream, she slept.

To those who have come to know this baby, she is a miracle.

Weighing little more than a pound at birth, Emillee spent her first 108 days at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Bellflower before her mother took her home for a week. At almost 4 pounds, she had returned for her third eye operation, and in a day would go home again.

She has endured all three operations, along with the other travails of being born 17 weeks premature, as if her young life has been a steady stream of blessings.

"She's cheerful, happy, very cute, very remarkable," said her doctor, Ann Marie Morris. "Things have gone very well for her."

Emillee, the second-smallest surviving baby in the hospital's 28 years, was born Feb. 1 by Cesarean section. Her mother, Pamela Lopez-Young, 23, a GTE operator from Norwalk, had pregnancy-induced hypertension, which is the third leading cause of maternal deaths in the United States.

Lopez-Young was in her 23rd week of pregnancy and her blood pressure had risen dangerously high. After doctors had waited as long as they could to increase the chances of the baby's survival, they took the baby for her mother's safety. It is the only treatment for that type of hypertension.

At birth, Emillee was the length of a ruler and weighed 1 pound, 3 ounces. A "micro preemie," she looked like a jellyfish, and doctors gave her at most a 5% chance of living. Dr. David Sacks, who specializes in maternal fetal medicine at Kaiser Permanente, said, "A baby at 23 months stands a very slim chance at survival."

Phillip Young, 25, Emillee's father, was told the night she was born of the slim chance she appeared to have.

Lopez-Young was not told because she was in intensive care to lower her blood pressure. She did not see her daughter until a few days later.

"She looked so small, and was real skinny," she recalled. "She was just bones."

Lopez-Young's mother, Esther Lopez, said Emillee "was like a jellyfish. I thought, 'Oh my God, is she going to be OK?' Her little body was so tiny. You wouldn't think a baby so tiny could survive."

Emillee shrank to 17 ounces in the first two weeks, then began to gain weight.

"She'd gain 30 grams, 40 grams, 50 grams, and there was one time she gained 70 grams," the baby's

grandmother said. "We were so shocked because she had really put on some weight. And she kept going up the scale. She's a miracle baby, that's how we figure it."

Emillee, whose mother is small, probably will be smaller, said Morris, a pediatrician and neonatologist who has cared for the baby since she was a week old. "Most of these babies have a period of catch-up growth," the doctor said, "but I would think she would be smaller than her genetic potential."

In the first weeks after Emillee was born, doctors and nurses in the medical center's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit would leave work at night fearing that by morning she would be gone.

"They always said anything could happen any minute," said Lopez-Young, "but nothing ever did."

Emillee, though, had problems common among premature infants. She was hooked to a ventilator for 2 1/2 months because of breathing difficulties. At 12 weeks she developed, not surprisingly, retinopathy of prematurity in both eyes, a disease that affects the retinas and can cause blindness.

But the retinas were repaired, and Dr. Gary P. Lim, the ophthalmologist who operated on her, is optimistic. "She has a good chance of having very good vision in her left eye, and we're hopeful she'll retain useful vision in her right eye," he said.

One problem that Emillee eluded was brain hemorrhaging, which happens in about 50% of premature babies and, Morris said, can be catastrophic.

And she never had a problem eating. "She eats like a little champ," Morris said.

*

Emillee's persistent fight for life, as she lay for so long connected to IVs and monitors, captured the emotions of the doctors and nurses in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

One of the nurses, Cory Francisco, stood in as a godparent when Emillee was baptized in a ceremony held at her incubator.

And the nurses were at her side when she was taken to surgery. They lifted her from a portable incubator onto the operating table, on which, in her diapers and with all the tubes and lines sticking out of her, she looked so vulnerable.

"When she was smaller we wanted to stick her in our pockets and take her home," said Liz Palmer-Bingen, a nurse and administrator of the Neonatal ICU. "Sometimes we wondered, 'What is keeping this baby going?' But she kept hanging on. She has quite a will."

And personality.

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