Michael Matthew Newson couldn’t possibly have understood what all the fuss was about.
The little guy’s not quite 6 pounds soaking wet. Still, that’s four times what he weighed when he entered the world on Jan. 12 — nearly four months before he was supposed to be born.
Two days past his original due date, Michael left Edward Hospital’s Newborn Intensive Care Unit for the first time on Thursday, amid a flurry of family, shutter clicks, medical talk and bittersweet farewells.
For his mom, dad and three siblings, the wait was long enough. The road home to Aurora had been plenty long.
It’s rare, though not unprecedented, for a baby born before 24 weeks’ gestation to survive and thrive, but Michael’s family and the many members of his medical support team have every expectation that his life will proceed normally from now on. That makes for a particularly sweet Mother’s Day for Lea Newson, Michael’s mom.
What due date?
“We’re pretty excited to actually be home,” Lea said as she and her husband Bryan wrapped up more than 16 weeks of daily commutes to the Naperville hospital while Michael’s size and strength steadily grew with lots of help from close medical attention, breast milk and frequent human touch.
Things were more touch-and-go for a while, however. The Newsons had learned near the end of Lea’s first trimester that there were complications. It wasn’t her first risky pregnancy; the couple’s middle child, 11-year-old Nicholas, was born after his mom spent 12 weeks on bed rest, due to a problem with his placenta.
But this time, the problem was bigger. The diagnosis was placenta accreta, a condition marked by extraordinarily deep attachment of the placenta to the uterine wall, sometimes reaching into underlying muscle tissue.
“We were worried from the very beginning that something bad could happen, so we were already on heightened alert,” said Lea, 42, a full-time mom.
The couple had made arrangements to deliver at Northwestern Hospital in downtown Chicago, where Nate, now 14, and Nicholas were both born. Because of the complication, the plan called for Michael to be born by Cesarean section after 34 weeks in the womb, when his chances for a trouble-free birth would be better.
“We were trying to hold out until then,” Lea said. “But Michael had other plans.”
The Newsons were watching TV shortly before midnight on Jan. 11, when Lea slipped into the bathroom, sensing something wasn’t quite right. She was right. She was bleeding.
She had done some reading up online, and knew it could happen. Her condition had shifted to placenta abruptio, a serious complication in which the source of nourishment for the fetus becomes separated from the lining of the uterus.
“I wasn’t totally caught off-guard,” Lea said.
But there was a lot of blood. With Lea’s life suddenly perhaps put in jeopardy with the hemorrhaging, Northwestern looked pretty far away. Because 7-year-old Maya was born there, Edward had records of Lea’s potential prenatal risks. And it was about five minutes from home.
“We packed up everybody and sped over here,” said Bryan, 44. “Ran a few red lights.”
At Edward, a promptly assembled surgical team sprang into action in the wee hours of a Sunday morning.
Initially thinking simply that the bag of fluids surrounding Michael had broken and drained away much too soon, Bryan soon realized there was far much more at stake. As the specialists worked fervently on Lea and their baby, he understood his wife’s life was abruptly hanging in the balance as well. This was no routine C-section. It would be a long night.
“It wasn’t just, ‘Your baby was born early,’” he said.
Mother and baby, of course, made it through the night. Lea required surgery to repair a damaged bladder. Michael, born at 6:09 a.m., had to be placed on a ventilator and receive other critical care for a baby born prematurely. At just 675 grams, his weight was equal to that of a family-sized loaf of bread.
And there would be a wait before he could be cuddled. The hospital encourages “kangaroo care,” which emphasizes the bonding value in placing newborns against their mothers’ torsos, skin to skin. That day finally came, after more than a week had gone by.
The family routine promptly took on its own rhythm. Lea would head over to the hospital every day, after packing the big kids off to school — Nate and Nicholas to Still Middle School, where they are in eighth and sixth grades respectively, and Maya to Gombert Elementary, where she’s a first-grader. Bryan, a software engineer, would spend time at the hospital with their newest arrival later in the day, after work.
Nate, Nicholas and Maya weren’t able to connect with their tiny brother quite so soon, though. They kept tabs on him through Face Time and other digital means until just a couple of weeks ago, when they finally were able to see him in person for the first time.
Meanwhile, Lea pumped the breast milk her body was producing. At first it was given to Michael through a feeding tube, fortified with formula to ensure his body would receive the nourishment it needed to finish the growing he would have done in utero. The baby had to learn how to suck, and that took a few weeks; it’s a skill he continues to practice. Now he nurses once a day, his mom said.
By Thursday, Michael’s parents and siblings were beyond ready to become a family of six sharing the same roof.
“Him being home is awesome,” Nicholas said.
It didn’t happen before some parting words were delivered. Dr. Mike Fitzgerald, a neonatologist at Edward and DuPage Neonatology Associates, gave firm instructions to the baby’s brothers and sister: it’s OK to handle him, but never without asking first, and it should be when he’s on the floor. Keep a tight rein on the family dog, since pets can be unpredictable. Pick up small toys and other little things, even before it’s apparent Michael knows how to grasp things and put them into his mouth, since preemies sometimes do surprising things.
Fitzgerald told the parents, eager to know if the whole family will be able to attend Maya’s upcoming dance recital, that they can leave the monitor at home during the event — but it must always be activated while they sleep. Michael’s little sliver of supplemental oxygen will continue to augment the breathing he’s now doing pretty well on his own. He’s dealing with the bronchopulmonary dysplasia that’s common in premature babies, receiving treatment through a tube that administers a surfactant to ensure his airways remain sufficiently open and functional.
Fitzgerald, emphasizing that the Level III neonatal care unit at Edward is fully equipped to handle emergencies of the sort the Newsons encountered, said it would have “alleviated a lot of anxiety” if the team had been able to meet with the couple before Michael’s abrupt debut, but that couldn’t be helped.
Born with a full head of black curls that grew more lush during his weeks of hospitalization, Michael has the appearance of a newborn, but his demeanor suggests an infant somehow a little worldly — more alert and engaged with his surroundings than one who has just emerged from the womb. The royal-blue blanket lying nearby, with Michael’s name embroidered above the iconic Superman crest, suggested he’s not your average neonate.
“He’s a real baby,” his dad said. “He’s our super hero.”