MURRAY, UTAH (ABC 4 News) -They hold onto life with the smallest hands at Intermountain Medical Center. Their hearts seem bigger than their bodies. The babies in NICU are fighting to go home with their families, and with the help of doctors, nurses, and technology most will.
Babies that would have died even a decade ago now live, but it has become a delicate balance for parents to decide when to let go and when critical care should begin.
Leo carter arrived five weeks too soon. His mother, Ashley Carter, says there is no explanation why. What they do know, is Leo needs help to survive. "His lungs are under-developed and he's had problems with jaundice and the suck, swallow, breath combination isn't quiet developed."
Ashley wonders if there was something she did that caused Leo to arrive early. "Why did this happen, was I being healthy enough, was I doing everything that I should have done to give him a fair shot."
Intermountain Neonatologist, Dr. Susan Wiedmeier is one of the doctors who working to give these babies a chance at a healthy life. She says guilt is a trait all mothers share, and while there are risk factors, such as smoking and alcohol use, many times there is no predictor. "It isn't anything you did. You can't explain why it happened, but it's not related to diet or other environmental things.”
Leo is one of the more robust babies in NICU. He weighed in at 6lbs 7 ounces at birth. But, Dr. Wiedmeier says even healthy looking babies can have serious complications when born early. “Most of them are not making the soapy kind of filmy substance that line their lung tubes that their airway collapse."
The invention of ventilators saves babies who are born too soon, and so does medication now available to quickly mature a baby's lungs before birth. A full term baby is born at 40 weeks. If it appears a mother will deliver before then, they are often given steroids to help quickly develop their baby's lungs.
Intermountain nurse, Stacie Fowler says she’s seen the difference it can make in her thirteen years as a NICU nurse. "Some of these babies when I first started, we knew 28-32 we're going to be on a ventilator now some of them come out and are on room air or just a little bit of oxygen."
Dr. Wiedmeier says giving breath to life is the greatest advance, but there are others. "We always think about the lung disease that premature babies have and supporting them from a respiratory standpoint but they can have incredible fluid losses through their skin"
New high tech incubators prevent that, with constant humidity between sixty to eighty percent. But all of this medical technology has led to new questions... at what stage can infants not only survive but also live.
Babies born as young as 22 weeks can be kept alive at birth, but doctors say in time, fifty percent will die. Of those that remain 80 percent will have challenges. Dr. Wiedmeier says parents are given the choice but told about the risks. ”The four major neurological problems are blindness, deafness, cerebral palsy and mental retardation."
But, if babies are in the womb for 28 weeks or more, there is nearly a 100 percent rate of survival with few problems. Leo was born at 34 weeks. Jake carter, Leo’s father says is in awe of the NICU team and the technology. "It is absolutely amazing what they can do."
Two weeks later after ABC 4’s 48 hours in NICU, Leo carter was able to go home with his family. He is still on oxygen and a monitor that makes sure he is breathing properly. Jake and Ashley say he's getting stronger everyday.