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Burnetta Herron-Mitchell was only 25 weeks pregnant when her
water broke. The next few days at Loyola Hospital were filled with
drugs to help the baby's lungs develop and sheer terror for
Herron-Mitchell, a surgeon who knew only too well what life could
be like for a baby born too soon.
On Feb. 1, Rhys Mitchell entered the world at 26 weeks with a
tiny cry, weighing just 1 pound, 13 ounces.
"I missed out on that joyful, happy moment that most people
have, because I was so profoundly overcome with, she's so early,"
says Herron-Mitchell, of Chicago. "I knew all of the potential
medical implications. I didn't want to see her with a breathing
tube. She was so small."
Around the world, as technology and medical advances push the
limits of viability for so-called "micropreemies," doctors and
parents find themselves grappling with a moral, ethical and
financial quandary: How small is too small when it comes to
extremely premature infants, and what level and type of care should
be administered to the tiniest of the tiny?
Sometimes it's not just whether they survive, but at what cost
and what quality of life. The answers are rarely black and
In Japan, babies born at 22 weeks are considered viable and
capable of sustaining life. Other countries advocate only
"compassionate care" prior to 25 weeks gestation because of the
high likelihood that the child will not survive.
Baby Rhys was one of the lucky ones - she's now 31 weeks old and
has shown no significant medical problems. She is expected to go
home with Burnetta and her husband Rhet Mitchell this month.
In spite of all the advances in care for premature infants, the
facts are this: when babies are born at 23 to 24 weeks, they have
about a 50 to 60 percent chance of survival, but also a 50 to 60
percent chance of having a devastating handicap.
But if the pregnancy can be sustained for just a week longer, to
25 weeks, babies begin to have what neonatologist Dr. Jonathan
Muraskas calls a "reasonable chance of survival." Hold off a couple
more weeks, until 27 weeks into the pregnancy, and you're looking
at survival rates that approach 90 percent, with only a 10 percent
risk of a devastating handicap.
But those numbers belie one often-overlooked fact: It's never
Recently, Muraskas, co-medical director of Loyola University
Medical Center's neonatal ICU, was lead author on a study about two
of the world's tiniest preemies. Loyola holds the distinction of
having delivered and/or cared for some of the world's smallest
In 1989, Madeline Mann became the world's smallest baby after
she was born at Loyola 26 weeks into her mother's pregnancy
weighing 9.9 ounces-about the size of an iPhone. In 2004, Rumaisa
Rahman set a Guinness World record after she also was born at
Loyola 25 weeks into her mom's pregnancy weighing 9.2 ounces.
Remarkably, both girls survived without any major health
In the media frenzy that followed the release earlier this year
of Muraskas' study on the two girls, much was made of the fact that
they survived their early birth without any long-term effects.
But Muraskas, who has been a neonatologist at Loyola in Maywood
for 25 years, is clear that these kinds of results are unusual and
can set false expectations for parents whose premature children can
face anything from cerebral palsy to mental retardation to
Before 1990, there was little debate about how small was too
small and the lifelong effects of a baby born too soon because most
low birth weight babies didn't survive. But then a new drug called
a Surfactant was approved to help babies' lungs. That drug,
combined in 1994 with steroids that crossed the placenta and helped
unborn babies' lungs and brains mature faster while still inside
their mother, began increasing the survival rate of preemies,
Normal pregnancies are 40 weeks; preterm is any child born
before 37 weeks. In the United States, babies born at 22 weeks are
not resuscitated. At 25 weeks, Muraskas says, every baby is
resuscitated because more than 75 percent survive.
"The gray zone is 23-24 weeks, because despite all that
technology, the survival rate might be better, but the outcomes are
still not good," Muraskas says.
Muraskas has had parents of babies born at 22 weeks say they
want everything done to help their child survive. Other parents of
children born at 23 or 24 weeks have asked that nothing aggressive
"It's a tough area. Maybe because Loyola's Catholic and I'm
Catholic, I err on the side of life," Muraskas says. "But in this
field, you have to have common sense; you have to have compassion
In treating the smallest of preemies, Muraskas says he initiates
treatment and then re-evaluates it regularly. "I use the common
sense approach and tell parents, 'Your baby's going to tell us what
to do,'" says Muraskas. "If your baby … is not responding to
maximum therapy, all these different drugs, and high oxygen, I will
say 'Your little boy or girl is telling us he wants to go to heaven
and we won't step in the way.'"
But the other elephant in the room when it comes to
micropreemies is the sheer cost of caring for such a medically
fragile baby. The average NICU bill is $4,000-$5,000 a day. A baby
that spends four months in the neonatal intensive care unit can
easily run up a bill of half a million dollars.
"In Sweden, Norway, Finland, they don't resuscitate a baby under
25 weeks. They say we're going to use that money for prenatal
care," Muraskas says. "The economic thing, I have to say, can
become a big issue. …As a country, people are starting to say, 'I
don't know if we can afford this.' It takes a lot of money to deal
with multiple problems."
But when Muraskas is caring for a tiny baby delivered at 24 or
25 or 26 weeks, he's not worried about what insurance plan the
parents have and whether or not it's in the best interest of the
United States to treat micropreemies.
"I just try to care for the babies. I do my best and pray."
Liz DeCarlo is senior editor at Chicago Parent and the mother of
Liz DeCarlo is the former senior editor at Chicago Parent.
See more of Liz's stories here.
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