Good news from Music City!  God bless Becca and her courageous parents!

July 13, 2009

13 ounces at birth, Becca is Tennessee’s tiniest baby to survive

By Claudia Pinto

At birth, Becca Hill weighed just 13 ounces. That’s as much as a medium-sized apple, three and a half chocolate bars or a can of Coke.

No one was expecting Becca — who was born 12 weeks early at Vanderbilt children’s hospital — to live. She was simply too little; she was born too soon.

But the feisty baby proved them all wrong. Becca recently celebrated her first birthday, making the now-13-pound little girl the tiniest baby born in Tennessee to survive.

“A year ago, I was lying on the operating table, hoping against hope that she would breathe a little bit and that we could hold her and that she wouldn’t be stillborn,” said Nancy Hill, Becca’s mother. “And now here she is causing all kinds of trouble.”

Preterm birth — babies born before 37 weeks of pregnancy — is the leading cause of infant death in Tennessee, followed by congenital birth defects and sudden infant death syndrome.

The mortality rate for premature babies is 44 deaths per every 1,000 live births, compared with 3.2 per 1,000 for full-term babies, according to the Tennessee Department of Health. Nearly 12,000 babies are born too early each year in the state.

Hill, of Bethpage, was 17 weeks pregnant when she found out that her baby wasn’t growing properly.

“She was two weeks behind, size-wise. The doctor said, ‘We need to be prepared to lose this baby,’ ” she said. “It was terrible and horrible. We are both realistic and trust the expertise of the doctors, but we couldn’t give up on her.”

The culprit is known as “placental insufficiency,” meaning that the placenta wasn’t supplying Becca with the proper nutrients, oxygen and blood that she needed to grow.

Dr. Joern-Hendrik Weitkamp, a Vanderbilt neonatologist and assistant professor of pediatrics, said it’s not entirely understood why the placenta was malfunctioning, but Hill was experiencing high blood pressure, which may have been a factor.

Hill and her husband, John, are both ministers at Bethpage United Methodist Church. Their faith helped them hold on to hope that their baby would make it.

“It helped just knowing never to give up; something amazing and miraculous could always happen,” John Hill said. “We had people all over the country praying for her. I have to believe that made a difference.”

‘A very cute alien’

Vanderbilt doctors were forced to perform an emergency delivery on June 21 of last year because Nancy Hill developed HELLP syndrome, a complication that occurs among pregnant women with high blood pressure that can result in seizures and even death for the mother.

Nancy Hill pleaded with doctors to let her stay awake during the C-section.

“We were anticipating that she wouldn’t live very long,” she said. “I said even if it’s just two or three minutes, I want those two or three minutes with my baby. I don’t want to wake up and find out she’s already died.”

One of the biggest concerns Weitkamp had about keeping Becca alive after delivery was that the life-saving equipment would be too large to use on her.

“Her lungs weren’t mature enough for her to breathe on her own, but we weren’t sure that there was a breathing tube that would be small enough for her,” Weitkamp said.

Fortunately, there was. In addition to a ventilator to help her breathe, Becca was dependent on an incubator to keep warm, feeding tubes to ensure she received sufficient nutrients. She also needed antibiotics and anti-fungal medication to prevent infection.

John Hill will never forget seeing his daughter after she was born: “They told me I could touch her,” he said. “I was so afraid I was going to hurt her, just by touching her with my finger.”

Becca was so small that she didn’t even look like a baby, her father said. Her head was abnormally large compared to her stick-like limbs.

And her liver was visible through her thin skin.

“(She looked) kind of like an alien,” John Hill said.

“A very cute alien,” Nancy Hill interjected.

Few health issues today

Despite the baby’s teeny size, Nancy Hill said that when she saw her baby in the NICU the day after she was born, she knew she would make it.

“They said she wouldn’t have the muscle tone to move around,” she said. “She was feisty. She was moving all around.”

And Nancy Hill said that even though Becca’s lungs weren’t developed enough for her to cry, she was trying.

“It sounded like a little kitten to me,” she said. “Now when she cries in the middle of church it doesn’t bother me.”

It was a month before Becca’s parents were able to hold her and four months before they were able to take her home from the hospital. The total cost of her care was roughly $1 million.

“If we hadn’t had health insurance and she didn’t qualify for TennCare (the state’s insurance program for the poor and disabled) we would never be able to pay these bills off,” Nancy Hill said.

Weitkamp said what’s most miraculous to him is not that Becca survived, but the fact that she has so few health issues.

Of course, Becca will probably always be smaller than her peers. At a year old, she’s the size of typical 3-month-old. And because she was born prematurely she’s at risk for developmental delays and other health problems, such as diabetes, later in life.

Still, Becca is now sitting up on her own. She’s 16 times her birth weight. And her parents say she’s a bundle of happiness.

The toddler has learned to kiss, but “she doesn’t actually kiss you,” her father said. “She just kisses the air.”

And, “when you go to tickle her, she starts laughing before your fingers even touch her,” her mother said. “She’s just a joy.”