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Fighting for Tony

Jan Hearne • Apr 23, 2012 at 8:56 AM

Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2009, more than three months before her due date, Ali Gibbons started cramping. The doctor told her to take it easy, but on Thursday, the pains continued, coming and going throughout the day. Friday, when the pain hadn’t stopped, she made an appointment with her doctor, but carried on as usual with her 15-month-old son Mark.

“We did out normal stuff. Mark wasn’t walking at the time, so I was carrying him around, running around until the doctors appointment at 11,” she said.

Ali expected to be checked out, reassured and sent home, but an ultrasound revealed she was in labor and fully dilated. Her second child would be born that day, at 26 weeks gestation, a full 14 weeks early. She was totally unprepared.

“Mark was induced at 39 weeks and weighed 9 pounds,” Ali said. “I had no thoughts we might have a preemie.”

At the doctor’s office Ali was put on a stretcher, put into an ambulance and taken to Johnson City Medical Center. At 1:08 p.m., Anthony Gibbons was born via C-section, weighing 2 pounds 7 ounces. Before his mom could see him, he was whisked off to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

“I couldn’t go up to see him. I couldn’t get out of bed until they undid my IV, which was 12 hours later,” Ali said. “I asked, ‘How long do you think he’s going to have to stay?’ I didn’t have any idea and wanted to try to play this cool.”

She was shocked when a nurse told her premature babies usually remain in NICU until their due date. “It’s October. He’s not due until January,” Ali thought.

Her husband, David, affectionately called “Fudge” by friends and family, went up NICU to find out what was going on. Neither was prepared for what was happening. The two lost their bearings in this strange new world.

“Tony was on a ventilator right off the bat. He wasn’t breathing on his own,” she said. Twenty-four hours later he was off the ventilator but required supplemental oxygen.

The March of Dimes reports only 6 percent of babies are born earlier than 28 weeks. In 1976, when Johnson City Medical Center’s NICU first opened, babies under the gestational age of 28 weeks weren’t even accepted for treatment. They were provided comfort measures until they died. Fortunately, great strides have been made in neonatal medicine since then.

Still, Tony had a host of problems. His skin wasn’t completely developed. His patent ductus arteriosus (PDA), which is open in the womb to allow the baby to receive oxygen from its mother, wasn’t closed.

“It took two rounds of medication to get it closed,” Fudge said. “If the second hadn’t worked, he would have had to have surgery.

“He had one blood infection that lasted a really long time, it took a while for his lungs to get where they were supposed to be, and eating was a little rough at the beginning.”

A baby in the womb typically doesn’t learn to eat, swallow and breathe simultaneously until after 33 weeks, Ali said. “It wasn’t until we got close to that milestone that we even began to start to feed him from a bottle instead of the NG (nasogastric) tube.”

The Gibbons have nothing but praise for the NICU staff. They had entered unfamiliar territory, and needed help negotiating it.

“We didn’t know anybody else who had a preemie before this happened,” Ali said. “We had no idea what to expect. The staff was so understanding and encouraging. They were eager to let us be involved with him and let us do things we could do with him when we came to visit.”

Tony had to reach several milestones before he could be released: He had to weigh at least 5 pounds, he had to be able to sit in a car seat without having his blood pressure drop, he had to eat properly and be on room oxygen for 24 hours in an open crib without experiencing any problems.

Ali was released from the hospital after three days. Sixty-seven days later, Tony was released to go home. It was Dec. 18, 2009, one week before Christmas. He weighed 6 pounds.

Today, Tony is in good health, having been spared the long-term consequences of premature birth. His family is grateful.

“We are very blessed,” Ali said. “There were people around us in the NICU that were not as fortunate as we were.”

Tony, at 21⁄2, 15 months younger than his brother, only weighs 4 pounds less than Mark.

“He is fearless. He is absolutely fearless,” Ali said. “We joke about how he didn’t want to be left behind from day one. He is full of life.”

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