A sweet little baby is lying on her belly, wriggling in her sleep. She is dressed in the smallest outfit imaginable, her tiny hands with long delicate fingers peaking out from the rolled-up cuffs, and her miniature bottom poking up in the way that only baby bottoms do.
Olivia Ann LaRochelle – her family calls her Livi – was born Oct. 16, 2012. She was 101?2 inches long and weighed 1 pound, 1 ounce. Her mother Ashley had been pregnant only 23 weeks and a day. Her due date wasn’t until Feb. 10, 2013.
Three times, including the moment of her birth, Ashley LaRochelle, 25, and her husband Eric, 26, thought surely they would lose her.
It had happened before. Two sets of twins. Four babies. Three sons and a daughter. All born prematurely at 23 weeks. All dying within one week of birth. In each case, the placenta separated prematurely from Ashley’s uterus. It’s called placental abruption, and is an uncommon, but dangerous, complication of pregnancy. Specialists that she began seeing during her first pregnancy, which was a difficult one, have not been able to determine why it happened to Ashley.
The telltale sign that something was dreadfully wrong with her third pregnancy came without warning. Ashley went to bed one night and woke up bleeding. She was rushed first to the local hospital near her home in Wakefield, N.H., and then to Maine Medical Center, where for several days doctors tried without success to prevent her from going into labor.
The odds of survival for a baby born at 23 weeks are not great, and Olivia was born even earlier than her siblings.
“We were panic stricken,” said Eric. “I thought she wasn’t going to make it that night.”
But this baby gave them reason to believe she might have a fighting chance. Livi actually breathed on her own shortly after she was born. She was on a ventilator in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), but was also breathing room air.
“The ventilator was helping her, but she was breathing more than the machine was helping,” he said. “We were absolutely shocked.”
It didn’t take long for the roller coaster of ups and downs to begin. First, she needed surgery to have a catheter placed into her vein.
“We worried that she wouldn’t make it through,” said the baby’s mother. “We had her baptized to ease our minds a little bit and share the experience with her before surgery,”
She did fine, but a week later developed a staph infection and went into kidney failure. “At that point she was on the high frequency ventilator and they switched her to a regular ventilator so we could hold her for the first time, “Ashley said. “I held her for about three hours that night. My family is convinced that just that touch and her knowing that we were here with her made a huge difference.”
The following day Olivia had a wet diaper, which meant her kidneys were working. And the day after, she opened her eyes for the first time.
“It was the first time we had seen any of our babies’ eyes,” said Eric, “because our other children were born so early they passed away before we could see their eyes. So the first time we saw her eyes we were beside ourselves with joy.”
Livi continues to improve. When she reached 2 pounds they had a party. “At Christmas she was 3 pounds, so we called that a Christmas gift,” says Eric. “Now she’s 3 pounds 1 ounce, so she’s climbing up.”
On the wall is a checklist of things that must happen before she can go home. She has to be able to breathe totally on her own and either breastfeed or take milk from a bottle instead of through the tube that goes from her mouth into her stomach. And she must weigh at least 5 pounds.
“She has a long way to go,“ sighs Ashley, “but we’re getting there.”
Still, it might not happen before February, the month Ashley was supposed to give birth. For now, the NICU is home for mother and baby. Ashley sleeps beside Livi on a narrow daybed and Eric joins her on his days off as a corrections officer.
If their daughter is a miracle, so is the fact that their marriage did not crumble under the weight of so much loss and grief.
“The NICU staff told us they have seen more relationships end in these rooms than they’d like to admit,” said Eric. “It was pretty tough marriage wise, but we pulled through and are stronger.”
“Wonderful organizations have helped us on our journey,” said Ashley, “the March of Dimes, Ronald McDonald House and the Angels Walk for Wishes. They have all helped our family through so much, and continue to give us hope for other families.”
And with each milestone that she reaches, even something as seemingly ordinary as having her first “big girl” bath, little Livi brings hope to her parents.
“Olivia has brought so much joy to our family,” said Ashley, “and reminds us every day that miracles happen.”