The first 29 weeks of pregnancy with our son Willie were pretty unremarkable. I didn't suffer from morning sickness or experience funny late night cravings, I made minimal adjustments to my sleep and exercise routines, and I was never confronted with any serious medical concerns. It therefore came as a complete shock when six and half months in, contractions began. My husband and I ambled to the hospital, unaware of what was going on or what was on the horizon, and a couple of hours later, our son was born. I had only a second to kiss my three and a half pound boy's head before the doctors whisked him off to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), where he received round-the-clock care for the next 57 days.
Willie was born via emergency caesarian, which -- as anyone who has been through it can tell you -- is a terrifying experience. In the days to come, however, our family was emotionally buoyed by the care and reassurance provided by the NICU doctors and nurses. Although we made twice-daily trips to the hospital and endured as many ups and downs as we could handle, our first few months as parents were not nearly as scary as they could have been. For that, we count our lucky stars.
When Willie decided to come early, we were lucky to be in Santa Monica, California, where access to top medical facilities, care providers and technology is readily available. Our son was an incredibly vulnerable young being, but with his basic needs met, his immediate survival was more or less assured. We worried about the maturation and development of his brain, heart and lungs, but we also had the luxury of contemplating how being born so early might affect him later on. Would he gain weight normally? Would he be able to keep up on the playground? Would he fall behind in school?
The November following Willie's birth, I read about Embrace in The Economist's Technology Quarterly edition. Embrace is a nonprofit that helps distribute safe, low-cost infant warmers to clinics, hospitals and orphanages in need and trains mothers and caretakers on how to use them and better manage hypothermia.
From China to South Sudan to Haiti and beyond, mothers giving birth to preterm babies have little time to worry about their babies' long term health and development -- they must first find a way to keep their babies warm enough to survive. Even in settings where incubators are available, technical knowledge on how to use the machine, supplies of spare parts and a reliable source of electricity are often lacking. In communities without incubators, resourceful health care workers may battle infant hypothermia with light bulbs, hot water bottles and even hot coals -- all of which are both unreliable and often dangerous.
World Prematurity Day on November 17 is a rallying point to focus our attention on this global issue. Did you know, for example, that 15 million babies are born preterm every year? More than one million of these infants die from preterm birth complications. It is a staggering reality. According to the World Health Organization, in low income settings half of the babies born two months early die due to a lack of feasible, cost-effective care, such as warmth, breastfeeding support and basic care. In high income countries, almost all of these babies survive. But we can make an enormous impact, and help mothers and babies the world over with just a few mouse clicks.
Organizations like March of Dimes, Miracle Babies and Embrace work to create actionable, lifesaving steps for preterm babies and their families. Embrace in particular goes beyond providing warming devices; it empowers mothers and caretakers with hands-on training -- like infant temperature monitoring and skin-to-skin care -- that helps babies survive.
Have you given birth to a preterm baby? If you feel comfortable, think about sharing your story. I can understand the urge to close the door on the NICU and never look back. I've been there. But if you feel moved to give it a try, telling your story can be the push your personal circle needs to help support preterm infant care and outreach efforts on a global level.