Editor’s note: This article has been corrected from the version that ran in the newspaper because of a proofing error.
By Benjamin Cohn
Weaverville – Complications resulting from premature birth are the leading cause of infant death in the United States, according to March of Dimes, a national nonprofit organization founded to combat infantile illnesses. This year, Travis and Diana Reece’s family was selected to represent March of Dimes due to the unbelievable, heart-wrenching, inspirational story behind the family’s newest addition, baby Stella.
Stella’s mother, Diana, shared with the Tribune parts of her daughter’s story. Much of it is emotionally devastating, but Stella’s perseverance, along with her remarkable strength, is a powerful symbol of triumph over adversity that deserves to be shared.
“After months of trying for a third child, we came to the conclusion that our family was complete as a family of four. We tried to fill the void by getting a puppy and planning a big family vacation to the Caribbean. A week later we found out we were pregnant,” Diana recalled.
She describes her pregnancy as “perfect,” saying she “ate all the right foods, read all the right books and really took care” of herself to ensure the couple’s baby was healthy.
“I had just hit the third trimester when I started feeling bad. I thought I was having Braxton Hicks contractions,” a phenomenon described by WebMD as false labor pains, the body’s mechanism for signaling true labor. “When I noticed Stella had not moved for over 12 hours, I decided to call my doctor,” said Diana.
Upon a further medical exam, Diana was rushed to the nearest hospital to have an emergency procedure surgically removing her baby. “I had a spontaneous abruption,” Diana said, “and it only happens in one percent of pregnancies.” Baby Stella was born “at 28 weeks, weighing 2 pounds, 12 ounces.”
“Stella wasn’t due to be here until January 5. She was 12 weeks early,” Diana explained.
To save her life, the premature infant was rushed to the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), described by Diana as an area encased, in isolation, “with tubes everywhere and beeping sounds filling the room.”
Diana Reece described meeting March of Dimes representative Michaela Blanton-Lowe for the first time.
“She [Blanton-Lowe] was so caring and compassionate and was very interested in our story. We had heard about the March of Dimes, but we were about to learn so much more about how they would be impacting our lives. In the weeks to come, she called, sent text messages, and she even came to sit with me in the NICU. She was a huge comfort by my side. I felt like she understood completely what I was going through.”
It would be another three days before Diana would be allowed to hold Stella for the first time. Hours later, the Reece family learned more troubling news, that Stella sustained an “intraventricular brain hemorrhage,” essentially a bleed in her brain.
Despite all her physical setbacks, baby Stella fought back every time, growing slowly but steadily.
“She took a turn for the worst, starting to display a list of symptoms associated with her brain bleed: bradycardias, desaturations, apnea, anemia and hydrocephalus,” dangerous medical conditions Diana said would trigger NICU alarms more than ten times an hour.
“On day ten, her MRI showed the brain bleed had grown into a stage four intraventricular hemorrhage, causing a blood clot, and what appeared to be brain damage on the outside of her ventricles in her brain matter,” a disease called periventricular leukomalacia.
The bleed in Stella’s brain was severe. Her doctors told the Reece family that “Stella would be severely mentally and physically handicapped for the rest of her life,” that doctors had done all they could.
Stella needed a specialist, one not available in Western North Carolina. Desperate, frantic research by the family turned up the name of a neurosurgeon at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), in Charleston.
“Two hours later, she was loaded up in an ambulance to be transferred to MUSC, four hours away.”
The neurosurgeon, Doctor Ramin Eskandari, was hopeful he could save Stella, Diana said, using a relatively new procedure called an Omaya Reservoir, allowing “his team of surgeons to do daily taps” of Stella’s ventricular fluid.
“He [Eskandari] told us Stella would be at MUSC for a minimum of four months. The alternate plan was to put in a shunt and be done with it, and this option could be done closer to home.”
The Reece family decided to have an Omaya Reservoir put into Stella, which paid off. Several months later, in the days leading up to Christmas, the family was told Stella had improved enough to move her to a lower-intensity neonatal unit.
“Stella was proving to be the strongest person we had ever known. She was doing well with the taps, and now it was time to focus on her feeding,” said Diana. “Stella struggled for weeks with her feeds, we learned that she had an underdeveloped swallow, and that she could not take thin liquids (breastmilk).”
According to Diana, Stella was ready to go home after 95 days in the MUSC’s NICU. Stella arrived home for the first time on January 19, 2018, only a couple days before Diana’s 35th birthday.
“Eleven months later, Stella is thriving. She is over thirteen pounds. She has not had a tap since she left the hospital in January. She is full of personality, loves acting shy, is rolling over and on the verge of sitting up on her own.”
“Stella would not be here today if it weren’t for God’s grace, the doctors and nurses at Mission Health and MUSC, and research done by organizations like March of Dimes,” Diana told the Tribune.
Michaela Blanton-Lowe, the representative from March of Dimes who held vigil with Diana Reece, helped select the Reece family as what’s known as an ambassador family. The concept is explained on their website: “Each year the March of Dimes selects families, children and celebrities whose lives were saved by our research, programs or educational campaigns to give a face to our mission or who have a passion to help all families have stronger, healthier babies.”
The Reece family was selected for a variant known as a local ambassador family, who, according to the March of Dimes website, “share their story in their community in an effort to gain local support.” Stella’s bravery, perseverance and ultimate success are worthy representatives of what organizations like March of Dimes can help accomplish.
Editor’s note: You can see a video by March of Dimes about the Reece family here: https://vimeo.com/295450449