How love conquered all for a ‘micro-preemie’
Parents describe harrowing journey of joy and pain
She was a partially formed, 20-ounce mess of unknown problems and unknowable prospects when she came into the world, one day short of the 24-week gestational period doctors believe is the lowest limit of a baby having a shot at survival. Her lungs, digestive system and brain were underdeveloped; her eyes were still fused shut; her papery skin was so thin she couldn’t be touched. She hardly looked human. But the love her parents had for her was huge.
And when they — two journalists — describe in alternating voices the very different ways they experienced the rushing cascade of postnatal calamities that befell this “micro-preemie,” as such babies are called, the impact is raw, rough and wrenchingly tender.
With Juniper: The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon (Little, Brown, 319 pp., eeeg out of four), Kelley and Thomas French chronicle the daily turmoil. With great honesty, they lay forth their darkest feelings and fears during the months it was unclear whether Juniper would live. Would their daughter, if she survived, be so damaged she could never forgive them for their efforts to save her? How many times would they have to adjust their hopes and expectations for her childhood? Would their marriage fall apart?
They could do nothing but watch as their tiny girl lay in an incubator, tubes connected to machines that did the work her body hadn’t had time to develop the capacity to do. There was the chance that if she lived, she would be blind because of the high volume of oxygen she required. She could become addicted to the narcotics administered to keep her more or less painfree; her kidneys might be ruined by the antibiotics she needed to fight infection.
Tom French made it his business to learn all he could about every hospital caregiver, in the belief one might race faster to save his daughter when she plummeted into crisis. He sat by Juniper’s incubator and read Harry Potter books to her, the massive page count testament to his desperate hope she could live through the many days required to get to the end of each volume.
Kelley taped a picture of herself and Tom to the incubator so the baby would see it when she finally opened her eyes. She loaded an iPod with womb sounds so Juniper would be comforted.
In less adept hands, this story might have been overworked and overwrought. The Frenches understood that straightforward was the only way to tell it.
Two parents, flawed in many ways, very different from each other, have written of a singular experience that is presented with such grace it is an almost universal story of love and determination and strength. Happily, in the end, their daughter survived and now thrives.
Kelley and Thomas French with their daughter, Juniper, who was born at just under 24 weeks.