How love con­quered all for a ‘mi­cro-pre­emie’

Par­ents de­scribe har­row­ing jour­ney of joy and pain

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - BOOKS - Sharon Peters Spe­cial for USA TO­DAY

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.

PHOTOS COUR­TESY OF THE AU­THORS

Kel­ley and Thomas French with their daugh­ter, Ju­niper, who was born at just un­der 24 weeks.

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