Premature Baby: Fighter Ahead of His Time

7:22 pm Health Stories

By DAWN SHURMAITIS; Times Leader Staff Writer

PITTSTON — Baby Byrd didn’t look real — let alone alive.

Maybe it was his size, hardly larger than a pound of butter and just as
soft. Maybe it was the spaghetti maze of probes and wires piercing his
pinky-sized arms and legs.

Maybe it was the life-lines pumping air into his barely formed lungs and
nutrients into his tiny stomach.

That was Eddie Byrd, dressed in the only things that would fit — doll
clothes.

Eddie slipped into the world 16 weeks early at 1:11 a.m. on Nov. 15,
weighing all of 1 pound, 11 ounces.

Since then, he’s defied the odds, growing nearly 500 percent — or to 5
pounds, 3 ounces.

The third child of Alison and John Byrd, both 31, Eddie is now sleeping,
crying and dirtying his diaper at home in the family’s Pittston
double-block.

But technically, he hasn’t even been born yet. His mother’s due date was
Feb. 24.

“We’ve really been lucky,” says Alison Byrd. “There were hardly any
setbacks and he’s here, thank God.”

Humble beginning

A handful in the literal sense, Eddie spent 2 months under the vigilant
watch of the staff of Community Medical Center in Scranton.

The hospital’s Regional Newborn Intensive Care Unit began serving a
six-county region in 1980. So far, its staff has treated 4,000 babies,
including Eddie, who was cared for by a team of four neonatologists headed
by Dr. J. Delfor Salazar.

Since the center’s opening, the survival rate for infants treated there has
risen to an average of 94 percent, compared to the national average of 85
percent.

The regional infant mortality rate has dropped from 13.9 out of every 1,000
births in 1978 to 2.46 in 1990 — the lowest in the state. The statewide
rate per 1,000 births remains at 6.3.

The Byrds credit the caring hospital staff for Eddie’s rapid improvement.
Their compassion helped the Byrd’s through many a long, uncertain night.

“I could call day or night and they would talk to me,” says Alison.

The doctors explained every move in detail. Alison remembers one night when
Dr. Salazar came into her hospital room at 4 a.m. to give her the how, why
and when surrounding Eddie’s care.

When he improved, the doctors and nurses cheered right along with Alison
and John.

“They got as excited as we did,” she says. “It was beautiful.

“They were great there. I was petrified.”

A long shot

The Byrds had good reason to be scared.

A baby is considered premature if it weighs less than 5 pounds at birth.
But babies weighing less than 2 pounds have the poorest chance of survival.

The chance for survival is the greatest after the seventh month. Eddie was
born at 24 weeks or six months.

In many premature infants, certain organs, especially the lungs, have not
developed sufficiently for the baby to survive without medical assistance.

Other problems include the inability to digest normal-sized feedings and
the baby’s lack of adequate control over its temperature. Most premature
infants are placed into an incubator to ensure a constant body temperature.

At birth, Eddie’s skin was so clear his parents could see his veins. His
head was so soft that when he lay on his side, it compressed.

“He looked like a GI Joe doll,” says Eddie’s dad.

Instead of mother’s milk, Eddie lived on a daily diet of antibiotics and
nutrients: water, protein, vitamins, fats and glucose.

The Byrds couldn’t hold their newborn, and had to be content to stroke him
through the gloved holes in the side of the incubator.

“I was always afraid I was going to hurt him,” says Alison. “As he got
bigger, I got better.”

In her baby book, Eddie’s mother didn’t mark the date of his first smile.
She wrote down his first blood transfusion. He had two.

Thanksgiving and Christmas were spent at the hospital. To brighten the day,
the nurses cut out a paper stocking and put Eddie’s picture inside the
center. It now hangs prominently on the Byrds’ living room wall.

Life goes on

Alison attributes the premature births of her three children to medical
problems she had in the past.

John, now 8, was three weeks early. Five-year-old Samantha arrived two
months early.

The couple moved here in August 1989, after John was discharged after five
years in the Army. Originally from Long Island, N.Y., the Byrds wanted to
settle in a nice community close to Alison’s parents, who live in
Honesdale. John now works as a toolmaker in Moscow.

Alison originally planned to give birth at Nesbitt Hospital. But when a
doctor there realized her condition, he told the couple, “If it was my wife
I’d bring her to CMC.”

After Alison’s water broke, she spent 10 days in the hospital, and then had
a Caesarean section.

There were about 10 other premature babies in the unit when Eddie was born.
He was the smallest — as wide as his father’s hand and only 10 inches
long.

“They call these the negative months,” says Alison. “But eventually, he
will catch up.”

After 2 weeks at the hospital, Alison and her husband began returning for
daily visits. Luckily, the family had medical insurance. While they were
unsure what Eddie’s care ultimately cost, Alison’s bill came to $10,000.

The frequent snowstorms made traveling from Pittston to Scranton difficult.
Nurses sometimes had to work two shifts back-to-back because their relief
couldn’t make it in. When the Byrds called the hospital, anxious about
missing a visit, the nurses assured them Eddie wouldn’t mind.

“It was all the little things they did,” Alison says.

The Byrds brought Eddie’s brother and sister to the hospital for visits,
but they could only look through the glass. The nurses took Polaroid photos
to show them his progress.

Today, Eddie’s head is covered with a soft brown fuzz. He’s a little
colicky, but otherwise healthy. Except for vitamin supplements, he isn’t on
any medication. Just plain baby formula.

“We fought so hard,” says Alison. “Some of it is all a blur.”

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