The smallest and their struggle for survival

November is Premature Awareness Month


Not every baby born prematurely is as lucky as Millstone’s Hannah Siegel.

JEFF GRANIT staff Matthew Siegel holds his daughter, Hannah, 2, as she reaches out for her mother Cheryl Ann's hand in the family's Millstone home. The Siegel family is sharing Hannah's birth story, which had life-threatening circumstances, to highlight Prematurity Awareness Month. JEFF GRANIT staff Matthew Siegel holds his daughter, Hannah, 2, as she reaches out for her mother Cheryl Ann’s hand in the family’s Millstone home. The Siegel family is sharing Hannah’s birth story, which had life-threatening circumstances, to highlight Prematurity Awareness Month. Hannah, who will celebrate her third birthday in January, was born during the 29th week of Cheryl Ann Siegel’s pregnancy, under traumatic conditions that put both mother and child at risk of losing their lives.

A normal pregnancy lasts an average of 40 weeks, but Cheryl Ann gave birth prematurely Jan. 15, 2006, after suffering a stroke and loss of consciousness due to complications from sudden eclampsia. Cheryl Ann remained unconscious while Hannah was delivered during a “crash C-section” at CentraState Medical Center, Freehold Township.

“We didn’t have a choice,” Hannah’s father, Matthew Siegel, said recalling the grim experience. “When I asked about my options — I’ll never forget the answer — they said I would go home alone.”

JEFF GRANIT staff Cheryl Ann Siegel plays with daughter Hannah, 2, who was born prematurely in 2006. The family is sharing their story to highlight Prematurity Awareness Month. JEFF GRANIT staff Cheryl Ann Siegel plays with daughter Hannah, 2, who was born prematurely in 2006. The family is sharing their story to highlight Prematurity Awareness Month. Doctors gave Hannah, who weighed under 2 pounds at birth, a 25 percent chance of surviving her first night out of the womb because she had respiratory distress syndrome. She received surfactant replacement therapy and a ventilator helped her take her first breaths.

“That same night [that Hannah was born], the hospital asked if I wanted a priest to come see Cheryl Ann to deliver the last rites,” Matthew said. “It was like an out-of-body experience.”

Cheryl Ann, who was 35 years old at the time of Hannah’s birth, was being treated for high-risk pregnancy because she had a family history of miscarriages. However, the eclampsia symptoms manifested so suddenly that only three days prior she and the baby had a routine checkup and were deemed healthy without any sign of complications.

Cheryl Ann didn’t fully regain consciousness in the hospital until about three days after the birth of her daughter.

“When I saw her for the first time — to see her like that — it just took my breath away,” Cheryl Ann said. “I said to myself, ‘Is this real?’ There were so many tubes and monitors and she was under these bright lights. She was so small. It was not exactly how I pictured the whole thing to take place.”

Hannah remained in the NICU at CentraState for six weeks. She received round-the-clock care there, with two nurses assisting at all times and a 24-hour on-site neonatologist.

“They called Hannah the queen of the NICU,” Matthew said. “She was the longest stay they ever had there, just shy of six weeks.”

Although the Siegels were not prepared to deliver their baby two months early, they took each day in stride.

“With the IV in, I couldn’t touch her,” Cheryl Ann said, “but as each day progressed, it was calming to me to see her progress. It made me want to get better.”

Once Cheryl was released from the hospital 10 days after the birth, the couple visited Hannah in the NICU multiple times a day. The couple’s contact with their newborn remained limited, with Cheryl Ann having to feed Hannah through a tube and both parents not being able to hold her long due to the IV, monitors and baby’s temperature sensitivity.

When the day finally came for the new parents to take Hannah home, Matthew and Cheryl Ann wanted to do so but also remember wanting the hospital to keep her because they were scared.

“They wouldn’t release her until she weighed 4 pounds,” Matthew said. “We had a regular car seat for a 7- or 8-pound baby and she was half the size of a normal baby but already 5 weeks old.”

Beyond the normal fears most first-time parents have, the Siegels also had to continue to monitor Hannah. She had a heart rate monitor the size of a laptop computer attached to her at all times and continued outpatient treatment for three months after being released from the hospital.

Many preemies continue to have health issues that they struggle with for the remainder of their lives. While Hannah has residual effects of being born prematurely, including slight respiratory and ophthalmology issues, she has grown into a joyful and active little girl who loves to play and talk.

“Health-wise she is doing exceptionally well,” Matthew said as Hannah played with P.B. (Pink Bunny) on the couch in their home Oct. 29. “We have CentraState and the March of Dimes to thank for that.”

After Hannah’s birth, the Siegels learned that the crucial surfactant replacement therapy their daughter received was developed through research funded by the March of Dimes. Other health hurdles Hannah tackled in her first days can also be attributed to treatments developed through March of Dimes efforts, according to Matthew.

Wanting to give back to the organization that helped save his daughter’s life, Siegel started volunteering at the March of Dimes office in Cranbury. He completed a few weeks of secretarial work when the executive director asked him to take on a bigger role in the nonprofit.

Matthew, who began working at the office when Hannah was 5 months old, now serves on the organization’s board of directors.

“Prematurity is by far the No. 1 killer of babies in their first month of life,” Matthew said. “When we hear a story of success, and Hannah’s is clearly a story of success, we often lose sight of the fact that many premature babies die or live their lives with severe medical problems. The March of Dimes does not just treat premature babies but prevents premature births.”

Matthew said currently one out of every eight babies is born prematurely in the United States. In onehalf of premature births, the cause for the premature birth is not known, he said.

Finding the reasons and a cure for premature birth may seem daunting, but the March of Dimes is dedicated to resolving the issues, according to Matthew.

“They say they conquered polio and they will definitely solve this problem,” Siegel said. “They say they want to put themselves out of a job. That’s why I’m doing my part and advocating for more research.”

The March of Dimes was created during the Great Depression as a means to raise funding to determine the reasons and a cure for polio. The organization funded the research that resulted in the polio vaccine and later decided to work on other children’s health issues. Most recently, the March of Dimes funded the research that resulted in nationwide campaigns to get pregnant women to stop smoking and to take folic acid.

Currently, the March of Dimes is seeking signatures for its Petition for Preemies, which urges the federal government to increase support for prematurity related research and data collection, to expand health access to health coverage for women of childbearing age and to support smoking cessation programs as part of maternity care. The petition also calls on hospitals and health care professionals to voluntarily assess C-sections and inductions that occur prior to 39 weeks gestation and calls on businesses to create workplaces that support maternal and infant health.

The Siegels said helping the March of Dimes is as easy as signing the petition or making a donation of time or money. The organization holds its annual walkathon, with walk sites across New Jersey, at the end of every April and other fundraising events throughout the year.

November is Premature Awareness Month. For more information, visit http://www.marchofdimes. com/newjersey or call the March of Dimes Cranbury office at 609-655-7400.