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Coastal Health District Helps Premature Babies to Reach Milestones: Stella’s Story

September 4, 2013

Originally published Nov. 21, 2011

For most babies, discovering their feet and nibbling on their toes is just another keepsake moment for the video camera. It’s one more thing for parents to smile about, one more memory for the scrapbook. But for 11-month-old Stella Hollingsworth, that small act of discovery and dexterity is considered a monumental milestone.

Born prematurely at 28 weeks, Stella weighed a little more than two pounds when she came into the world. Unbeknownst to doctors, Stella’s mother, Brieanne Hollingsworth, had a difficult pregnancy and Stella experienced a low heart rate every time Brieanne had a contraction. Stella was delivered through an emergency Caesarean section and spent the next three months in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Savannah’s Memorial University Medical Center (MUMC), the only Level III NICU in southeast Georgia. Brieanne and her husband, Kevin, were familiar with the NICU. Their first child, Abigael, was also born prematurely and had to spend time there. But that certainly didn’t make things any easier.

“Difficult doesn’t even begin to describe it,” Hollingsworth said. “My husband was working full time and we had a two-year-old at home. It was two weeks before I could even hold Stella. Before that, I could only touch her little head.”

When Stella finally did arrive home, she was accompanied by a host of machines and wires including heart and apnea monitors. After being home for only a week, Stella contracted pneumonia and had to go back into the hospital.

As with the more than a half million babies born prematurely in the United States every year, Stella has faced her share of obstacles. Coastal Health District (District 9-1) First Care high-risk infant program coordinator Lisa Summerford, RN, knows all about those obstacles and helps babies like Stella and parents like Brieanne and Kevin overcome them.

Lisa spends one day every week at MUMC making rounds with the staff and discussing the particulars of premature babies who are ready to go home. The rest of her time is dedicated to making home visits (up to 50 a month) and tracking the progress of those babies. Lisa performs developmental screenings to make sure that the babies are meeting the goals for their age. She tests communication skills, fine motor skills, gross motor skills, problem solving, and personal social skills.

“People always ask me, ‘How do you do that when they are so little?’” Lisa said. “But even when they are tiny babies like Stella was, there are signs to look for and ways to evaluate if they are on the right path.”

In Stella’s case, there are still some developmental delays. She doesn’t have the balance that will allow her to sit up on her own and she will likely need the assistance of a physical therapist to help improve that balance and strengthen her muscle groups. But Brieanne isn’t worried. She knows that Lisa is there for the long haul.

“For me, having Lisa is like having reassurance,” said Brieanne. “It makes me feel better to have someone give me a set plan and to show me the steps I can take to help Stella. I would have definitely been lost without Lisa’s help.”

Stella’s progress will be followed through the Georgia Department of Public Health’s Children’s 1st program until she is five years old to ensure that she is developing as she should and Lisa will continue to give Brieanne and Kevin activities that they can do to help Stella. And Stella, who was once too small to wear a hand-knitted hat an inch-and-a-half in diameter, will keep growing and working toward milestones – even the ones that may seem simple but aren’t, like nibbling on her toes.