Baby defies all the odds and survives

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Last fall Barbara Cooper-Pabis woke up 24 weeks into her pregnancy, and she did not feel well. Her eyes were swollen, and her blood pressure, which she had been monitoring and tracking via spreadsheets since a scare earlier in her pregnancy, was high.

A self-described science nerd, Barbara had read the Mayo Clinic pregnancy book, particularly the portion on high-risk problems. She knew the combination of swelling and high blood pressure was a sign of Preeclampsia, a disease that kills some 76,000 mothers and babies worldwide each year, according to

The disease causes a rise in blood pressure and puts women at risk for impaired kidney and/or liver function, blood clotting, stroke, seizures and death.


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After trying throughout the night to convince herself the symptoms were just typical of being pregnant, Barbara scheduled an appointment with her OB/Gyn that morning. After he saw some test results, it was a matter of minutes before he quickly ushered her to the maternity ward at Sentara Obici Hospital. Once he confirmed it was early Preeclampsia, Barbara was taken by ambulance to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital and was given the first steroid shot to protect her baby’s lungs. Nurses drew 17 vials of blood for testing, and gave Barbara blood pressure, anti-seizure and anti-stroke medications.

“It was like a whirlwind,” she said. Especially considering she had been in for her regular checkup barely a week before, and both she and her baby girl were in great shape.

But Barbara remained hospitalized, and at just 24 weeks and six days pregnant, her kidneys were starting to shut down and her blood pressure was sky-high. Doctors determined it was time to deliver the baby, while she was under no stress, because it would increase her chances of surviving.

A full-term pregnancy is 38-42 weeks. The neonatologists told them, given the baby’s weight, her chances of survival were maybe 25-30 percent. He also told them about the potential complications n

brain bleeds, cerebral palsy, eye problems, lung disease and much more.

Callen (pronounced Cal-Lynn) Jean was born via C-section on Nov. 2, 2005, at Sentara Norfolk, but was transferred to the neonatal intensive care unit at the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters next door. She was what they call a micropreemie, or a baby born before 26 weeks gestation, and weighed just 1 pound, 4 ounces and was 12.75 inches long.

In her journal, Barbara wrote:

“She was so tiny. I got to touch her hands and feet. She clasped her tiny hand on the tip of my finger. Her head is about the size of a racquet ball, maybe smaller.

Her hands are like the size of my thumbnail. Her eyes were open for a little bit. She is so cute. We were told she was already naughty and took her eye cover off. I love her, we love her. Everyday will be a battle for her tiny life.”

The delivery was, perhaps, the easiest part. It was after her birth that Callen’s fight truly began. All in all, she endured a laundry list of diseases and disorders that rack most preemies:

– Respiratory Distress Syndrome, which makes it difficult to breath and affects 10 percent of all premature births

– Chronic Lung Disease or Bronchopulmonary Dysplasia, which is caused by using a mechanical ventilator and extra oxygen for breathing. The lungs in premature babies are fragile and easily damaged; the tissue can break and cause scarring, which can lead to difficulty breathing.

– Apnea of Prematurity, where a preemie has intermittent bursts of breath, then shallow breathing and, at times, stops breathing because the part of the central nervous system that controls non-stop breathing has not yet matured

– Anemia, a common disorder caused by a low level of healthy red blood cells

– Retinopathy of Prematurity, which causes abnormal blood vessels to grow and spread throughout the retina and can lead to retinal detachment. Callen has had laser surgery two times for the disorder, first in both eyes and then a repeat on the right eye.

– Patent Ductus Arteriosus, a condition where a particular blood vessel in a baby’s lungs fails to close properly after birth

– Left Grade 1 Intraventricular hemorrhage, or brain bleeding, which is common in very premature babies

– Adrenal Insufficiency, which is a rare disease where the adrenal glands secrete insufficient amounts of hormones

– Hypotension, or low blood pressure

– Hyperbilirubinemia, a condition where too much bilirubin builds up in the blood and can lead to jaundice

– Sepsis, which is when the body’s normal reaction to infection or inflammation goes into overdrive

– Hyponatremia and hypochloremia, or low levels of sodium and chloride, respectively

– Necrotizing Enterocolitis, an intestinal infection unique to preemies that causes destruction of the bowel or part of the bowel

It is a daunting list of ailments, enough to make anyone gape. Even more torturous for Barbara and her husband, Joseph Pabis, was having to go home and leave their tiny daughter in the hospital, hooked to hoses and machines.

In her journal, Barbara wrote:

“I was depressed I had to leave her. It was horrible. It literally broke my heart to leave her. Joey said he felt the same way. We felt empty. We began our schedule of calling in the night.”

Watching all that their daughter endured, the fear that each day could be her last, Barbara and Joseph agree it is difficult to put their thoughts and emotions during that time into words.

“It’s unimaginable. Just overwhelming,” he said.

It would be 108 days before they could take Callen home. When they did, she weighed just 5 pounds, 12 ounces.

Now, more than a year later, Callen is about 15 pounds and 27 inches long.

Surprisingly, some would say miraculously, Callen, whose name means “powerful in battle,” has only one remaining problem: her vision. She is quite nearsighted, and received her first pair of glasses at just 10 months old.

Mom and dad say they are just beginning to get over the shock of the ordeal. But the weeks spent in the hospital still linger just beneath the surface of their memories.

“I still hear the echoes of the noises in the NICU,” Barbara said.

But knowing how fortunate they are, the number of odds they beat, Barbara and Joseph wanted share Callen’s story with others to help educate them about premature babies and all that they and their families endure. Not only is November Callen’s birth month, but it also is Prematurity Awareness Month.

More than half a million children this year will be born so early they will struggle to survive, according to the March of Dimes Web site,

Prematurity has been escalating in the past two decades. Preterm delivery can happen to any pregnant woman, and in many cases, no one knows why.

While November is almost over, the efforts to raise money for research and awareness will not stop. Barbara and Joseph plan to use March of Dimes awareness magnets as stocking stuffers for Christmas this year. For that and other ways to help, visit

The following sources were used in this story: