SMALL MIRACLE- Low birth weight center makes difference in lives of moms, babies
By ANNA MACIAS
DALLAS. Claudia Garcia, an immigrant from Honduras, was only 17 and alone when she gave birth to a premature baby two years ago. To her, life looked bleak for her son and for herself.
“I never thought my baby would be born so tiny,” she said. “I went into shock and even some depression. He was hospitalized for a month. He was attached to so many wires that were keeping him alive. There were moments when he’d improve and moments when he worsened.” Garcia’s son, Jonathan, had respiratory problems and is still treated for asthma today. The toddler appears to be thriving and Garcia also has experienced positive changes. The young mother has gained emotional support, parenting skills and a jolt to her self esteem with the help of the staff at the Low Birth Weight Development Center, a non-profit organization with Catholic roots. Garcia, who dropped out of sixth grade in her own country, is learning English and computer skills. She is preparing to earn a high school diploma by exam and she aspires to attend college. “What has helped me the most is the individual and group counseling,” Garcia said. “I’ve gained a lot from interacting with other mothers who also have tiny babies because I realize that I’m not alone in the challenges I’ve faced. I now have new goals. Ultimately, I would like to have a career so that I can set a good example for my son.” The Low Birth Weight Development Center was started in 1992 by pediatrician Roy J. Heyne and his wife Elizabeth, a pediatric physician assistant, using a grant from CIGNA Healthplan of Dallas. The Heynes, themselves parents of eight children, had been moved by the homeless children they encountered and, in 1975, started a low birth weight clinic at Children’s Medical Center. In 1985, they sought help from retired Dallas Bishop Thomas Tschoepe in asking Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta to start a home in Dallas to serve the most vulnerable of patients, premature or low birth weight babies. Once the Missionaries of Charity Home was established here, it became clear that home and medical care was not enough to ensure that the babies thrived. The outcome of a preemie’s life depends largely upon the educational level and parenting abilities of the baby’s mother, so the Heynes accepted a $20,000 grant from CIGNA and started a very unique psychosocial program now in its fourteenth year, the Low Birth Weight Development Center, to help improve the parental attention and stimulation that such babies receive. Dr. Rick Davis, director of the Low Birth Weight Development Center, said the program’s goal is to help narrow the developmental gap between a premature infant and peers born at normal weight. “We try to expose the babies to neurological stimulation and day-to-day activities that will stimulate their brains so that they’re able to grow developmentally like their peers who are not low birth weight,” Davis said. What started as a “mothers’ day in” program serving eight moms and their infants now serves hundreds of mothers and their babies. Last fall, the program expanded to a newly constructed building, the Crystal Charity Ball Low Birth Weight Development Center on the campus of Santa Clara Parish. It is housed in a 5,200-square-foot building with classrooms, a computer lab, infant care rooms and offices. The facility, which cost $825,000, benefited from money raised by the Crystal Charity Ball as well as donations by numerous individuals and foundations. Dallas Bishop Charles V. Grahmann has shown his support of the program in the past by leasing space to the non-profit for only $1 a year and by allowing the new center to be on the campus of Santa Clara. Support also has come through the Catholic Foundation, which donates money that is used to provide home visits to families of preemies. Twice a week mothers and babies visit the center for counseling, art therapy, English and computer classes. While the mothers attend classes to improve their own academic skills, their infants are given therapeutic care in a separate room. Mothers can watch their babies through a one-way mirror as the trained caregivers engage the babies in activities that stimulate their minds. “Our goal is to model positive and effective interactions with the baby,” said Lin Orrin, development director for the program. “Part of that might be talking with the child, playing with the child, reading or storytelling. We want to encourage bonding with an adult.” The education the parents receive is critical because many of the parents have little education and live in poverty, Orrin said. On average, the mothers have an educational level of third to eighth grade. Many are immigrants from Latin America who are not literate even in Spanish. “For them, having a low birth weight baby is even more difficult than for someone who has more resources,” Orrin said. “Lots of times, the mothers might even be afraid to touch the baby. Most of our babies are less than 2.5 pounds at birth. Some of them have feeding tubes and other care that needs to be continued at home when they are released from the neonatal intensive care unit.” Davis said another big challenge for the families is ensuring that the babies gain the appropriate amount of weight. “We want to make sure the mother is doing well emotionally and psychologically. We want to make sure she is able to take care of the infant the way the infant needs to be taken care of.” As the mother of six, Juana Guerra thought she knew all there was to know about infant care. Then, six months ago, her seventh child was born weighing in only at two pounds, twelve ounces. Little Alex Dominguez was clinging to life in the intensive care unit for nearly three months. “It’s horrible to see your baby so helpless and defenseless, connected to so many wires,” Guerra said, recalling her son’s days in the hospital. “Sometimes you leave the hospital feeling inconsolable. You want to do something for your baby, like nurse them, but you can’t because they are so tiny.” Guerra, a member of St. James Parish in Dallas, said she is thankful that the Low Birth Weight Development Center has helped her family cope with the challenges of having a preemie. Now that her son weighs 12 pounds and appears healthy, she feels positive about his future. For Guerra who advocates the Catholic teaching on the sanctity of life, “babies are life. “Many people think the babies don’t feel or think anything. But they do. It’s amazing to watch them as they fight for their own lives. They react to your voice and your touch. They feel our love and support and they have an incredible way of expressing it.” (Anna Macias is a free-lance writer who lives in Dallas). TC Online 2007