‘She was just a little fighter from the beginning’

MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) — Zeyda McAfee has two birthdays — one three months before her due date, and one on the day she left the hospital to join her happy (and humbled) family at home.

On June 9, the little Missoula girl made her appearance at 360 grams, or 12.69 ounces. She is only the second baby born so small at Community Medical Center, and spent more than three months in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit.

Although she came out flailing, Zeyda’s eyes were still closed and her vocal cords and lungs weren’t yet fully developed.

“It was really terrifying to not know if my baby is alive or if she’s going to continue to be alive,” said Ashley Miller, Zeyda’s mom.

Now, at nearly five months, Zeyda weighs a comparatively hefty 7 pounds, 11 ounces.

She made her early arrival after Miller experienced a placental abruption that caused the placenta to separate from the inner wall of the uterus, and was put on bed rest. Fibroids and high blood pressure also contributed to pregnancy complications.

Knowing the developmental risks their then-unborn child might face didn’t stop Miller and her husband, Dillon McAfee, from trying to save Zeyda and doctors performed a cesarean section 25 weeks into Miller’s pregnancy.

Miller had to wait four days before Zeyda was strong enough to be held.

“At first, holding Zeyda made me nervous because of all the cords. Each time I held her, it got easier and it was always worth the anxiety, her little hand lying on my chest,” she said.

McAfee was able to hold his child for the first time on Father’s Day.

“At that point in time, I think I was still contemplating the possibility that she might not make it and that every day was a blessing,” McAfee said, adding he’s humbled by his tiny daughter.

Straightforward and kind nurses in Community’s neonatal intensive care unit helped keep her positive throughout the ordeal, Miller said.

Anxiety about all the monitors, tubes and wires attached to premature babies is common, said Jennifer Shelden, who was one of Zeyda’s nurses in the NICU.

“My biggest thing is to try and make the parents comfortable,” Shelden said.

Parents are encouraged to learn about help with their infant’s care, she added.

Like most prematurely born babies, Zeyda faced potential issues with her intestines, temperature control, eye and lung development, and intracranial hemorrhages, Shelden said.

Every scheduled test and measure of Zeyda’s health was also a test of Miller’s calm, but Zeyda did not have to undergo any surgeries and continued to make progress and gain weight.

“She was just a little fighter from the beginning,” Miller said.

After a few days, Zeyda’s eyes opened. She saw her older brother and sister for the first time after 23 days, when she weighed 1 pound, 3 ounces. At the one-month mark, she had her first bath, and she moved from her incubator to a crib at two months. Just before the two-month mark, Zeyda weighed in at 3 pounds.

Everything Zeyda did was miraculous, even sticking out her tongue and sneezing, Miller said.

In September, Zeyda came home with her parents and older siblings.

“She got an introduction to fresh air and sunlight,” McAfee said.

While she remains small for her biological age, Zeyda is on track for her developmental age, and signs are good that she will lead a normal life, her parents said.

Already, she has taught her parents life lessons, especially in mortality, McAfee said.

“Every day is a blessing with whoever we get to share it with,” he said.

They hope that sharing Zeyda’s story might give hope to other families in similar situations, Miller said. “I think that she is definitely a little bit of inspiration.”

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Information from: Missoulian, http://www.missoulian.com

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