Tammy Lewis is a nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) in Temple, Texas. As a respiratory therapist at McLane Children’s Medical Center Baylor Scott & White, Lewis helps babies breathe through the assistance of ventilators and breathing tubes. As CNN reports, this is the very same care that saved Lewis’s life 34-years-ago.
Lewis was born three-and-a-half months early, weighing just 1 pound, 4 ounces. She told CNN, “I was the smallest surviving baby in the state of Texas at the time.” She added, “I was born at 24 weeks. Normal gestation is 40 weeks.” At that time, a baby at 24 weeks of pregnancy, which is 22 weeks’ gestation, could have been killed in a legal abortion. Today, most babies in Texas are protected from abortion starting at 20 weeks’ gestation.
Like so many parents of premature babies, Lewis’s parents faced bleak statistics. Because Lewis was born so prematurely, she was considered a micro-preemie, and doctors told her parents that their newborn daughter’s chance of survival was only 5-10%. Through 14 weeks of intensive care, Lewis beat the odds and was able to go home with her family.
As she grew up, Lewis started exploring careers in teaching or medicine. She told CNN, “I wanted to be able to give back to the patients and families in the same situation that I was in.” Lewis realized her calling was to care for babies like her. She says, “Once I started researching the medical field, I talked to a program director and immediately fell in love with it.” She added, “This is where God was leading me to be.”
The job comes with frequent reminders of how incredible Lewis’s story really is. She says, “As I work, I get daily reminders of how blessed I am to be here today.” Not only does Lewis enjoy her career, she is also a mother to two children, ages three and six. Her own babies were not born prematurely, but Lewis says her story of motherhood after such a difficult start to life is a tremendous encouragement to parents.
“You see parents get rough news and need some brightness and hope in the day,” she said. “There are success stories and I am one of them.” Because of her amazing story, the hospital featured Lewis in the “Hall of Hope,” a display featuring the stories of babies who battled against the odds and today are thriving.
Lewis now works with some of the very same nurses and doctors who saved her life three and a half decades ago. She now knows how meaningful that can be for them, as she says one of the greatest rewards is seeing NICU “graduates” come back for a visit. She says, “There are lots of long hard days that everyone puts in and it’s very rewarding to see them grown up.”
As medical technology advances and more micro-preemies are growing up without any lasting complications, other NICU nurses who were once preemies who were inspired to give back. Sisters Ainsley and Tiffany Ballantyne, for example, were inspired by nurses they saw growing up to work with families caring for medically-vulnerable and premature babies.
Lewis’s surviving birth at just 24 weeks was remarkable 34-years-ago. In recent years some babies born even earlier, at 22 and 23 weeks, are surviving with little or no long-term disabilities. Medical breakthroughs like the use of synthetic surfactants have ensured the survival of an ever-increasing number of premature babies. An incredible photo project shows children growing and thriving who were born so prematurely they could have been legally aborted.
Despite these amazing success stories of premature babies, being born very early is still very risky. In addition to caring for and celebrating the lives of premature babies, we must be committed to diminishing the risk factors for premature birth. One of the well-documented factors that can lead to premature births is prior abortion. Mothers need to know that abortion not only takes the life of the preborn child they have today but potentially endangers the lives of future children.
No matter the cause of preterm birth, nurses like Tammy Lewis are changing the way we think of micro-preemies and how we care for the most vulnerable in our society.