In the coming weeks, Christmas lights will turn dark streets into illuminated fantasies. However, the display of house after house adorned with lights makes me think of families spending the holiday far away from Christmas cheer in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) where incubator after incubator, each enclosing a baby barely larger than an adult hand, glow in dim hospital light.
When my brother was born prematurely, he spent his first two weeks in the NICU attached to wires, incessantly beeping machines and a ventilator his life depended on. My mother barely got to hold to him, and our excitement over a new addition to the family quickly transformed into fear and despair.
My story is a Christmas story, though, because my brother is now a 4-year-old bundle of sunshine who sends me artwork to hang in my room and only wears Mickey Mouse T-shirts.
Despite the fact that 13 million babies are born too early — and one million of them die before their first birthday — worldwide each year, premature births remain overlooked. But incidents of prematurity have been on the rise since the early 1980s. And since then, we’ve made limited progress in discovering the many causes of premature births.
In this country, we like to have explanations for problems. So we usually attack medical questions with urgency and ample resources. But prematurity hasn’t met the same response.
John F. Kennedy’s son Patrick was born with respiratory distress syndrome, the same disease my brother had. Patrick could not be saved, but his death inspired improvements in technology, and, over 40 years later, my brother overcame the disease. Progress is possible. So why has the quest to discover and learn not propelled efforts even farther?
One reason is that such an issue draws only highly selective attention. As should be expected, most advocates for continued funding for infant health are moms — with a few dads here and there. It may seem like an irrelevant issue to everyone else, but in fact prematurity affects everyone in society. Acting to fight prematurity would lead to healthier future generations and social efficiency gained by fewer complicated births and long-term disabilities. Babies are the future, and an investment in their health is an investment in the future for everyone.
The pure innocence of babies is enough to make some care, and many current advocates feel obliged to be the voice for infants, who cannot speak for themselves. Infants cannot describe their pain — making it that much harder for adults to witness their suffering while only imagining the severity. Most people who have held a newborn can attest to the human instinct to want to protect and nurture the most vulnerable.
For people who care more about the present than the future, the complications caused by premature birth in America carry a price tag of $26 billion of your tax dollars each year. Most people who lose sleep over funding for healthcare never even consider the implications of prematurity. For what it costs to pay for one premature birth, we could cover 12 healthy ones. The mothers who are most at risk to have premature births often are not covered by health insurance, so medical costs fall to various levels of government financing.
However, persuasion and numbers only go so far. Most people do not become strong advocates for healthy babies until they have experienced or closely observed the emotional and life-altering outcomes of prematurity. I became a volunteer for the March of Dimes, the leading non-profit supporting the health of moms and babies, in eighth grade, the year my fifth sibling was born prematurely. My dedication to the cause was reaffirmed this year when my little sister also spent two weeks in the NICU after a premature birth. My mom, like half of the moms who give birth prematurely, did everything right. No one can tell her why she did not go full term.
I hope others don’t have to experience the heart-wrenching effects of seeing their children — or those of friends and relatives — born prematurely before they realize the magnitude of prematurity. Birth and subsequent birthdays are supposed to be some of the happiest and most celebratory times in life. For my family, the premature births of my youngest siblings were stressful and trying times. Only when my siblings safely entered the warmth of our home did we truly celebrate the occasion. Simple things like Christmas lights often make me reflect on the families who never experience this joy — and relief. I hope the current darkness surrounding prematurity is simply foreshadowing the day when every baby has a healthy start to life.
Lindsey Hiebert is a freshman in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.