In the sixth month of her pregnancy, Kristina Fallon's blood pressure shot up dangerously high, and she was admitted to Baptist Medical Center in Columbia, SC. She suffered a seizure that night and wasn't fully coherent until the next day, when she was alarmed to learn that she'd become a mother. Doctors had delivered a 1-pound, 13-ounce baby by cesarean section -- a daughter, whom she couldn't touch and who had to be respirated, medicated, and threaded with wires and tubes in order to survive. When a nurse wheeled her to the incubator for a look at the tiny kitten of a girl she would name Faith, Fallon was aghast. "Why are you doing this?" she asked the neonatologists. "Do you have to do this? Why don't you stop?" The doctors said they couldn't stop the support measures needed to sustain so flickering a life without a court order. So Faith spent the next seven months in the womb of the neonatal intensive-care unit (NICU).
The NICU is a universe of beeping, whining machines, where tiny babies, their organs not fully formed, veer in and out of such devastating conditions as periventricular leukomalacia, intraventricular hemorrhage, and bronchopulmonary dysplasia -- the complex hazards of prematurity and its care. "My baby's doctors called life in the NICU a roller-coaster ride," wrote one parent in a post to an Internet preemie-parent group, "but it was more like pinball played badly."
By the time Fallon could take Faith -- who weighed about seven pounds -- home, the hospital bills totaled half a million dollars. Still, everything was not all right. Three years later, Faith can neither walk, nor crawl, nor sit up. She frequently needs oxygen, gets sick often, and eats through a feeding tube in her belly. Yet she also likes to be read to and to watch her favorite videos. Fallon, a waitress, gets help from Medicaid and has often sold her own blood to raise gas money for trips to the hospital.
The suffering of Fallon and her baby, and of hundreds of parents and children like them, constitutes the darker side of the "miracle baby" story -- one of steady improvements in medical technology for newborns -- that has captivated our attention in recent years. Innovations in neonatal medicine -- which began with the warm incubator in the 1950s and progressed through ventilators, intravenous protein and fat nutrition, and various prenatal and postnatal drugs and treatments in the 1980s and early 1990s -- have steadily pushed back the age and the size at which doctors will fight for a life.