FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Rosemary Fox, right, visited with Chanell Rellez, who was with her daughter Gina at Kapiolani Medical Center for Women and Children.
High-risk babies' parents also require special care
A specialist helps isle families cope with the state's increasing rate of premature births
Rosemary Fox draws on her own painful experiences with childbirth to counsel and support parents going through high-risk pregnancies.
"I spent all three pregnancies in bed, eight months worth for each crisis pregnancy, not to deliver too early," said Fox, Neonatal Intensive Care Unit specialist for the March of Dimes in Hawaii.
She said she had what's called an "incompetent cervix," which is too weak to hold a baby and begins to open prematurely.
She had already had one miscarriage and "the terror for eight months for me was almost overwhelming," Fox said.
But she was "one of the lucky ones" because her children -- daughter, 26, and two sons, 23 and 19 --- were born at 37 weeks, which isn't considered premature.
The March of Dimes started a nationwide NICU Specialist Program in 2001 to support frightened and emotional parents of premature babies.
Fox joined Kapiolani Medical Center for Women and Children in May as the NICU specialist after six years in community health nursing at Tripler Army Medical Center.
She's one of 17 March of Dimes NICU specialists across the country. The goal is to have one in every state by 2007, she said.
"The program is aimed at making the crisis of the NICU experience a little less traumatic for families and, ultimately, babies," she said.
The specialists provide parents with information, counseling and one-on-one support and services.
The number of premature babies being born in Hawaii has been rising, according to national statistics.
In 2002, Hawaii had 2,384 premature births (less than 37 weeks from conception to birth), or 13.7 percent of 17,422 total births, said Connie Brunn, March of Dimes Hawaii Chapter program services director.
In 2001, the state had 2,163 premature births, or 12.8 percent of the total 16,951 births.
The reasons for the upward trend in preterm births aren't clear, Brunn said.
"This is being studied extensively throughout the country because we're not alone in having premature birth rates going up. Ours are going up a steeper slope than some others."
Fox said Kapiolani's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit usually has 40 to 50 premature babies at any one time. "Right now, we're maxed out."
She is training six "graduate parent" volunteers who have been through NICU hospitalization and premature births to provide parent-to-parent support in the unit.
"We try to find families out of the hospital at least 2.5 years," she said. "It's such a traumatic thing and so emotional; it takes a little bit of time to get strength and come back and help others.
"Parent volunteers are the heart and passion of what we do here."
They are working with hospitalized women who are trying not to give birth too early, as well as parents who have premature babies in the unit.
"We have had many heartwarming experiences," Fox said. "Every smile you get, every tear that gets dried and every dollop of hope you see spread across someone's face is why we do this."
When her three sons were born early, "it would have been so nice to talk to another parent to know how kids could turn out normal," said Donna Otto of Kaneohe, one of Fox's volunteer parents.
"When that first happens to you, it's a whole other world, something you never dream would happen to you. Knowing others have gone through it and babies have far exceeded any expectation is so comforting to know."
Her sons had some developmental delays because of premature births, but they all went through early intervention classes and have no special needs, Otto said. "It's like 'no big deal.'"
Devin, 6, is in first grade and doing fine, and the twins, Blake and Carsen, who will be 3 on Nov. 26, are catching up, she said.
Otto said she's excited "to be able to be there for the parents and share my story with them and hopefully that will comfort them. When you're in that position, nobody knows or can even imagine what you're going through unless you went through the same thing."