Kelly Lowery and her husband, Adam Wolfberg, M.D., were already the proud parents of two daughters when they became pregnant with a third child. For Lowery, this pregnancy felt much like her others, for which she had gone to term with both. Everything seemed to be progressing smoothly until January 10, 2002, when she noticed a decrease in the baby’s movement. Like any concerned mother would, Lowery went to the hospital, but everything checked out fine.
The next day, on January 11, Larissa Tess Wolfberg was born 13 weeks early, weighing just 1 lb., 3 oz., with essentially no prior indication that a premature birth could be in store.
“Very early in the morning, I started having contractions and, when I returned to the hospital, we were told that I was in active labor,” remembers Lowery. “Larissa was born a few hours later by Caesarian section. She was quickly rushed off to the NICU and stayed in the hospital for the next 71 days.”
It’s a heart-wrenching story that no parent wants to hear, but every parent needs to, because, according to the March of Dimes, approximately 380,000 babies are born prematurely every year in the United States. And for many, like Larissa, there are no indications that a premature birth will occur.
“Premature babies are at high risk for a variety of medical complications,” explains Lowery, a licensed clinical psychologist and pediatric neuropsychologist. “Many children have difficulty breathing on their own, they are at risk for cerebral hemorrhage and encounter many other serious conditions. Larissa, like her peers in the NICU, was closely evaluated every day. Babies in the NICU are monitored ongoing as they learn to nurse and feed, tolerate bathing, and begin to grow and gain weight. This continues until they reach a time – usually close to their original due date – that they can finally go home. Larissa was born on January 11 and we were thrilled to take her home that April.”
It’s for this reason you’ll find that parents of preemies take zero for granted. Hitting a milestone, like sitting up or learning to crawl, may be met with delight by all parents, but is particular cause for celebration for these moms and dads who have watched their babies fight for their lives. Each day feels like a victory, because it is, no matter how small the win might seem to parents of babies who were carried to term.
And despite Wolfberg’s work as an obstetrician specializing in high-risk pregnancies, he admits not even that knowledge can prepare a parent for the overwhelming concern when your child is born prematurely.
“Being a physician is terrible preparation for parenting,” he says. “One has the language of medicine, but the language of medicine doesn’t help with the fear and hope of being the parent of a child who’s awfully small.”
Parents of preemies are supportive of the March of Dimes, the organization funding teams of scientists to find answers to why some children are born so early, because they desperately want to prevent other families from struggling with the same conditions they have endured. No one wants to see a child have such a difficult start in life or watch another family have a similar hardship.
Now 14, Larissa is familiar with the life-threatening circumstances surrounding the day she was born. Bright, energetic and dedicated, she loves to run, swim and hang out with friends.
“My friends are very involved in everything I do so if we have a March of Dimes fundraiser I’ll ask if they want to donate money,” she says. “They know I was born early and that I have mild cerebral palsy. They know March of Dimes helps with that. So I say they help people so that other families don’t have to go through what mine did and so other kids don’t have to go through what I did.”
Becoming an ambassador for the organization is something Larissa has aspired to for years, having had a team for the annual March of Dimes walk since early childhood.
“If people are more aware then they’re more likely to donate to the March of Dimes and other organizations that would fund research,” she says. “But, also, making sure expectant mothers or families are aware of the risks that can happen to their child so they’re more prepared.”
As her mom will tell you, while Larissa is as funny and outgoing as other girls her age, she is all business when it comes to her work with the organization.
“She recognizes that her prematurity has contributed to certain struggles and understands the role that the March of Dimes plays in limiting the number of children that are born too soon,” says Lowery. “She is eager and proud to do her part to bring awareness to this cause.”
Larissa is also serious about not letting anything hold her back. While doctors have frequently told her she won’t be able to do certain activities, she continues to prove them wrong. For example, in February she ran her first half-marathon. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a teen willing to get out of bed at the crack of dawn to run 13.1 miles on a weekend, but this is an extraordinary feat for a child who was born prematurely. Her attitude isn’t simply, I think I can, it appears to be, I know I can.
“I think if I hadn’t been put in the situation that I am, I would shy away from those challenges and not do them because someone said that I couldn’t,” says Larissa. “But now I feel like I would do it not only for myself but for them as well to show, ‘You think I couldn’t do this but I will just because you don’t think I can.’”
While Lowery and Wolfberg have been very open with Larissa about the circumstances surrounding her birth and the frightening months that followed, she’s learning something new about her story all the time, particularly after filming a video for the March of Dimes.
“My mom was talking about how scary it was for her to just watch other people take home their perfectly healthy babies and not be able to do that with me,” she says. “That really resonated with me because I’ve never really understood how painful that was for both of my parents.”
Lowery and Wolfberg couldn’t be prouder of Larissa, who not only takes joy in her impressive achievements, but in the little things as well.
“I notice actually more lately that certain things that most people wouldn’t be proud of are things that make me happy,” she says. “Things like carrying the groceries up the stairs or small things like that are things that make me proud of myself. They wouldn’t necessarily be something that other people would be proud of. Small things like that are a big deal to me.”
As Larissa prepares to enter high school next year, Lowery reflects on her youngest child’s incredible advancements, and is thankful for the normalcy she has achieved as well.
“Her path from that little baby who weighed less than 2 lbs. at birth has not always been easy,” she admits. “However, she never shies away from a challenge and is a strong, persistent individual. She loves her friends, running, skiing, swimming, Instagram and Netflix. Basically – what you would expect from a teenager!”