ABU DHABI // Wadema Abdullah is slight for her age, and took her first steps on her twiglike legs only a few months ago. Born prematurely at 23 weeks and weighing a mere 585 grams, Wadema spent her first four months of life at the Corniche Hospital's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).
Since then, she has undergone surgeries to her heart, one of her eyes, brain and stomach. To her mother, the two-year-old is a little miracle. "Doctors are constantly working on increasing her weight, but I know my little girl will be fine," said Latifa Abdullah, who describes Wadema as stubborn, mischievous and short-tempered - and very attached to her father. Wadema was one of more than 80 children who were brought by their parents to the Abu Dhabi Golf & Equestrian Club yesterday for what has become an annual tradition: a reunion of "miracle" babies born in the special unit of the hospital.
The unit treats babies born prematurely, which means any time before 37 weeks. The ones they call "miracle" babies are ones born before 28 weeks - and whose survival is less than guaranteed. Taking in the blur of running, screeching and laughing children at the reunion, ranging from babies still being cradled by their mothers to a seven-year-old boy desperate for a piece of cake, it is hard to believe that some were once desperately ill.
The event has been organised every year for the past five years by the staff at the unit to celebrate the lives of those who had to struggle through the first months of life. "I know every single child here today, and it makes me so proud to see them running and living," said Dr Adel Shubbar, senior consultant neonatologist at the Corniche Hospital, watching the children play. "There were days when we were sure some of these babies were not going to make it."
It was Wadema's second reunion, but she seemed oblivious to its significance as she defied her small frame and pried a balloon from the sticky fingers of another toddler. But the meaning was not lost on her mother, who miscarried her first pregnancy at six months and then had a baby boy die only 15 minutes after he was delivered. Words, she said, could not describe the fear that gripped her when Wadema arrived prematurely.
"She's my third child, but I guess she is really the first one because she is the one who is living," she said. "There was no specific reason for any of this, I'm told there never is," Mrs Abdullah said. "I was just told to rest and take it easy during Wadema's pregnancy, but I work in administration at the Ministry of Labour and I could not stop working. I was at work when I went into labour." Today the little Emirati girl weighs 7.9kg. The average birth weight for a child her age is between 12kg and 15kg.
Unlike Wadema - who stayed as close to her mother as possible so long as a balloon was not tempting her away - two children nearby paid little heed to their parents as they chased each other under tables and around chairs. One, an Italian-Lebanese girl named Giuliana, was just one month shy of her second birthday. Carol and Lorenzo Lotesto said their first and only daughter was born at 26 weeks because "she just could not wait to see the world".
"I had a beautiful pregnancy, then suddenly during my sixth month, I just delivered her out of the blue; she weighed 1.082 kilos and spent her first three months in the NICU at the hospital," Mrs Lotesto said. Born April 2, Giuliana did not go home until July 2 - the day she was expected to be born. Doctors have now given Giuliana a clean bill of health. But it was a very difficult three months for her parents.
"We never knew what would happen, all we knew is that one day to the other everything could change," said Mrs Lotesto. Some babies, said Dr Shubbar, are born with minimal complications, while others are "touch and go" for three to four months. "We do not allow the babies to go home until their weight is above 1.8kg and they are feeling well," he said, adding that the shorter the gestation period, the lower the rate of survival.
Of the more than 10,000 babies born at the hospital each year, around 10 per cent are born preterm and sent to occupy one of the 50 cots at the unit, which is the largest neonatal care centre of any hospital in the UAE. Dr Andrew Meeks, the hospital's chief of neonatology, said most of the babies who survive grow up healthy. "The more mature the baby is at birth, the better his or her chances are," the doctor said.
And although no one knows exactly why some babies are born prematurely, said Dr Meeks, it is believed some cases may be due to underlying illnesses in the mother. "Some mothers have high blood pressure, or diabetes, or develop complications during pregnancy, and these may all be contributing factors," he said. "Other mothers are perfectly healthy and have normal pregnancy, and still their babies want to come out early."
One such mother is Samia Saab, mom to a strong-willed, three-year-old boy nicknamed "Mighty Joe" by hospital staff. Joe was born after only 24 weeks and five days of gestation, weighing 680 grams. He spent four months in the NICU battling for his life, and was likened to Mighty Joe Young, the name of a gorilla and main character in a 1999 Hollywood movie of the same name, who survived difficulties to grow up big and healthy.
Joe, who will be celebrating his third birthday on March 18, is described as "extremely naughty, very bright and so observant" by his parents, and is on his way to speaking Arabic, English and French fluently. "For the four months he was in hospital, we visited him four times a day each, both his mom and I, separately," said Joe's father, Raja Saab. "During those four month, life stood still for us."
Today, however, Mighty Joe and his admiring friend Giuliana, who is a familiar sight trailing after her friend, keep both sets of parents busy chasing after toddlers curious about the world they were so eager to see. "Giuliana is living her 'terrible twos' right now and saying no to everything: food, school, bathing, sleeping," said Mrs Lorenzo. "I'm glad she said 'no' to giving up as well." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org