All Danny Klinect wanted to do was hold her. Cradle her in his arms. Watch her breathe.
It was Valentine's Day, what better day to give love, and the Brookwood boys soccer coach glanced down at his watch as he rode a yellow school bus from Collins Hill High School back to Snellville.
The bus was ready to drop off the Bronco soccer players, who had just won a marathon game that ended on penalty kicks. But the 38-year-old coach's night got extended and more joyous when he called for a detour as the bus neared Gwinnett Medical Center.
The hospital's neonatal intensive care unit, commonly known as NICU, was the destination. It housed the latest love of Klinect's life, his newborn daughter Keely, barely more than two weeks old and weighing less than four pounds.
Klinect's watch said 9:55 p.m. Keely was due for a 10 p.m. feeding, one of the rare times a parent is permitted to hold a premature baby. So Klinect, in his soccer attire with a bag over his shoulder, raced into the hospital to beat the clock.
"I didn't want to miss that feeding," Klinect said.
"The nurses loved that he came in with all his coaching gear on," said Melinda Klinect, Danny's wife and Brookwood's competition cheerleading coach. "The boys were all cheering for him, too. That was so nice."
Almost as nice as what the Klinects feel right now. They have an amazing blessing, a healthy, growing daughter.
Keely is now 12 weeks old and up to 8 pounds, 3 ounces, a bundle of joy who makes the tough journey that brought her into this world simply a memory.
A scary night
The Klinects already had two healthy children - 10-year-old daughter Sutton and 4-year-old Jake - when Melinda became pregnant with the couple's third child. Sutton's birth was normal and it was the same way with Jake, who weighed 9 pounds, 7 ounces at birth, so the family expected nothing different with the third child. Particularly after an ultrasound on Jan. 26 showed that everything looked great.
But Keely was born just two days after the normal ultrasound, two months early and only a third of her older brother's birth weight.
It was roughly 3:30 a.m. Jan. 28 when Melinda felt her stomach cramping. She didn't find the cramps to be too abnormal, but the hemorrhaging told her otherwise. She immediately called 911, a decision that may have saved two lives.
"It was a very scary night," Melinda said. "Initially, when I got out of bed in the middle of the night, I knew that things were really, really bad and I knew it wasn't normal."
When paramedics arrived, the family's oldest daughter, Sutton, opened the door for them. Neighbors came over to stay with the Klinects' two children - Jake managed to sleep through the entire ordeal - and an ambulance whisked Melinda away to Gwinnett Medical.
Doctors initially waited on a few rounds of test results before moving forward, but it didn't take very long to decide on an emergency caesarean section.
"I can read people's expressions pretty easily," Danny said. "I could tell from the doctor's eyes (when she saw the test results). Then she looked up and said, 'Mr. Klinect, we're going in.' After the surgery she told me we were about 10 minutes away from losing both of them. The baby had almost zero pulse."
Keely weighed 3 pounds, 9 ounces at birth. She went straight to the NICU.
Melinda was told her bleeding came from a placental abruption, where the placenta becomes unattached from the uterus. It is a very serious condition for mother and child, and occurs in just 1 percent of pregnancies worldwide.
The Klinects still don't know what caused the abruption.
"That's the frustrating part for us," Danny said. "We'd like to have closure and figure out what happened."
'She's a fighter'
Once she was born, Keely faced the typical routine of premature babies.
Her weight dropped initially to 3 pounds, 2 ounces. A gamut of tests were done. She needed oxygen assistance for two days. She was fed through a tube for her first two weeks in the NICU.
Like most parents, Danny and Melinda simply wanted to hold their new baby. But Keely had to stay in the NICU nursery in an isolette, a warming device to protect her from cold and stress. As they watched their daughter, the Klinects saw other babies in distress. Babies who didn't make it.
It was a difficult time, but Melinda drew upon her own experiences earlier in life when her younger sister had health problems as an infant after being diagnosed with Down syndrome.
"You feel really disconnected (when the baby's in the NICU)," Melinda said. "It definitely took an emotional toll on me. You have the baby and you're so happy that you have the baby. ... Then you go home, but there's no baby. There was also a hesitation. We hadn't put up the crib or gotten the nursery ready, and I wasn't ready to do that.
"I certainly felt like I didn't know what the outcome would be yet. I just felt like passing the nursery every day without the baby being in the crib, that would pretty much be too hard to take."
The Klinects said the doctors and nurses were honest with them in the early days after the delivery, and they took care not to get their hopes up too much. The couple visited the hospital regularly for feedings because that was their only chance to hold Keely, a routine that Melinda called her "only good part of the day."
While she was home alone recovering most of the time, Danny was away teaching, coaching soccer or shuttling Sutton to cheerleading and Jake to karate. A week after the birth, Melinda also suffered a post-operative fever that reached 104 degrees and forced another emergency room trip.
"Danny is my rock, he keeps it all together," Melinda said. "I don't know how he's held it together. I was bed-ridden for three weeks because I had complications after I got home. Danny dealt with soccer practice, then games and then he came home, took care of the baby, took the kids to their practices. He definitely gets the dad of the year award."
While her family was working hard, Keely was doing the same. She grew stronger by the day, eventually eating without a tube and maintaining her own body temperature.
Surrounded by other struggling babies, she began to improve. Preemies typically stay in the NICU until their due date, but Keely was released five weeks early after only three weeks in the NICU. She left on Feb. 18, only four days after her father's late-night visit on Valentine's Day.
She came home as 4 pounds, 2 ounces of determination.
"The doctor told us that (preemie) girls usually fight better than boys," Melinda said. "We saw some of the boys in NICU who didn't make it. He said the girls are just fighters."
"She's a fighter," Danny said. "You can tell already she's a fighter."
A month past her original March 24 due date, Keely is doing well. She sleeps most of the time - she is alert and awake typically two times a day - but appears healthy.
All of her tests have come back with positive results, a miracle considering her traumatic birth and difficult first days out of the womb. Melinda does physical therapy with her new baby daily and plans to get help from her mother when she returns to teaching Tuesday.
"The advice my mom gave me with all of my sister's health issues that she had initially is that you can't really look too far ahead," Melinda said. "You have to look at tomorrow and see what everybody's doing and how we're going to get everybody where they need to be."
Which is pretty much how Danny handled his teaching, coaching and family chores over the past few months. Keely was born a day before soccer practice started, and the Brookwood coach still managed to miss only two or three practices.
Even as people suggested he resign or take time away from soccer, Danny remained with the team. He said it helped keep him sane during the trying times.
"He's been dedicated to two things at once and done them both really well," Brookwood soccer player Wes Manyak said of his coach. "I wish I was as strong as he is. I give him all the credit for what he's done. Any other coach probably would have resigned."
The past few months have helped the Klinects realize why they enjoy working in education. Their co-workers from Brookwood, in addition to people they worked with previously at Grayson and Duluth, were there to help out. The social studies department at Brookwood gave them $500 in gift cards for meals.
Danny's sixth-period students took donations and gave him $100 in QT cards for gas. The Broncos' soccer booster club provided two to three weeks worth of frozen meals. The couple has received more cards than they can count.
"It's a humbling experience because, it sounds cliche, but you take things for granted," Melinda said. "It really is true. You step back and realize all the things that are important in your life. We're very blessed to have each other. We have a wonderful family and wonderful friends."
Now they have one more tiny, special blessing. A blessing who made it home for Easter, ready to be held and loved on a daily basis.
"I just feel thoroughly blessed every time I look at her," Melinda said. "Every day she changes and she looks healthier. When I see those chubby cheeks and her double chin, I realize how lucky we really are, how fortunate things turned out the way they did."