Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Gerson Xavier Vasquez was born premature on June 14, 2011 at just 24 weeks gestation at Northside Hospital. Vasquez now 22-months-old has beat the odds as babies born at 24 weeks gestation have a 55 percent chance of survival. Mother Anna assists Gerson Xavier with getting dressed after waking him up from a nap in their Dacula home on Friday.
IF YOU GO
What: Gwinnett March of Dimes March for Babies
When: Registration begins at 9 a.m. Saturday, April 27, with the walk beginning at 10
Where: Suwanee Town Center Park, 370 Buford Hwy, Suwanee, GA 30024
Phone: (404) 350-9800
DACULA -- When Gerson Vasquez found out he was having a little boy, he was ecstatic.
After two girls, he and wife Anna just wanted a healthy baby, but to learn it was a boy -- a son who could share his name and so much more -- was amazing.
Just four weeks after that gender-revealing ultrasound, planned for the midpoint of Anna's pregnancy, the two learned that it was the healthy part they had to worry about.
While the baby wasn't due until the fall, Anna's water broke one early June night while she snuggled with her girls in bed.
Twenty-two months later, the Vasquez family knows what a miracle is. It is walking, talking, happy little Gerson Xavier, with his mom's dimples and his daddy's playful personality.
It is the smiles on their daughters' faces when they play with him, even if they get a little too rough.
It is the friendships they forged in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, a bond that stretches between parents who are the only ones who can truly understand the burden of watching each little breath to make sure you don't have to rub the baby's chest just to get to the next one.
A miracle in so many ways, the family knows that if Gerson Xavier had been born 20 years before, or maybe even five, he would likely have never taken those first steps.
That's why they can't wait for the toddler to walk this weekend in the March of Dimes fundraiser. Last year, he rode along in a stroller, but this time, the big guy can take steps to help raise money for the health and support of premature babies and their parents.
For all the other little miracles who come into the world each day.
Now worrying about keeping a clean house amid three kids and making sure the dog goes out, it is easy to forget what life was like nearly two years ago.
But Anna keeps a photo of Gerson Xavier's early days on her screen saver and an album sits nearby.
"It's a reminder of how far we've come," she says.
"It's a great way to get perspective," her husband adds, talking about one image, where the baby's fingers all fit into his wedding band.
With Alyssa, now 9, the pregnancy and birth were textbook, just as they were supposed to be.
Ella, now 7, tried to come early, and Anna had to spend 10 days in the hospital and a few months on bed rest to delay the delivery.
But all seemed well with their third child until Anna felt a pop and knew, alarmed, her water had broken 16 weeks -- four full months -- before it should.
With her husband in Kansas City on a business trip, she called her in-laws to drive her to Northside Hospital.
And Gerson, enjoying a night out with colleagues, went straight to the airport, bypassing the hotel.
Frantic to get home but frustrated to find that flights wouldn't leave for hours, he broke down for the first time.
At the hospital, though, doctors had hopes.
They stopped the labor and talked to Anna about the possibility of getting to 34 weeks, when the chances would be the best.
As March of Dimes officials will tell you, babies born at 24 weeks gestation have a 55 percent chance of survival. Those that do survive often have major health issues. At 28 weeks, the chances of success are much greater and they grow from there. At 34 weeks the chances of complications are nearly gone.
"Day by day, they develop so many things," Anna said. "So every hour they can stay in is so important."
With Gerson at her bedside, things seemed to be going well.
The baby was breech, but very active. Soon the 24-hour monitoring dwindled to every hour, and the nurses nicknamed the boy "the neonatal ninja" because he moved so much that they had to search with the probes to find his heartbeat again.
After five days, the couple began a discussion with the doctor about Gerson going back to work. He would be close. Could he get there in time if the baby came early?
With assurances that a C-section would take an hour to prep, they began to make plans to get back in a routine.
But just moments later, Anna went to the bathroom, and a tiny foot -- not much bigger than her thumbnail -- fell out.
"I was screaming," Anna said. "My fastest 40 time ever," Gerson said of his sprint to get help.-----
Much of the next few hours are a haze.
Gerson Xavier was born, purple on one end and white as a sheet on the other. His head was the size of a lemon, his skin still translucent, and his precious fingers and toes smaller than you can imagine.
Doctors and nurses immediately worked to help him breath, and in moments he was wheeled away to the NICU.
"I thought that was the last time I'd see him," Anna said.
Very sick herself, the determined mother refused a blood transfusion until she was able to meet her son.
"We didn't know how long he would be there."
Time went by. First marked by hours, as the doctors told them the first 24 are crucial. Then it was 48, then 72.
But even as the baby -- just 1 pound, 8.7 ounces and 12 and a quarter inches long -- held on, the couple had another daunting task ahead of them, introducing their girls to their baby brother.
"We explained that he was sick and was going to be in the hospital," Anna recalled. "They handled it pretty well. They were just like, 'We got a new baby brother.'"
For the first three weeks, the new parents wondered if Gerson Xavier would survive.
"It's a roller coaster ride when you are in the NICU, you take two steps forward and then three steps back," Anna said, talking about infections that landed the baby in isolation and other turns. "We would feel great and we would start to plan, and then something would go wrong."
Their hands were raw from scrubbing each time they held their son, and their hearts were the same from emotion.
After a while, when the boy began to grow and learn to suck, swallow and breath, when survival seemed more certain, other thoughts crept in.
"You start wondering, 'Is he going to be like other kids?'" Gerson said.
After 116 days in the NICU, they still didn't know.
But Gerson Xavier seemed to miss some of the most debillatating health problems that affect micro-preemies, like hearing and vision loss.
The test would come as he grew.
And Anna knew the road could still be rough, quickly shutting the door on family members who welcomed them home and going through industrial-sized containers of sanitizers to help protect her baby's weakened immune system.
And he grew. He grew and he grew and he grew.
Adjusting for his late September due date, Gerson Xavier's fist steps just before Thanksgiving were right on time. And that first word -- "Mama" Anna notes with pride -- sounded much more beautiful than the beeps and whirrs of the machines counting his breaths those first few months.
"This guy is defying the odds left and right," Gerson said, noting only some minor sensory issues and a chronic lung disease as the lasting effects of being born an entire trimester too soon.
But the Vasquezes know that they are the lucky ones.
During those 116 days in the NICU, they prayed with and cried with and, yes, even laughed with so many other parents facing the same thing or even worse. Some of the babies were huge compared to their tiny guy, but still, they know the anguish of knowing there is something wrong with your child.
That's why they will walk this Saturday at Town Center Park in the March for babies.
Because no one knows why some babies come so very early.
And because doctors can only do so much to save the ones that do.
"Twenty years ago, the chances were slim," Gerson said. "Even five years ago. It's come a long way and we are thankful for it."
To help with this weekend's March of Dimes fundraiser, go to www.marchofdimes.com/georgia.