Monday, June 25, 2012

A Premature Baby Follows Her Dreams

Former MGHfC patient Keri White gives new meaning to being "born to sing."

On October 6th, 1991 Lucille White’s journal entry began: “Keri was a fighter at birth.”

An early surprise to her family, Lucille’s daughter Keri was born premature at 28 weeks in their Newton, New Hampshire home. Breathing on her own, the 2 pounds, 4 ounces baby fell into an EMT’s hands and was then taken to Exeter Hospital in NH, where a doctor pumped oxygen into her for 45 minutes. Three days after birth, Keri endured severe bleeds on both sides of her brain and was treated at MassGeneral Hospital for Children for three months. In family photos of Keri in the hospital, she had miniature arms and legs, and tubes spilled out of her like spaghetti.

Now 20 years old, Keri is poised in picture-perfect posture with legs crossed and hands folded. She dreams of becoming a singer and is getting ready to move away from home for the first time to attend Bob Jones University in South Carolina. Keri may have been born premature, but her mother was right – she is a fighter.

Babies born before the fine-tuning of their developmental organs is complete are more likely to experience a range of newborn health complications, including breathing problems and brain bleeds, and long-term issues such as learning and attention difficulties says Leslie Kerzner, MD, Director of the Newborn Developmental Follow-Up Clinic at MGHfC. 

“A baby born prematurely has many challenges, both in the newborn period and beyond,” Dr. Kerzner says. “That said, many former preterm infants are thriving and have only subtle medical or developmental issues, or even none at all.”

Keri is certainly thriving now, but she has faced some challenges along the way. When she suffered brain bleeds as an infant, doctors explained to her mother that they needed to place a ventriculoperitoneal (VP) shunt to relieve pressure on her brain. Lucille said she “needed to know what they were going to put in my baby’s brain” and insisted the doctors show her the shunt. One of the doctors drew a picture of it to help put Lucille’s mind at ease.

“It was hard to come in every day and see the doctors and hear everything that could go wrong,” Lucille says. “When I came here it was so hard to leave.”

The VP shunt has malfunctioned three times since then, but the Whites haven’t walked the halls of MGHfC since Keri was in third grade. Keri’s last surgery was 10 years ago on Mother’s Day.

“People ask about my shunt, but I really don’t feel any different,” Keri says, smiling. “They’re just amazed by it and really supportive.”

Keri also rides on the support of her family and friends to pursue her dream: music. She attributes her love of singing to her mother, who used to play soothing songs as a therapeutic way to calm premature babies. Keri now says she can’t fall asleep without music on, and enjoys singing her favorite spiritual and Broadway songs. Her passion has motivated her to transfer to Bob Jones University in South Carolina in the fall, where she’ll join the ranks of some of her close friends.

“When I first considered going into vocal performance, I was talking to [a friend] and she was like, ‘You’d be really good at it, and so I totally think you should pursue your dreams and just go for it,’” Keri says.

Although she is excited to make the leap on her own, Keri is wary of the stress she might face in some of her classes. Growing up, she has had difficulty learning, especially multitasking, as a result of being born premature.

“Some music theory classes I’ve taken came pretty easy for some people, but they weren’t easy for me.” Keri says. “You’d think ‘Oh, you can sing so you should be fine with looking at a piece of sheet music and singing from it. You’d think it would be easy, but for me, not so much.”

With the help of patient professors, Keri has been able to succeed in her classes by completing projects one piece at a time, and she will be armed with these strategies at her new university. Keri also is bringing a heightened sense of confidence and self awareness with her, and plans on sharing her medical background with the university’s student health services. Keri’s mom, though nervous that her daughter will be far away from her, is comforted by the intuition she had when Keri was born: her daughter is a fighter.

“I’m excited, scared and nervous all at once because I’m a mom. You want the best for your kids but you want to hold on,” Lucille says. “But you also have to let go. So, I’m letting go!”

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