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Graditude is viral in premature baby's family

Seventeen months ago, Piedmont Heights residents Crystal and Marshall Diehl and would never have dreamed that their daughter would be as healthy as she is now.

Audrey
Audrey Diehl, who had as little as a 50-percent chance of survival when she was born and spent 93 days in intensive care, is now 17 months old and living with her parents in Piedmont Heights. Submitted photo.

Seventeen months ago, Piedmont Heights residents Crystal and Marshall Diehl and would never have dreamed that their daughter would be as healthy as she is now.

"After seeing her that first day, I never would have expected this," said Marshall.

That first day was March 22, 2010, the day that Crystal and Marshall's daughter, Audrey, was born at Essentia in Duluth.

Audrey was born prematurely, the number one cause of death in newborns. A baby is considered premature if it is born any time before 37 weeks into a pregnancy. Crystal had been pregnant with Audrey for only 25 weeks.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as few as one half of all babies born at 25 weeks will survive, even with intensive medical care. Those premature babies that do survive are at much higher risks for infection and permanent health problems such as mental retardation.

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By her 25th week of pregnancy, Crystal had developed severe pre-eclampsia, a condition involving high blood pressure that was stopping blood flow to her womb. With no time left and normal birth too potentially traumatic for a baby Audrey's size, there was no other option than delivering Audrey by caesarean section.

"She was the size of a pop can," said Crystal. "There wasn't a lot of hope after she was born. They prepared us for the worst."

After she was born weighing a mere 12 ounces, Audrey Diehl was immediately transferred to Essentia's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Fortunately for Marshall, a contractor working at the hospital, and Crystal, a nurse in Essentia's adult intensive care unit, the two could visit their daughter daily, and often slept over in the NICU.

"I don't think either of us missed a single day," said Marshall. After 93 days in the intensive care unit, Audrey Diehl was discharged from the hospital. But Audrey and her parents were by no means out of the woods.

"Having her home was a whole new set of problems," said Crystal.

Audrey's immune system was still dangerously weak. The Diehls had to take extra precautions to keep their daughter healthy, keeping visitors to a minimum, even avoiding family functions were Audrey could contract a virus or bacteria, and of course practicing strict hygiene.

Though they were determined to keep their daughter healthy, the family hit a roadblock in the fall of 2010. Audrey and Marshall wanted to put their daughter on a preventative medicine for respiratory syncytial virus or RSV, a virus that causes respiratory tract infections and is especially dangerous for premature babies. However their insurance wouldn't pay for the medication.

"The scary thing is that most babies will have RSV sometime in their first two years," said Audrey.

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However Pam MacArthur, a nurse who works in Essentia's NICU and has been a nurse for 23 years, RSV isn't a threat to healthy adults and babies. "To you and I, it would be a bad cold," she said. "However, it can be dangerous for premature babies, because they often have diminished lung function."

"They told us that if she got RSV in the first year, she could die," said Crystal.

So Crystal, along with representatives from Essentia Health and Marshall's union went to work on getting the insurance company to change its decision.

After three weeks of phone calls, her time paid off. After all that pressure, the insurance company decided to pay for Audrey's medication.

Since that achievement, the Diehls have been anything but complacent, showing their gratitude by sharing their story and becoming an ambassador family for the March of Dimes. Since its original cause of finding a treatment for polio fell by the wayside in the 1950s, the March of Dimes has turned its focus to improving the health of mothers and babies, especially premature babies. Crystal said that research funded by the March of Dimes had a huge impact on Audrey's lifesaving care.

"All the therapy, all her treatment somehow led back to March of Dimes. Without them, we wouldn't have our daughter," she said.

Though things are going well for Audrey, her parents are well aware that, as a premature baby, Audrey is still vulnerable to various health problems. But at the same time, Crystal and Marshall Diehl are enjoying the moments with their daughter they never thought they'd get when she was first born.

"She loves reading books with us. She had her first steps a few weeks ago, and now you can't stop her," said Crystal.

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