Premature baby beats the odds in San Luis Obispo County


The first six-and-a-half months of Sara Bollinger’s pregnancy passed without incident.

Everett Zachary — a name Bollinger and her husband, Zac, picked out the day they found out she was pregnant — continued to grow into a healthy baby boy, while the Grover Beach couple prepared for Sara Bollinger’s January due date.

That all changed Oct. 10. Sara Bollinger woke up with back pain, and efforts to relieve it didn’t work.

Her doctor recommended she check into Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in San Luis Obispo because it has the only neonatal intensive care unit between Santa Barbara and Salinas.

It was the first sign that the pregnancy wasn’t going as smoothly as the Bollingers believed.

At Sierra Vista, Sara Bollinger learned she had an incompetent cervix, in which pressure from the baby’s growth caused the cervix to start to open early, and was having contractions.

Despite efforts to stop the labor, “Everett was coming,” Sara Bollinger said. “He wanted to be here.”

Everett Zachary Bollinger — whose name, fittingly, means “strong as a wild boar” — was born via Caesarean section 15 weeks early, weighing just 1 pound, 13 ounces. He fit in the palms of his mother’s hand, and his footprints measured 2 inches from big toe to heel.

The next five months became a roller coaster for his parents, who saw their first child overcome one complication only to face another.

Everett was considered a “micro-preemie,” having been born weighing less than 2 pounds. Nationwide, about 12 percent of babies are born prematurely, or before 37 weeks of gestation, according to the March of Dimes Foundation. Sierra Vista doctors have seen smaller babies than Everett, said Donna Loper, director of the hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and Pediatrics. The smallest the staff can remember is a girl, now 7, who weighed 15 ounces when she was born.

The NICU unit admits about 250 to 300 babies per year, about 80 percent of whom are preemies, Loper said.

Three days after Everett’s birth, Sara Bollinger began sending frequent e-mails to friends and family updating them on his condition.

The stack of correspondence — 35 e-mails to date — will become Everett’s baby book. Sara Bollinger has also saved every e-mail, card and note she’s received, so that her son will know how much he was loved and prayed for from the beginning.

“It happened to us because we were strong enough to bear it,” Sara Bollinger said this week, holding Everett in the couple’s living room, occasionally covering him with kisses. “I want people to know his story and have hope. He’s a miracle.”

Staying optimistic

Sara and Zac Bollinger grew up in Arroyo Grande. They were high school sweethearts and married in 2004.

Bubbly and optimistic, Sara Bollinger approached Everett’s numerous challenges with hope, giving thanks for daily accomplishments and trying to make the best of setbacks.

In late October and early November, Everett worked to overcome an infection in his umbilical line, a tube inserted through a blood vessel in his umbilical cord to give him fluids.

On Nov. 7 — nearly a month after he was born — Zac Bollinger was able to hold Everett for the first time. Three days later, Everett was able to breathe on his own.

“We are overjoyed and so full of pride for our strong son,” Sara Bollinger, 29, wrote Nov. 10. “He is such a fighter!”

Two weeks later, however, Everett developed another infection, which doctors believed to be H1N1 swine flu.

He was put on an anti-viral medication. The infection took about 10 to 14 days to overcome.

In the meantime, in early December, Sierra Vista doctors determined that Everett had a blockage in his small intestine, which required surgery they couldn’t perform.

Everett was transported to Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, where surgeons learned he had perforated his bowel in two areas of the small intestine. To treat it, surgeons bypassed two sections of his bowels and performed an ileostomy, attaching the small intestine to the abdominal wall and letting digestive waste exit through an artificial hole into a bag.

Doctors later told the Bollingers they never expected Everett to make it through surgery.

“It is a profound and life-changing moment when you realize that you almost lost your child,” Sara Bollinger wrote Jan. 29.

Meanwhile, Everett continued to gain weight. At the beginning of February, when he weighed 4 pounds, 13 ounces, Sara Bollinger sent out an upbeat e-mail: “Thank you for all your concern for us and for Everett. If our little boy could grow on love alone … he’d be the size of a teenager.”

Later that month, however, Sara and Zac Bollinger decided to push for a second surgery to reconnect Everett’s bowels. The surgery was performed Feb. 22. When the surgeons asked to speak to them after only two hours in the surgical waiting room, the couple was expecting the worst.

But when the surgeon arrived, she told Sara Bollinger: “You have a very smart son.” Everything in Everett’s abdomen had healed, and the surgery was a success.

On March 16, after 157 days in the hospital, Everett finally came home to Grover Beach. He now weighs more than 12 pounds, and the scar across his stomach is a permanent reminder of his experience.

“It used to make me upset and angry to look at it,” Sara Bollinger wrote March 26. “But now, it makes me so proud of our son, our little warrior.”

Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.