Arroyo Grande micro-preemie shows 'will to survive'

Sara Bollinger with her son Everett, 3, who was born premature and has overcome numerous challenges.
Photo by Joe Johnston 12-19-12
Sara Bollinger with her son Everett, 3, who was born premature and has overcome numerous challenges. Photo by Joe Johnston 12-19-12 jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Sara Bollinger remembers lying in the recovery room after her son’s birth on a cool day in October 2009.

Instead of weeping with joy, the tears streaming down her face were laced with fear and sadness. The new mom didn’t get to hold her baby just after his birth, nor did his father, Zac.

Instead, Everett Bollinger — born 15 weeks early, weighing just 1 pound, 13 ounces — was swept away to the neonatal intensive care unit.

“We all kept repeating, ‘He’s going to be OK,’” Sara Bollinger wrote in a letter to her son on his first birthday. “Kittens weigh more than you did. But packed into your little body was a will to survive and to thrive that is rarely seen in one so small.”

Over the past few years, Everett has faced three surgeries, many therapy sessions and numerous complications — his mom calls them “nuances.”

But despite the odds he faced, Everett has grown into a bright, curious and sweet child, somehow avoiding a few of the more serious problems that can plague “micro-preemies,” or babies born weighing less than 2 pounds.

At 28 pounds and 36 inches tall, Everett is small for his age, and he’s about a year behind in his motor skills. But his cognitive skills (an ability to learn and solve problems) test above his age level, and he’s nearly caught up with speech and language development.

“We’re thankful that he’s walking and talking and doing lots of things that we didn’t know if he was going to be able to do,” Sara Bollinger, 31, said during a recent interview at her Arroyo Grande home.

As she talked about her son’s progress, Everett played with his mom’s iPhone — he’s become quite well-versed in electronics — and became engrossed in Disney’s “Cars.”

Sara Bollinger drew Everett onto her lap, holding him close, as she talked about how close she and Zac, 32, came to losing him.

“I don’t know what you’re meant to do, but it’s something great,” she told Everett.

Meeting challenges

More than half a million babies in the United States are born preterm each year, or before 37 weeks of gestation, according to the March of Dimes Foundation.

Babies who survive an early birth often face the risk of lifetime health challenges, such as breathing problems, cerebral palsy, and intellectual disabilities. After Everett was born, Sara Bollinger said she was told her baby’s chance of survival was 20 percent.

Everett spent 157 days in the NICU unit at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center and at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. In 2009 and 2010, he successfully endured two surgeries related to his bowels, and another one to fix a large hernia.

He was finally able to go home March 16, 2010 — a special date the Bollingers celebrate with an annual photo of Zac holding Everett’s head in his hand.

Since then, Everett’s life has been marked with milestones. He started walking at 18 months, and by his second birthday, he was speaking several dozen words, freely giving out hugs, and feeding himself, albeit messily.

“You are tenacious,” Sara Bollinger wrote in a letter to her son on his second birthday in October 2011. “Not that we would have expected you to be any other way. Your tenacity is what has kept you alive and allowed you to thrive.”

There have been complications as well, but they are minor compared to the problems Everett faced as an infant.

Earlier this spring, for example, his parents learned that the arches of Everett’s feet were collapsing because of loose Achilles tendons, causing his feet and knees to rotate inward. He now wears braces to permanently treat the problem.

“His pediatrician was surprised that he was walking, running and attempting to jump,” Sara Bollinger wrote on her blog in April. “He says the condition is very painful and toddlers are typically reluctant to play hard on their legs. But we noticed quite some time ago that Everett’s pain tolerance is frighteningly high.”

Everett turned 3 in October. The toddler had been replaced by “a little person with opinions, an imagination, and a mind of his own,” Sara Bollinger wrote in a letter to her son on his third birthday.

“There isn’t a challenge that we’ve asked of you that you haven’t been able to achieve,” she wrote.

‘Always hope’

As times passes, scars heal. Everett carries a permanent reminder of his experience across his stomach (his mom calls the scar his “zipper”).

His parents’ emotional wounds cut deeper, but they are healing. Their experience brought them closer together as a couple, changed their world view and taught them to appreciate the little things in life.

Sara Bollinger now works part-time as a nurse at French Hospital Medical Center. Zac is a master automotive mechanic.

In February 2011, Sara Bollinger noticed she wasn’t always telling Everett’s birth story in response to strangers’ questions about his age and size.

“I’ve come to realize that that is Everett’s past, and while it is a part of who he is, it does not define who he is,” she wrote on her blog.

That year on Mother’s Day, Sara Bollinger got her own, outward reminder of her inner scars: she had Everett’s tiny footprint from birth tattooed on her right foot.

As they look to the years ahead, the Bollingers know that Everett could face more hurdles, including learning and developmental challenges. But the important thing is that Everett is alive, growing, thriving.

When asked what she would tell parents of other micro-preemies, Sara Bollinger quickly responds: “I always hoped.”

“We were told so many times that he’s going to have so many problems, or his chance of survival is 20 percent. I always hoped we’d be on the other side of that statistic.

“Look where he started, and look where he is now,” she added. “Just don’t give up.”

Learn more: Sara Bollinger has written updates about her son since his birth in 2009. His story can be viewed on her blog, “From Micro-Preemie to Miracle,” at http://micropreemietomiracle.blogspot.com/.