A baby girl who spent the first nine months of her life in the hospital is finally going home, one week before Christmas.
Evangeline "Evie" Statler was born at 23 weeks and 5 days on March 24 -- nearly four months before her July 16 due date -- at a community hospital in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, to parents Madison "Maddie" Statler and Dylan Statler.
She was transferred to the newborn intensive care unit at St. Louis Children's Hospital in late July, where she was being treated for pulmonary hypertension, or high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs, among other complications. Despite the long odds, Evie has grown leaps and bounds since then and is now stable enough to head home with her family.
"A miracle baby"
"It's kind of symbolic," Dylan Statler told "Good Morning America" ahead of his daughter's discharge Monday. "Because she's kind of like a gift or a miracle baby."
It has been a long and difficult road for the Statlers, who didn't expect Evie, their second child, to arrive so early.
From uneventful pregnancy to emergency C-section
Maddie Statler told "GMA" her pregnancy had been relatively uneventful, but at 23 weeks, she woke up one morning with back pain.
"I noticed that my stomach felt kind of tight and different and then I started having contractions later that day," the 27-year-old mom recalled. "I was in denial though that I could be in labor because I was like, 'I'm 23 weeks. There's no way that I'm in labor right now.' And then I had some bleeding later that evening and then that's kind of what prompted us to go to the hospital."
Maddie Statler said she was given medicine to try to stop her preterm labor and contractions, but her bleeding never stopped. Five days later, she said her sister, who happens to be an obstetric nurse, was visiting her at the hospital when she realized something was wrong.
"She noticed right away that Evangeline's heart rate was skyrocketing all of a sudden, and she ran out the door and everything happened really fast after that," the mother of two recounted. "Next thing I know, the doctor and all these nurses and the anesthesiologist was coming in the room, and they were also trying to hook me up to get a blood transfusion and get me back to [the operating room] because I was hemorrhaging from what they later found out was a placental abruption."
Evie was born via emergency cesarean section, and although she was so small and underdeveloped, the Statlers said they were told Evie "made a cry" when she came out.
"Whenever we heard that she made a cry, that made us feel like you know, she definitely had some fight in her, and that was reassuring," Maddie Statler said, adding that seeing Evie in the NICU led to her maternal instinct kicking in to do everything to help Evie get better and give her "the best chance at life."
"Less than 50% chance of survival"
Dylan Statler said doctors told them Evie likely had "less than [a] 50% chance of survival" when she was born, and for much of 2023, they had to take things day by day.
"Each day was kind of like a victory that we got through -- like, if we got through another day there at the beginning, we counted that as a win," the 30-year-old father said. "That's all we could really do, is take one day at a time, because everything was so kind of scary and new."
He added, "We didn't expect any of this to happen. It's kind of a nightmare scenario."
After Evie was transferred for further care in July, Dr. Melissa Riley, a Washington University neonatologist at St. Louis Children's Hospital, began treating her alongside Evie's NICU team.
"When Evie got here, as sick as she was, honestly, I think our team was a little hesitant to promise success," Riley told "GMA." "We anticipated a very long stay. So when she arrived here, as sick as she was … at that time, if you would have said, 'Dr. Riley, is Evie going to be home by Christmas?' I would have said, 'I'm not betting on that one.'"
"Exhausted but so happy"
Riley said the collective effort to give Evie a fighting chance of survival has been a joy for her to witness as a physician and share a hand in.
"It's a testament to Evie, to her feistiness. It's a testament to her family. And it's a testament to the fantastic team she has here in the NICU," Riley said.
Dylan Statler, who is also a painter, was even inspired by his newborn daughter to create a series of vibrant paintings, including one titled "Waiting on Her Arrival," which is currently on display at the Art Saint Louis Gallery.
"It just symbolizes the hope that she will come home one day and kind of a universal thing for anybody anticipating a loved one or someone special coming home," he said.
The Statlers describe their journey with Evie in the NICU as a "marathon," and although it has been a "whirlwind" emotional journey for them, they said they're grateful for all the support they've received from their family, friends and Evie's health care team.
"They really have been like a light in our dark days. And they've laughed with us and cried with us, and just really been there [every] step of the way," Maddie Statler said.
The family said they also want to share Evie's story and their family's story to give hope to other families and individuals who may be in a similar situation.
"Those stories from the beginning helped us a lot. We were looking up stuff with similar situations, and just hearing a success story meant so much to us from the very beginning. And you never know who you can touch or whose life you can change, just from a story," Dylan Statler said.