A New Mexico infant is happy, healthy and thriving after beating the odds.
Jari Lopez was just 9 inches and weighed only 11.5 ounces, lighter than an average loaf of bread, when he was born at 24 weeks on Feb. 22, 2021.
The micro preemie now has the honor of being the smallest neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) survivor from Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque.
“Really small for his gestational age”
Amber Higgins, Jari’s mother, told “Good Morning America” that she started seeing a specialist during her pregnancy after her 20-week ultrasound showed that Jari was smaller than normal.
“I saw the specialist and they said that he was still measuring really, really small for his gestational age, so they went ahead and admitted me to the hospital at 23 weeks and I think like, four or five days, just to monitor him daily and do an ultrasound every single day,” she recalled.
It was around this time that doctors told Higgins and her husband Julian Lopez that their baby had a 30% chance of surviving. “I was pretty scared … I don't think I realized how serious it was until then,” Higgins said.
A couple days later, Higgins was told it was time to deliver her baby.
“He was still really small, then he started to have some reverse blood flow and his heart rate was dropping here and there. And then I started to have high blood pressure, which they took as a sign of preeclampsia. So they just said that it was best to go ahead and do an emergency C-section at 24 weeks,” Higgins said.
Dr. Jennifer Anderson, a medical director at Pediatrix Neonatology of New Mexico and a neonatologist, was the doctor on call at Presbyterian that day.
“Most babies born or almost all babies born at 24 weeks will need to be put on a breathing machine, will need to [be] intubated or have a deep breathing tube placed and put on a machine to help them breathe,” Anderson told “GMA.” “And our concern for Jari was, because he was so, so small – he was measuring less than the third percentile, 325 grams, 11 and a half ounces is really, really tiny – I think it's almost impossible to imagine how small that is. But the equipment only comes so small and so having a breathing tube that was going to be small enough to be able to pass into Jari’s breathing tube, we were just really worried that we weren't going to have one small enough to fit."
Fortunately, a nurse practitioner was able to get Jari intubated without a hitch.
“One of our excellent nurse practitioners was able to pass a breathing tube in and put Jari on the breathing machine really quickly after he was born,” Anderson said. “I think we all did a big sigh of relief that the breathing tube fit because we knew that that was going to be his first challenge. And then when we got him kind of stabilized, that's when I went over to Amber to talk to her and her husband to let them know … that this was going to be a long road for Jari.”
A remarkable beginning
Jari stayed on the breathing machine for about a month-and-a-half and had to remain in the NICU for 127 days, where a team of doctors, nurses and various therapists cared for him and monitored his growth and development. While in the NICU, he had to get multiple transfusions and surgery to repair inguinal hernias but didn’t have any major problems like bleeding into the brain or heart conditions and didn’t need other surgeries like eye surgery, which can be common for babies born so young.
Higgins said she was focused on Jari during much of the time he was in the NICU.
“I was just trying to get through it and trying to help him any way that I could, just being there every day. I don't think I really thought about how small he actually was until like, now. I look back and I'm like, wow, he was like, really, really small,” she said.
After four months, Jari was cleared for discharge in June. “He ended up going home on just a little bit of oxygen which is very, very common because we live at about a mile high,” Anderson said of the elevation in New Mexico’s largest city. “So at our altitude, a lot of our premature babies go on oxygen, and he went home on a multivitamin and that was it.”
She added, “His course was remarkably smooth for a baby born this little and this early.”
A year later, Jari is now 2 feet tall and about 16 pounds.
Higgins said her firstborn is “real feisty.”
“He gets really excited about some stuff. And then he's really active too. He moves around quite a bit,” she said, adding, “We're just still working on catching him up developmentally because he's more around how old he was supposed to be. But other than that, is perfectly fine.”
Anderson said Jari's journey has been amazing to witness.
“We see a lot of small babies but he was tiny. And all of us around his bedside was like wow, you know, he's really little and to see him now, for our whole team, it’s the best feeling in the world to see him now with his chubby cheeks, turning 1, and knowing how far he came,” she said.
Higgins said Jari will get three birthday celebrations to mark his very special first birthday.
She added that she and her husband felt it was important to share Jari's story with the world.
“We wanted to get his story out there because he was so small. We spent a long time in the NICU and it was lonely,” she said. “The odds weren’t really in his favor so it's nice to put his story out there and give people hope, who are also having a hard time in the NICU. Maybe their baby's condition is different, but it gives them hope because he was so small, and he made it.”