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Breathing Easier

March 11, 2009, 9:50 PM by Angela Kennecke

Breathing Easier
Nearly 13 percent of all births in this country are premature and the biggest challenge these babies face is the ability to breathe.  But new advances in medicine are helping tiny babies to breathe easier and that technology is available in Sioux Falls.

All these wires, tubes and equipment hooked up to tiny Owen Dahl may seem frightening. But it's this very technology that's saving this premature baby's life.

"Because the babies lungs at this point are nothing more than tissue paper and so anything we can do make sure those lung don't acquire any additional problems is our goal," respiratory therapist Gordon Brown said. 

When she went into premature labor, Melissa Dahl was flown from Aberdeen to Sanford Children's hospital. 

"It was such a relief getting here. His chances of surviving were really slim. They just don't have the technology and capabilities. And so when we got here, that plane landed, both my husband and I were like, 'Whew, thank God,'" mother Melissa Dahl said.

Owen arrived three and a half months early, weighing just over two pounds.

"He was breathing and moving and squeaking. But he wasn't able to breathe enough to support his lungs and all that.  They did have to incubate him and put the tube in," Dahl said.

The tube is Owen's ventilator, which breathes for him.

"Sometimes they're born so premature, and they're so tiny, most of the energy they expend is in trying to breathe for themselves. So if we can take over that work of breathing, the baby can spend more energy and calories growing and developing and continue to mature," Brown said.

New medicine combined with new ventilators give these preemie babies a much better chance at survival and shorter hospital stays.

"We also have a technology now where we can go with high frequency ventilation, which is where we actually give little puffs of air instead of deep breaths. That can go from 400 to 900 little puffs or breaths per minute," Brown said.

With a choice of as many as six different kinds of ventilators, doctors are able to customize the treatment for each baby's needs.

"The main risk is making sure we put the right equipment on the right babies at the right time. That's the main risk we have," Brown said.

And even though Owen is still at risk, each day he gets stronger and his mom can see the progress for herself.

"It's amazing. He's grown so much. He was so little and now just to see him, his color is good, he moves, he's awake and he stares, it's amazing to watch every little step,"  Dahl said.

And with every breath, Owen is closer to developing into the little boy his parents spent the last several months dreaming about.

"To know he's taken care of and they’ve kept him alive and he's here. It means everything to us," Dahl said.

Owen had to have heart surgery immediately after birth and still has to undergo surgery to correct a cleft palette. Owen's doctors are considering taking him off the ventilator any day now. His weight is up to 5 pounds, 14 ounces.

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