ROMEOVILLE – Lewis women’s volleyball coach Lorelee Smith got the weekly alert on her phone.
Many expecting moms know about the My Pregnancy Today application. This week, her daughter Rae was the size of a large mango and was developing blood vessels in her lungs. With 17 weeks left before the expected arrival, there still was a lot of development that needed to occur, but on that Sunday everything was on track.
Three days later, Smith’s husband, Dan Friend, came home and found his wife bent over, crying in pain. They called the doctor and rushed to the hospital.
Smith was going into early labor at 23 weeks and three days.
“They throw all these numbers at you in the beginning,” said Friend, Lewis’ men’s volleyball coach. “They said, ‘Right now she’s at the 30-40 percent success rate. If we make it to 24 weeks, it jumps up to a 60-70 percent success rate.’ It’s a lot. They’re throwing these numbers at you about the likelihood of vitality and the mental disorders or cerebral palsy – or, she just wouldn’t be able to breathe right.
“All of these things start coming at you, and Lorelee and I said we want to do everything possible so Rae could survive. We were willing to do anything to get us to where we needed to be.”
Smith took steroid and magnesium shots to help develop some of Rae’s vital organs and to slow the contractions. If they made it four more days, their little girl would have a much higher success rate.
On Sunday, June 5, 2016, exactly on week 24, Smith and Friend welcomed Rae Analyn Friend into the world at 1 pound, 8 ounces and 12 inches.
Rae, who is an adjusted age of 4 months, spent 113 days in Loyola Medical Center’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
The NICU helped Rae learn how to breathe and eat, among other things. She received care from Loyola personnel that included Dr. Christine Sajous and Dr. Jonathan Muraskas, and nurses Erica Gibson, Trudy Johnson and Liz Concepcion.
After this experience, the Lewis volleyball coaches wanted to find a way to give back.
Women’s assistant coach Rudi Balich came up with an idea from a game the Flyers played against St. Joseph of Indiana a few years ago. The previous head coach, Jill Schopieray, also had a premature baby and asked Lewis to play in their Playing for Preemies game.
Balich ran with the idea and helped put together Lewis’ first Playing for Preemies fundraiser game. In the women’s game, the team sold T-shirts and had a donation bucket. Lewis also donated the entrance fee to the cause. At the end of the night, $2,500 was donated to Loyola’s NICU.
“They were super thankful and grateful,” Friend said. “I just wanted to continue it during my season and do another game to bring some awareness as well as find a way to fundraise some money and donate it to the Loyola NICU that did such a fantastic job.
“For lack of better words, they helped our daughter survive. This is our way of saying thank you to them. We can’t put a value or dollar number on what they helped us get through.”
On Friday, Lewis men’s will host its Playing for Preemies game against Ball State at 7 p.m.
The goal of the fundraiser not only is to raise money for the NICU unit that helped the family, it also is a means to raise awareness.
Like many expectant parents, Friend and Smith were aware of some pregnancy risks. They did early testing for mental disabilities.
Not for one second did they ever think about having a micro-premature baby.
Immediately after the delivery, they were provided information about preemies and their development and had to quickly educate themselves on the subject.
According to MedLine Plus, one of 10 babies are premature. Having a preemie is more common than many believe, but most people still only know the definition of what a premature baby is.
“People may know what it is, but they have no clue what it entails, what it really means or what you would have to go through because it’s not something that you think about,” Smith said. “You know the definition of it, but you really don’t know what it means.”
Instead of taking Rae home after a few days, the couple drove 45 minutes twice a day to see their baby in the NICU. It was an emotional test for the parents.
“You’d have some ups and downs,” Friend said. “You’d go through the emotional curve of ‘Hey, we’re doing pretty good this week,’ and all of the sudden the next day we’re really struggling.”
“For her to be in the hospital for four months, especially for the first two months, you’re just visiting and all you can do is talk through a box,” Smith said. “You can’t change the diaper or really do anything. It’s not by choice that you can’t do anything. There’s a lot of praying. There’s a lot of talking through the box and updating people how she’s doing.
“ It was a lot of waiting. A lot of waiting for her lungs to get strong enough that they could open the top of the box and move her from a box to a crib, then take her off oxygen. I think the milestones that you get excited for are not the same as if you went home with the baby.”
Some milestones included getting Rae off of oxygen, breaking the 2-pound mark and opening her eyes.
“At first her eyes weren’t open,” Smith said. “Her eyes opened one night with an awesome nurse named Erica. She got a picture of it and they were completely black. They didn’t develop color yet. Then it was when are they going to be open all of the time and when are they going to develop color. So many of the things that normally happen inside, we got to see outside. Those were the first milestones.”
After the tough start, Rae is doing great. She went from seeing multiple doctors a week to having a few appointments a month. According to her parents, she is an 11-pound chubby little baby.
Even as Rae gets older, Smith and Friend plan to raise awareness on the subject and keep fundraising for Loyola Medical Center’s NICU unit through Playing for Preemies games.
“I’m sure whatever hospital saves your child’s life, you’re going to love them,” Smith said. “The nurses and the doctors there are awesome. They do rounds where if you show up as a parent, you get to sit in while the doctors discuss your child’s case. They’ll ask for your opinion or your input.
“I don’t have a medical background, but the fact that they’ll listen to us and that they’ll have their doctor discussions in front of you is really cool. They’re out in the open. I’m not sure if other hospitals do it that way, but it makes you feel a part of it.
“The night nurses Erica and Liz took pictures all the time. Rae looks like a grandpa in one and an alien in another, but we wouldn’t have been able to take those pictures because we weren’t there 24/7. They’d sometimes take videos of her when she was wide awake. She was more awake around 3 a.m. I believe I was only there twice at 3 a.m., so I would have missed all of that if they did not do the video. They care. They really care and that’s nice.”
“I think this game is something that Lorelee and I will continue to do as long as we’re coaching here,” Friend said. “I think that it’s one small area where we can fundraise some money and help out.
“You hear about Dig for Pink and we’ve even done a game for prostate cancer. The thing that we’re doing is a unique thing that hits home for us. I think it’s great in terms of doing something and fundraising for charity and help out in a small area.”
In Friday’s Playing for Preemies game, Lewis will be selling shirts for $20. All proceeds will go to Loyola’s NICU unit.