McALLEN – Karla Mena-Villarreal is the proud mommy of six children, five of whom were born at McAllen Medical Center weighing less than a pound and at only 24 weeks and 5 days of gestation. Older sister, Dulce, and proud daddy, Omar, stood by on that December day praying for the best outcomes for their newest family members.
“We were afraid. It was scary,” Mrs. Villarreal said, recalling the dangerous Cesarean birth. “The doctors said (to be born at) 24 weeks was very dangerous. We were praying and praying.”
The babies – Omar Jr., Regina, Rebeca, Sebastian, and Adrian – spent about three months in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at McAllen Medical Center, as a team of doctors and nurses treated numerous complications related to the babies’ prematurity, the main one being their inability to breathe on their own.
Anatoliy Ilizarov, a senior neonatologist with the Pediatrix Medical Group that serves South Texas Health System and one of the many doctors on the quintuplets’ care team, said the lung function of a baby born so early is not yet mature enough to cope with life outside the womb. The main hurdle for preemies to overcome is breathing difficulties. They are very susceptible to Respiratory Distress Syndrome.
Dr. Ilizarov, who researched and published in a field of neonatal ventilation, explained that in a lung so young, the alveoli — tiny air sacs shaped like a cluster of grapes which oxygenate the body via rendezvous with red blood cells within its wall— aren’t developed enough to successfully communicate with a emerging and yet fragile network of blood vessels and exchange oxygen for carbon dioxide. All humans must move air in and out of their lungs to survive. But premature babies are too weak to do it on their own. Their lungs are too rigid and their chest walls are too flaccid to accomplish the task. Therefore, doctors bring their sophisticated machines called ventilators to rescue their tiny patients.
Dr. Ilizarov treated some of the quintuplets with a High-Frequency Jet Ventilator developed by one of his mentors, Bert Bunnell, whom Ilizarov joined forces with during his residency and fellowship at Long Island’s Winthrop University Hospital and Stony Brook University Medical Center respectively.
A high-frequency jet ventilator works by moving tiny volumes of air into the baby’s lungs at an extremely fast rate – about 240-420 times per second. The air does not just enter the lung it rather spikes downwards into the lung in the same fashion as it moves in the panting dog. Same concept: small volume, but very fast. By doing so it essentially creates two movements at once, or within the same time-frame to be exact; it pushes good “oxygenated” air deep into the lungs and expels bad “carbon dioxide” air out of the lungs. It gently vibrates the alveoli, allowing the lung to continue to grow, while oxygen molecules change their places with carbon dioxide molecules through the process called diffusion. Jet ventilation is extremely efficient, stresses the heart less, and causes less irreparable harm to tiny lungs than conventional ventilation would, said Dr. Ilizarov. Indeed, continued Dr.Ilizarov, babies are born with 1/6th of the alveoli number compare to the number of alveoli in the adult lung. The numbers of alveoli continue to increase till the age of ten. Disrupting this process with a full size breaths delivered by a conventional ventilator may force their lung to remodel and put them down the path of a chronic lung disease.
In mid-March, Mr. and Mrs. Villarreal were able to hold all their children for the very first time. One by one, the babies met the outside world as they went home to be with their family. Sebastian, the weakest of the bunch, sadly though, did not survive his fourth surgery. Mrs. Villarreal was grateful to have met her angel baby and to have photos taken with all her children. Two months later, Mrs. Villarreal said the four children are doing great and are growing so fast. She gives credit to the excellent staff of the NICU at McAllen Medical Center and her great team of doctors for making the family she has today possible.
“I would like to thank all the NICU staff, all the neonatologists and all the nurses for taking care of my babies as if they were theirs. Sadly, we lost one, but we thank God for letting us have him for 3 months, and now all my daughters and sons have a little angel taking care of them,” she said.
The Birthing Center of South Texas wishes all the moms out there a “Feliz Dia de las Madres” and a “Happy Mother’s Day”!