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Gainesville baby survives premature birth and thrives
Gracie named 2015 Hall County March of Dimes ambassador
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Allie Claire Payne, 7, and her little sister Graceanne, 14 months, play in their yard in Gainesville. Graceanne was recently named as the 2015 Hall County March of Dimes ambassador.

Premature birth facts and figures

  • World Prematurity Day is Monday.
  • Preterm birth is the leading cause of newborn death. Babies who survive often face serious and lifelong health challenges.
  • 15 million babies worldwide are born preterm and more than a million die as a result.
  • More than 450,000 babies were born prematurely in the United States in 2013, compared to 542,893 in 2006 when the rate was at its highest.
  • 418 babies were born prematurely at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in 2013.
  • Medical expenses for an average premature infant are $55,025 compared to $4,320 for a healthy newborn.
  • The United States received a grade of C on the 2014 Premature Birth Report Card, the lowest of any industrialized nation.
  • Georgia received a C on the March of Dimes’ 2014 Premature Birth Report Card, with an average premature birth rate of 12.7 percent.

Source: March of Dimes

Melissa Payne carefully sorts through the objects inside a decorative box on her kitchen counter, handling each one with care.

The mother of two girls takes out a “normal-sized” newborn diaper, roughly the size of a fist, and places it on a table. She reaches back into the box to remove another one, laying it beside the “normal” newborn size.

The diaper is much smaller, resembling a napkin about the size of a palm. It’s the diaper her daughter, Graceanne, wore when she was born. She was a “micropreemie,” Payne said.

The rest of the box’s contents include socks and a blood pressure cuff, all of which fit an adult’s thumb.

“When I went in for the emergency (cesarean section, the doctors) were fairly apologetic,” Payne said, recalling her trip to the hospital to deliver her daughter more than a year ago. “I think they felt the baby wasn’t going to survive, but they would do their best.”

Graceanne weighed 1 pound, 12 ounces when she was born Sept. 8, 2013.

No one expected her to survive past the events of Payne’s pregnancy, much less see the light of day. But the baby girl took after her marathon-running mother and survived impossible odds over the first few months of her life.

Graceanne’s journey began with a 97-day stay in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Northeast Georgia Medical Center and spending almost six weeks on a ventilator.

“We’d always say ‘Go, Gracie, go’ when she was in the NICU, having a good day and overcoming more obstacles and challenges to get stronger,” Melissa Payne said.

To mark the accomplishment, the North Hall County woman has a purple onesie with the number 26.2 on it, the distance of a marathon.

And the baby girl now has surpassed all of her checkpoints. At 14 months old, Graceanne is a wriggly, vocal baby who is always removing the hair bows her mother places on her blonde head. She weighs roughly 16 pounds, a number most experts said the baby would never see.

When the staff of Northeast Georgia’s NICU nominated her as the March of Dimes 2015 Ambassador to Hall County, her mother, father Kevin and older sister Allie Claire couldn’t say no.

“(Graceanne) just defied so many odds,” Melissa Payne said. “We’re very excited to get Graceanne out there and let everyone know her and know her story, and learn about the miracle that she is.”

A different kind of pregnancy

Already the mother of one little girl, Payne learned she was expecting her second child after trying to expand their family for “quite a while.” The then-34-year-old expected an uneventful pregnancy, since Allie Claire was healthy and born at full term.

The presumption was shattered, however, when Payne and her family were visiting relatives in Maine. Only in her second trimester and more than 1,300 miles away from home, Payne woke to discover her water had broken. She was taken to the nearest emergency room, where doctors said her unborn daughter Graceanne would need to be delivered in the next 24 to 72 hours.

“At that point, we weren’t quite 19 weeks, so she wouldn’t have been able to survive,” Payne said.

The earliest a baby can be delivered and have a chance of survival is 24 weeks, according to health experts.

Melissa Payne and her family rushed to see a specialist in nearby Portland. He gave her an even bleaker prognosis: Graceanne’s chances of survival were “less than 5 percent.” And if she did, she would have a very low quality of life and be a burden on their family.

“(The specialist in New England) pretty much told me this was the hand of cards we were dealt, and we would have to fold them and start over,” Payne said.

But Payne, whose own physical health was still technically in good condition, refused to take no for an answer. She was determined to return to Georgia and deal with the outcome at home.

To get home, Payne reached out to her friends, including Carolanne Owenby, a fellow marathon runner she met at a Mommy and Me gymnastics class. The two relied on each other to train for and complete four marathons. Payne would soon come to rely on Owenby and their other friends for much more.

“(Payne) actually sent me a text,” Owenby said. “I don’t think she could talk about what was going on in Maine. The text said, basically, she had been given no hope.”

Owenby and several of Payne’s other friends orchestrated her return to Georgia and set up her appointment with the

obstetrician-gynocologist who approved her for continuing the pregnancy. Owenby met Payne at the airport to accompany her on the ensuing journey.

“It gives me chills just thinking about it,” Owenby said. “But we were standing there, waiting on her at the airport, and thought that we were saying goodbye to Graceanne that night.”

When Payne’s doctor performed an ultrasound and found a heartbeat, she was given the cautious — though not optimistic — OK to do what her heart told her to do. Payne wanted to continue her pregnancy, come what may.

“I believe that all babies are conceived for a reason,” Payne said. “It is our job to try to protect them and support what they need. Even when it’s difficult or very trying, what some could see as a burden to your family is still a gift from God.”

One pound, 12 ounces

Payne was placed on bed rest immediately, with the exception of doctor visits, which never gave her much hope.

“Every day I was on bed rest I would feel her kicking and moving, and at the same time I would go to the doctor and they’d just frown and nod,” Payne said. “I would do my best to stay very strong and try not to get upset.”

Payne relied on her family, friends, prayer and visits from church deacons to get her through the next seven weeks.

“I felt like we as her friends felt helpless the whole time, so cooking and cleaning and lifting fingers that (Payne) didn’t need to lift were the only ways we felt like we could be doing something, because there was nothing else we could do,” Owenby said.

After Payne was admitted to the hospital, Kevin brought Allie Claire to visit every evening. But nothing alleviated the burden of not seeing her older daughter’s milestones, including nesting in their new house and helping Allie Claire adjust to a new school.

“I didn’t get to go to open house or meet her teachers,” Melissa Payne said. “I know those are little things, but being the mom, that’s important. And it was hard for me not to be there.”

When Graceanne was born at 26 weeks and 2 days as the result of an emergency C-section, she weighed 1 pound, 12 ounces and measured 12 inches long. Her biggest health hazard, among many, was the concern her lungs wouldn’t be developed enough to breathe on their own. Furthermore, the physicians were afraid Graceanne wouldn’t be large enough to be put on a ventilator.

“I woke up in recovery and asked where the baby was,” Payne said. “They said she was down in the NICU, and had enough lung tissue to ventilate.”

It was not the first time Graceanne defied odds, nor would it be the last.

Homecoming

Payne spent as much time in the NICU as she could, but when she was home she received updates of Graceanne’s condition.

One of the worst phone calls from the hospital was when she heard Graceanne had accidentally come off the ventilator and “turned gray.”

Slowly, however, Graceanne’s health progressed.

“(The doctors) started to become more hopeful as the days turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months,” Payne said.

After 97 days and six weeks on oxygen, Graceanne went home before she was expected to — one day after her due date, just in time for Christmas.

“Definitely the hand of God was involved in her survival,” Payne said.

It’s been almost a year since the Paynes brought their youngest child home. Today, Graceanne crawls enthusiastically and has already taken her first steps.

While doctors anticipated she would have special needs as a result of her complicated birth, she has reached every one of her age-adjusted milestones. She squeals and laughs and makes babbling sounds, including an “M” noise that sounds a lot like the beginnings of “mom.”

Owenby calls Graceanne “the greatest miracle I’ve known in my life,” but credits another source for her survival.

“(Graceanne) was told over and over again that she had no business being here, that she wouldn’t be here, and she’s not only here but she’s thriving,” Owenby said. “A huge part of that is a testament to her mother. Melissa is one of the strongest people I know. She fought tirelessly for (Graceanne) and refused to take no for an answer at every corner. And that’s why she’s here and that’s why she’s thriving.”

A history of success

Graceanne is expected to be walking by April, when she will attend the March of Dimes Walk in Wilshire Park as the 2015 March of Dimes Ambassador to Hall County. She and her family will help raise awareness and funds to help other babies and mothers.

“Some people have the impression that only certain babies, those born with defects, are helped by March of Dimes,” said Lori Allen, the March of Dimes’ division director for Northeast Georgia. “And the fact is, the research we have done since our inception has touched all of us.”

In 1938, March of Dimes funding helped develop the polio vaccine. Today, 75 cents from every dollar raised by the organization supports its three-pronged approach of advocacy, research and education to improve maternal and neonatal health.

As the organization’s Hall County ambassador, Graceanne will accompany Allen on fundraising trips to local businesses and organizations.

“When you put that face on what it is, it’s not faraway research dollars being raised,” Allen said. “It’s a local child right here, and you can see and hear her story.”

Payne, now 36, especially hopes the fundraising efforts will prevent another family from going through what she did.

As an athlete and physical therapist, Payne did not have any risk factors indicating she would deliver a preterm baby.

“One thing that’s important to me is I had no warning for what happened,” she said. “Not that all the babies make it, but there is a chance. I would like that chance to increase through more funding with the March of Dimes research, more public awareness, more physician awareness as to how to treat our condition.”

Payne clearly has no regrets over her decision as she watches Graceanne play in the kitchen like every other baby would. She laughs as her daughter takes her cellphone and accidentally activates Siri. The computerized voice asks how it can help the little girl, but it’s clear she’s already got all the help she needs.

“(Graceanne) has a purpose here, she was meant to be here, and we’re very thankful that we gave her a chance,” Payne said.

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