Theresa Joseph’s blood pressure spiked and her heart raced like the helicopter blades overhead as a nurse tried to stave off precipitously early contractions.
“Please, please, let this baby survive,” Theresa thought to herself.
Barely over five months pregnant, Theresa wasn’t feeling well, so she’d gone in to her local hospital in Boulder. That’s when doctors told her they would have to fly her immediately to UCHealth’s University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora.
No hospital in Boulder could care for a baby born this early.
Theresa and her husband, Michael, already had been riding an emotional roller coaster. They had been trying to get pregnant for years and were over the moon to learn they were expecting twin boys.
“They were our miracle babies,” Theresa said.
Then, when she was about four months along, the couple was devastated to learn that one of their boys had died in utero. They hadn’t shared their babies’ names with anyone. But they already had named them. Camden had died. Finn was still alive.
Now, it seemed that Theresa’s body thought it was time to deliver the boys. Doctors would try to stop the labor. But if they couldn’t, perhaps Camden could emerge and his brother could stay safely in Theresa’s womb.
Could one brother give the other the gift of life?
Theresa and Michael were about to find out.
‘Let’s meet our son’
There wasn’t room for Michael on the helicopter, so he sped down Highway 36 to meet Theresa at the hospital.
The whole situation was surreal. Theresa hardly looked pregnant. It was November and the babies weren’t due until March 7. The Josephs were planning to celebrate Thanksgiving with Michael’s family in New York.
Now they had to consider that their surviving son, Finn, might be born much too early and babies born extremely premature are at high risk for death or severe disabilities.
When Theresa arrived at the hospital, nurses and doctors worked first to calm her, then to delay labor as long as possible.
By the next morning, it was clear that Camden’s body was coming. His head was pressing on Theresa’s cervix.
“My body was trying to get rid of the lost baby,” Theresa said.
Her doctor, Meghan Donnelly, seven months pregnant herself at the time, prepared Theresa for a tough procedure.
“We are going to quietly and slowly try to pull Camden out vaginally,” said Dr. Donnelly, a fetal and maternal specialist who is co-director of the Women’s Care and Birth Centers at the University of Colorado Hospital and an assistant professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
A team of about 20 people stood at the ready to help.
“Camden came out. We said his name out loud for the first time and everyone took a moment,” Theresa said.
Nurses wrapped Camden’s body in a blanket. His remains would be cremated and spread at a peaceful ranch in the mountains.
Theresa willed herself to think of her surviving baby, not to allow grief over Camden to engulf her. She later learned that Camden had a genetic disorder. Had he lived, his chances of survival likely would have been as low as 15 percent.
For the moment, Finn was staying put. Theresa’s cervix shrunk down and her new goal was to stay still and calm for as long as possible. Every extra day in utero could make a huge difference in Finn’s chances for survival.
“Your brother helped you,” Theresa said to the baby still in her belly.
For two days, all was well. Family members visited and the couple’s hopes soared.
Then, on the night of Nov. 17, the contractions started up again.
Dr. Donnelly explained that she had few options.
“We’re really good at inducing labor. Stopping it is much harder.”
Theresa prayed that it was not time for Finn’s birth.
“Please, no,” she said.
But doctors already had given Theresa all the medications they could to halt labor.
“We don’t want this to be an emergency situation,” Donnelly explained.
Finn’s heart rate had started to drop. Donnelly said there was no choice.
Resigned, Theresa and Michael prepared for their new reality.
“It was all about remaining calm and strong for Finn and not being scared,” Theresa said. “We couldn’t lose another baby.”
They braced for a C-section.
“OK. Let’s meet our son.”
Finn was born at 8:47 a.m. on Nov. 18.
Michael and Theresa said his name out loud for the first time: Finn Norman Joseph. He would garner strength from both sides of the family. Theresa’s grandmother’s maiden name was Finn. Michael’s grandfather was Norman.
Michael called his dad to let him know Finn had been born and shared his name. Tears welled in Michael’s eyes.
“What’s wrong?” Theresa asked after the call.
Michael had just learned that Finn had been born on what would have been his great grandpa Norman’s 92nd birthday.
“Someone is watching over him,” Michael said.
Thanks to an emergency helicopter ride and a boost from his brother, Camden, Finn had made it to 24 weeks and four days. He weighed just 1 lb 7 ounces, but he was ready to fight.
‘You can touch him’
Theresa has a sunny disposition and a radiant smile. But her first glimpse of her new baby nearly defeated her.
Nurses wheeled Theresa in her recovery bed into the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Finn lay in his incubator connected to all sorts of lifesaving equipment. He was so tiny and skinny that Michael’s wedding ring could dangle loosely around his arm. And his skin was see-through. Theresa could see his little ribs and underdeveloped organs. She remembers thinking he looked like a fetus, not a baby.
His nurse, Kim Zier, gave Theresa the first of many reassuring words she would hear over the months to come.
“You can touch him.”
Theresa reached out toward Finn’s tiny finger and at just two hours old, her son reflexively grabbed on to his mom. It was the beginning of this extremely premature baby’s struggle to survive.
Four days later, on Thanksgiving, Theresa was released from the hospital. She and Michael had a subdued dinner with her parents and braced for an exhausting new routine.
Theresa was pumping her breast milk around the clock and she and Michael drove to and from the hospital every day.
Theresa began getting to know other NICU moms right away. They helped her brace for the struggles to come.
“The first month is absolute hell, but if you can get through that, then soon it will start to turn around,” one mom told her.
Photos of babies who had graduated from the NICU adorned the wall and Theresa kept an eye on one in particular. A baby named Brooks also had been born at 24 weeks. In the photo, he was 8 months old and looked great. Theresa willed herself to think of Finn’s future as she tried to grapple with her overwhelming present.
Like many babies born extremely premature, Finn needed a ventilator to breathe, suffered brain bleeds and had a hole in his heart. For some preemies, the hole closes on its own.
But Finn’s did not, so he had to have heart surgery at just five days old.
Finn often struggled to breathe and more than once, Theresa had to watch in agony as nurses resuscitated her baby.
Each time, he survived and Finn’s primary daytime nurse, Lou Ann Stout, started calling him Fightin’ Finn. The name stuck and Katie Radcliffe, who cared for Finn most nights, also adopted the nickname.
Hardly a heavyweight, the little Irish boxer had dropped to just 1 pound, 2 ounces after birth. But, little by little, Finn began to grow.
One of many agonies that parents of babies born extremely premature face is that regular baby clothes swim on their children. And baby books, with distant and seemingly irrelevant milestones, can inspire pain instead of joy.
With help from her family and nurses, Theresa made every effort to highlight Finn’s progress and fill the NICU with warmth and books. She decided, too, to become a beacon of hope for moms with younger babies, as other moms of preemies had done for her. She joined a support group for families with babies in the NICU called Love for Lily.
One of Finn’s biggest struggles was tied to his underdeveloped lungs. Premature boys struggle even more than girls to breathe since their lungs develop a little later in utero. And Caucasian boys fare worse that boys of color, earning preemies like Finn, the moniker, “wimpy white boys.”
Finally in late January, after Finn had struggled to breathe for more than two months, his nurses and doctors decided he could come off the ventilator that was breathing for him.
He was 10 weeks old and had finally made it to what would have been 34 weeks gestation.
“We think he’s big enough. We think he’s ready,” the team told Theresa and Michael.
They made a plan to take the vent out. Fear gripped Theresa. What if Finn stopped breathing and she had to watch him be resuscitated again?
On the morning of the extubation, as it’s called, Theresa and Michael walked in to find everyone in the NICU staff wearing green buttons that Lou Ann had made. They said, “Team Finn.” On the top, the buttons showed a set of wings that said, “We’re going to fly.”
“I was so scared, then he did it. The vent came out and he breathed on his own,” Theresa said. “There were lots of tears and everybody was cheering. That was a pretty awesome moment.”
This milestone marked a critical turning point.
“That was the first time, I allowed myself to think, ‘He’s going to be OK. There’s nothing we can’t get through.’”
‘Part of his brother’s soul’
Theresa kept looking ahead to her original due date, March 7. She hoped that Finn could come home by then. But, because of all of his breathing challenges, he had to be on steroids and suffered several infections.
He was still too fragile to leave the hospital.
“When my due date came and he wasn’t ready to go home, that was a tough day,” Theresa said. “We were always going one step forward, two steps back.”
In order to get Finn home, Theresa decided to make peace with any accommodations Finn would need. All along, Theresa had been pumping her breast milk, which is full of beneficial nutrients for preemies. A tube that wound through Finn’s nose carried Theresa’s milk directly to Finn’s stomach.
Theresa had hoped that Finn eventually could get strong enough to learn to breastfeed. But, he was working so hard to breathe that Theresa and the team decided to stick with tube feeding until Finn could take Theresa’s milk from a bottle.
Finally, on March 31, a full 133 days after Finn’s birth, and 3 ½ weeks after his due date, Finn was ready to leave the hospital. Nurse Megan Jones made a sign that read, Going Home. All of the staffers who had cared for Finn came in to say goodbye and they paraded him around the NICU, where he thus far, had lived his entire life.
“He had spent Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Valentine’s and St. Patrick’s Day in the hospital,” Theresa said.
Fightin’ Finn was returning to Boulder just in time to give Theresa a gift for her birthday on April 7.
The Josephs brought the banner from the hospital home, flipped it around and hung it over the fireplace with a new message that read, “Finn’s Home.”
While Theresa had long looked forward to bringing her baby home, she didn’t expect the wave of grief from all she’d been through to wash over her again. Finn still faced typical challenges of babies born extremely premature. He was still on oxygen and needed breathing monitors at night. Theresa and Michael were accustomed to having their team of nurses and doctors supporting them around the clock. Now they were on their own.
“I’m not OK,” Theresa realized.
She sought help from a counselor, who encouraged her to grieve for the baby she had lost and for the pregnancy that had been cut short. Although she was thrilled with the beautiful baby she had brought home, Theresa hadn’t gotten to experience the pure joy of an uncomplicated birth. The counselor gave her permission to acknowledge that Finn’s early arrival had left her scared and scarred.
After acknowledging all they’d been through, Theresa and Michael set about honoring Camden and celebrating Finn.
“It’s been horrible and hard, but at the end of the day, I get to be a mom and I have this incredible little dude who I get to spend every day with,” Theresa said.
She had saved both babies’ tiny knit hospital caps, blankets and ID bracelets. She created two shadow boxes with both boys’ ultrasound images and mementos from the hospital, including decorative versions of their names, one of many special items that their nurse Lou Ann had made for them.
The Josephs decided that they would share Camden’s full story with his brother.
“We will always feel the presence of Camden. We say it all the time. Camden gave the space for Finn to live. That is a hard thing to swallow, but we’re going to tell Finn everything,” Theresa said.
On October 12, Theresa and Michael marked the anniversary of the day they learned Camden had died by remembering their happiest times. Early in the pregnancy, they took a trip to the East Coast, a “babymoon” of sorts. They rode their bikes along the shore and feasted on lobster rolls. This year, they decided to honor Camden by going on a bike ride in the Colorado foothills. They honored his spirit, which for them lives on in mountains. And they treated their family to lobster rolls.
When Theresa thinks back about the babies’ ultrasounds, she laughs about the personalities that seemed to be present even then. Camden was “Twin A,” the one closer to Theresa’s cervix. In classic “A baby” fashion, he seemed to be the dominant twin. He was active and easy to capture in images.
“He was always super feisty,” Theresa said.
When ultrasound techs tried to capture images of Finn, Camden’s arms and legs always seemed to pop into the frame. Finn, in contrast, usually seemed to be chilling peacefully, curled up in the fetal position in the tiny space his brother ceded to him.
Now, as Finn approaches his first birthday, he’s emerged as a flirt, who readily shows off his sky-blue eyes to any admirers and eagerly smiles at strangers.
“Now Finn’s got this part of him that’s showy. We believe there’s a part of Camden and his personality that’s living on in Finn. He took part of Camden’s soul and has it in him now.”
A boxing birthday: ‘This is what a fighter looks like.’
These days, Finn has grown to more than seven times his birth weight; he now tips the scales at nearly 12 pounds. He’s small still, but his doctors say he’s developing beautifully. He loves rolling over, sitting up and giggling. When he wants to grab some attention, he flashes a little sideways grin.
Finn works weekly with a physical therapist, who is pleased with how well he’s doing. Because of his severe prematurity and the brain bleeds he suffered, it’s possible he will have some delays in walking and talking. And he has a disease common among babies born early and small called Retinopathy of Prematurity. He’s likely to need glasses, but any challenges with his eyes should treatable.
He’s weaning himself off his oxygen tanks and loves going to music, African dance and sign language classes with Theresa.
Over the summer, the family took their first road trip. Finn had a new cousin who was born in Las Vegas in August, so the Josephs set out to meet her. Flying with oxygen was too complicated, so Theresa and Michael borrowed a friend’s RV and headed west.
“We’re making new memories,” Theresa said.
“It was hilarious. We brought the dog and the RV was loaded with pumping parts. The fridge was full of breast milk, sparkling water and beer. We went to the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Grand Teton. We brought the jogging stroller and had a blast. Music and the outdoors are Finn’s jam.”
For Finn’s first birthday, the Josephs are planning a blowout at a Boulder brewery. Theresa always used to think parties for year-old babies were silly. But, the couple has a lot to celebrate and a lot of people to thank.
“Finn’s nurses and doctors are coming. Family members are flying in. We’re honoring everybody who helped us get through this year,” Theresa said.
The party will have a boxing theme. Finn already has his shirt. It reads, “This is what a real fighter looks like.”
Along with Finn, Camden will have his name on the cake.
Once Finn celebrates his first birthday, Theresa is eager to become a regular volunteer at University of Colorado Hospital’s March of Dimes parent program that supports those who’ve had babies born extremely premature. She’s also active with the Love for Lily program that supports parents of preemies. Theresa has supported moms she’s met through the group’s Facebook page. And she rarely misses her meetings every Tuesday for moms with older preemies who have graduated from the hospital.
Theresa plans to fill the NICU’s library with books so all parents can read to their babies. She’s eager to support the community that supported her.
“We want every mom and dad to feel like they have resources and people who understand what they’re going through. Every baby’s journey is different. But you don’t have to be alone. We want Love for Lily support groups to be available in every hospital,” Theresa said.
When she meets other mothers with babies who also came too early, Theresa will celebrate the babies’ exciting milestones and cry with parents on the bad days.
She will tell them about all she has endured over the last year.
“Finn has a brother,” she will tell other parents. “His brother passed. He is our child too. This is their story.”