Beating the odds | Issaquah family celebrates healthy daughters, both born premature

The entire Gao family, parents Carl and Cissy, with Ella, 7, and Emma, born Jan. 21.  - Linda Ball/Issaquah & Sammamish Reporter
The entire Gao family, parents Carl and Cissy, with Ella, 7, and Emma, born Jan. 21.
— image credit: Linda Ball/Issaquah & Sammamish Reporter

All four members of the Gao family are at home under one roof now. But it hasn’t always been that way. In an unusual twist of fate, both Carl and Cissy Gao’s daughters were born premature — and both weighed approximately 1.5 pounds at birth.

The girls are not twins. Ella is now a smart, curious 7-year-old. Emma, born Jan. 21 this year, at 26 weeks and six days of gestation, weighed 612 grams. Ella was born at 27 weeks and 3 days, weighing 611 grams, or 1.3 pounds. A normal pregnancy is 38 to 40 weeks, and in those last crucial weeks, the lungs are developing.

“These are pretty small babies,” said neonatologist Dr. Maneesh Batra who took care of both girls. “In the US, 12 percent of all births are pre-term, but (those weighing) under 1,000 grams make up 2 percent. So this is very rare to have a baby this small, but to have two tiny babies, and for them to do so well, is very surprising.”

Batra said technology enables neonatologists to keep babies alive that are over 500 grams. The first month of life of the premature child is his focus.

What Cissy didn’t know during her first pregnancy was that she had “textbook preeclampsia.” Preeclampsia is a life-threatening disorder that occurs only during pregnancy and the postpartum period. With preeclampsia, the mother will often have a rapid rise in blood pressure that can lead to seizure, stroke, multiple organ failure and death of the mother and/or baby.

Carl said his wife is perfectly fine and fit, but with both pregnancies, her blood pressure shot up. With Ella, the older daughter, Cissy had early contractions and bleeding. The first red flag was that Cissy had just seen her doctor at 25 weeks and noted that there had not been significant growth since the previous visit. The doctors gave her a shot to boost Ella’s lung development, but when she got back home, the contractions and bleeding continued. She had a blood clot in the womb, so they went to Overlake Hospital in Bellevue, which had her promptly whisked to the University of Washington hospital because there was concern over the baby’s survival.

“Since it’s a learning hospital, residents surrounded Ella,” Carl said. “Her eyes opened and she looked around, but she couldn’t cry because her lungs weren’t developed.”

Ella had challenges. Her aorta was small and there was bleeding on her brain. Ella was then whisked to Seattle Children’s Hospital where she remained for two and one-half months, then another two months at Overlake. The due date for Ella was May 16, 2006 - she was born Feb. 16, 2006.

With Emma, Cissy and Carl were already prepared for what could happen. At her 24-week checkup, Cissy was told to pay attention to how she felt — back pain, headaches, blood pressure issues — everything. Carl checked her blood pressure, and sure enough it was high. They went to the fire station in the Issaquah Highlands just down the road from their home and had her blood pressure taken again, which confirmed that she needed to go to the hospital. She had a “C” section, as she had with Ella, and this time it went much better. Emma cried when she was born, and had no serious medical issues other than being very small. Emma remained at UW hospital for two months, then was transferred to Overlake. She came home April 24, one day after her due date.

“I feel we are blessed because we had so many good doctors,” Carl said.

Both Carl and Cissy were allowed to pick up their daughters even when they were in the incubator, and even bathe them. Kangaroo care, where there is skin to skin contact with the parents, was encouraged. Before discharging both babies, the couple left with a “road map” of care — a full book of what to do, and where to go for help.

Now, Ella is taking swimming and piano lessons, and she loves to draw. She played soccer for two years, and she is learning to speak Chinese, her parent’s native language.

While waiting for her baby sister to come home, she penned a very sweet letter to Emma, in tidy penmanship.

“Dear Emma, I hope you come home soon and I’m your big sister and you’re my little sister. I’m glad that I have a little sister to play with. Sincerely, Ella.”

Ella Gao, 7, was born 11 weeks early. She is holding a letter she wrote to her little sister while she was at the hospital in an incubator waiting to come home.

Carl Gao demonstrates with his hands how small Ella was at birth, next to a little T-shirt that looks more like doll clothing.


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