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Ross mom delivers help to preemies' families right on time

About Mike Wereschagin

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By Mike Wereschagin

Published: Sunday, Dec. 12, 2010

Zoe wasn't ready.

Her thin, pink skin couldn't handle sunlight. Her eyes lacked lashes to guard against the wind, and her fingers had no nails. Born eight weeks prematurely in June 2007, she weighed 4 pounds, 7 ounces when her parents, Rebecca and Chris Dittman, brought her home from the neonatal intensive-care unit at Magee-Womens Hospital.

Rebecca, 41, and Chris, 37, weren't ready either. The clothes people gave them during Rebecca's baby shower were too big. The diapers would have fit an infant twice Zoe's size.

It was the beginning of Zoe's New Beginnings, a nonprofit the Dittmans started in 2008 in their Ross home. Rebecca Dittman fills wicker baskets with things parents never anticipate needing. Each contains three preemie-size diapers, seasonal clothing, pamphlets and hand sanitizer.

"We didn't want parents to have to leave the hospital to go to Giant Eagle," Rebecca Dittman said. "When your baby is in there, you're there. You're not shopping."

Ava Malloy waited more than a month to bring her twin girls, Angel and London, home after they were born six weeks premature in October. London left intensive care after three weeks, but Angel had to stay two weeks longer because she couldn't eat. Malloy, 22, didn't have much time for shopping. Shortly after Angel came home, two baskets arrived.

"I needed it," said Malloy, of Penn Hills.

Zoe was one of 17,664 infants born prematurely in Pennsylvania in 2007, according to the National Institutes of Health. Infants are considered premature if they are delivered less than 34 weeks into what should be a 40-week term.

The rates of preterm births have fallen in recent years, but medical technology keeps more of the infants alive, increasing the need for the Dittmans' baskets, said Peggy Lamouree, director of the neonatal intensive care unit at Children's Hospital in Lawrenceville.

The Dittmans' foundation has given 40 baskets so far, but recent partnerships with Children's Hospital and Harrisburg Hospital have increased demand beyond what they can supply. Harrisburg asked for 40 a month.

"What Becky is doing for these parents is just wonderful. (Parents) feel very alone at times. They have a lot of support when the baby is first born, but as it drags out into the baby being hospitalized for weeks or months, everybody gets back to their own routines," Lamouree said.

Some isolation is self-imposed. Rebecca and Chris kept visitors away and avoided family gatherings, staying home with Zoe for her first Christmas. They couldn't risk an infection. Zoe's immune system will be about as capable as a newborn's when she turns 4. When she first came home, Zoe still was learning how to breathe.

The brain is supposed to develop these functions -- breathing, blinking, swallowing - when the body is protected inside its mother. Outside the womb, a preterm infant's brain works without a net, learning how to control the body as it tries to stay alive.

Development comes unsteadily and unpredictably. Zoe couldn't sweat until her first birthday. Because of her physical therapy and the way her muscles developed, she walked before she could crawl. As her brain learned how to work her tear ducts, her eyes watered for six weeks straight.

Digestive problems are among the most common, Lamouree said.

When Zoe was 2, digesting food was so difficult, she spent long winter nights doubled over in pain, her knees and head on the carpet. Her mother sat beside her, stroking her back, softly saying, "Mommy loves you. Daddy loves you. Aunt Tammy loves you," picking names from the family tree, over and over, for hours at a time.

"I used to wonder whether she'd have red hair, or what her voice would sound like. I never once thought to myself, 'I hope she eats and poops,' " Rebecca Dittman said.

By the time it was over, Zoe had lived with the pain for nearly one-fourth of her life.

Doctors diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress, a condition more common among combat veterans than toddlers.

"It's hard being her sometimes. She's a trouper, though," Rebecca Dittman said.

She takes her daughter to Thrive Place in Greenfield for two hours of physical therapy three days a week, while Chris works long holiday hours as a UPS driver. For part of the session, the therapist runs a soft brush over Zoe's arms and feet to dull her senses, which were exposed to the world before she'd grown a thick enough shell.

"All of her senses are heightened to where they stopped her from completing daily routines," Rebecca Dittman said. Zoe used to hold her hands over her ears when a truck passed her house. More recently, her therapist pulled an orange out of a bag, and Zoe backed up to the doorway, her face red and sweating at the thought of touching its bumpy, unfamiliar rind.

It's why she still mostly eats baby food.

"If she won't touch it, she won't eat it," Rebecca Dittman said. "She's 3 1/2, and she's never eaten macaroni and cheese."

But piece by piece, Zoe is building herself.

"Today, she put peanut butter on a cracker herself, and ate it," Rebecca Dittman said recently.

She can tell time, and is beginning to understand fractions. When someone coughs, Zoe asks them if they're OK.

"It's a journey. It's difficult at times, but she's a joy and a half," her mother said. "She's hysterical, and she's beautiful, and she's all of these things."




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