Susan Levy's second child entered the world at just 3 pounds, 11 ounces. Bennie was coddled and monitored and kept on a machine that helped him breathe, while doctors and nurses huddled over him. When he went home after several weeks in the hospital, Susan assumed she had just survived the most difficult experience of her life.
In reality, the toughest was yet to come. When she became pregnant with her third child, Susan's perinatologist put her to bed at 13 weeks as a precaution, but assured her that everything would be fine. Remembering Bennie's early and difficult arrival, though, Susan was worried.
"I knew all the things that could go wrong," she said. Knowing that any child born before 28 weeks was considered high-risk, Susan held onto that number as her goal. "I just wanted to make it to 28 weeks," she said.
But she didn't.
Sammy was born at 26 weeks - 14 weeks early - weighing just 2 pounds, 2 ounces. His birth triggered an emotionally wrenching struggle. His lungs were immature, his immune system didn't work, his heart wasn't fully developed, and he was prey to the innumerable threats the womb is designed to avert.
In the beginning, the Levys were told gently but plainly that their baby might die. But the doctors and nurses in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Phoenix Children's Hospital made sure they gave the child every chance of surviving.
"He was hooked up to every single monitor in the world," Susan said.
Doctors threaded a central line up past his liver when his tiny veins collapsed. They fine-tuned the machines that provided him with sufficient oxygen as his lungs matured. They took him into surgery when a hernia ballooned in the immature muscles of his abdomen. But technical expertise made up only part of the personalized care the PCH staff delivered to Sammy and his family.
Nurses taped pictures to the sides of Sammy's isolette and sang lullabies to soothe him. They experimented with "nesting," making a cozy cranny out of sheepskin and rolled-up towels to make him feel warm and secure.
"They were incredible," Susan said. "They were what kept us going for two months."
When Susan developed pneumonia and couldn't enter the nursery, nurses brought Sammy to the window so his mother could see him.
"All I could do was stand outside the window and look at him and cry," she said. "So they held him up for me, turned him around so I could see him, so I could watch."
The staff involved Sammy's father by teaching him about "Kangaroo Care" - skin-on-skin contact between parent and infant that has been proven to help premature babies thrive. A photo of a tiny Sammy on his father's chest was used in hospital publicity materials to illustrate the Kangaroo Care concept.
As Sammy gained weight and strength, nurses began teaching the skills the Levys would need to care for their son at home.
"Every day they'd teach us something else," Susan said.
Preparation was crucial, as Sammy would be on oxygen and dangerously vulnerable to infections for some time after his discharge. But even with all the instruction, Susan hardly felt prepared. It was difficult, she said, to leave the support of the hospital.
"The hard part was when we came home," she said. To reduce the risk of picking up infections from outside, the family hired a teacher to work with Sammy's older brothers at home. Vacations were out of the question. Susan left the house only on rare occasions, showering after even a simple trip to the Post Office.
"For a while, I just wanted a normal baby," Susan admitted.
But eventually, the family's tireless efforts paid off.
Sammy is now 7, and the largest child in his first-grade class. He has asthma and some vision problems, but doesn't let those things interfere with basketball and soccer.
"He's this big, athletic kid," Susan said. "Nobody can believe what he went through."
The struggle of seven years ago has faded from memory - almost.
The family recently bought a new van with more room than their previous vehicle. Susan's husband told her, "We have room for one more," and she balked at the thought.
"I could never do this again. I don't want to tempt fate," she said.
"All three of my kids are perfect."