Rock Island, Ill.

Halfway through Sarah Tillberg’s pregnancy, it became clear something was seriously wrong. She’d been having severe headaches, dizziness, and extreme nausea. Then her blood pressure soared.

Sarah’s doctor in Davenport, Iowa, referred her to University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics, where she was diagnosed with preeclampsia. This occurs when a pregnant woman develops dangerously high blood pressure and protein in the urine. It’s unclear what causes preeclampsia, but it can be life threatening to both mother and child. The only cure is to deliver the baby.

Doctors were able to delay the birth, giving the baby more time to develop. But at 15 weeks premature, Emery Tillberg was born by C-section. He weighed one pound, five ounces.

“He literally was delivered early as a life-saving procedure for me,” Sarah says, “and what was hopefully a life-saving procedure for him.”

Immediately, Emery was taken to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital. His lungs were severely underdeveloped, “some of the worst they’d ever seen,” says Emery’s father, Erik.

“Emery was on maximum medical therapy,” Sarah adds. “He was on a ventilator to help his breathing, and there were concerns about whether his stomach, intestines, and everything else inside would work properly. He also had a PDA (patent ductus arteriosus), where a blood vessel in his heart hadn’t closed properly and needed medication to treat that.”

It was clear from the outset that Emery would need around-the-clock care for weeks, if not longer. For the Tillbergs, it was a time of slow, incremental progress and cautious optimism. There also were unexpected setbacks, however, including a rare and painful obstructive kidney stone when Emery was about 6 months old.

Given his tiny size, weak lungs, and still-fragile condition, removing the stone required very delicate surgery. It went smoothly, and soon Emery was back on track with his recovery. His breathing steadily improved, he started gaining more weight, and “his personality started coming out again,” Erik notes. After several more weeks, Emery was finally able to go home. All told, Emery spent 225 days in the NICU.

Having had daily contact with the NICU staff and other members of Emery’s medical team over several months, the Tillbergs are appreciative of the care they received at UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital.

“It was the best care we could have asked for. They were like family,” Sarah says. “The doctors were always very thorough and made it a point to explain things to us. The nurses were phenomenal. We never doubted that they were doing everything to make sure that we understood what was happening with Emery and, more importantly, that he was going to live and go home.”

Today, Emery is “full of life,” Erik notes. “He loves to make people laugh. Honestly, there are days where I’m just so amazed by him and the things he can do. It’s a blessing.”

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