Amber Isabella Zepeda was born at University Hospital on December 6, 2016. She would have been the perfect early Christmas gift, except for the fact that she wasn’t supposed to arrive until late March. Her mom Adriana will never forget seeing her daughter right after delivery. “She was so tiny and skinny,” she said, holding her hands about 10 inches apart.
Amber was small. Just 1 pound, 5 ounces. But she was alive.
Adriana was grateful, but also terrified. Amber’s lungs were far too underdeveloped to allow her to breathe on her own and, as a micro-preemie, that was just the first of the many serious concerns that would need to be addressed. She was immediately whisked away by the neonatal resuscitation team.
Several hours later, Adriana was wheeled into the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit to meet her daughter. Amber was intubated. A ventilator was breathing for her, keeping her alive. There were lots of machines and cords.
Adriana sat in her wheelchair looking into the incubator wondering and worrying about what the future would hold for her precious little girl and her family.
That was day one of what would ultimately be a NICU stay of more than six months — a journey that pushed the boundaries of medicine, and tested the resolve of a family to hang on to hope. It also tested the strength of a tiny baby to hold onto life.
On May 3, 2018, a healthy, happy and very active 1-year-old Amber Zepeda, along with her mother, grandmother and sister, were guests of honor at the annual Medical Miracles Gala benefiting the University Health System Foundation.
Amber’s dramatic story of survival, shared at the gala, is one of how academic centers such as University Health System and its physician partners at UT Health San Antonio are giving hope to families through research, innovation and evidence based care.
It wasn’t that long ago that babies such as Amber would not have survived, said Dr. Cynthia Blanco, medical director of the Neonatal Nutrition & Bone Institute at University Health System, and professor of neonatology at UT Health San Antonio.
Her mother took advantage of every opportunity to help her tiny baby grow and thrive. She enrolled Amber in three different clinical trials — one involving a newly developed ventilator, another to address her difficulty absorbing nutrients, and a third designed to improve bonding between these tiny, fragile babies and their mothers.
“The therapies we’re testing today will probably be the standard of care in 10 years,” Dr. Blanco said. “We have hope for a lot of babies because of stories like Amber’s.”