Kid Captain: Energetic, healthy after being born 15 weeks early


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Just before Christmas Eve in 2006, Sarah and Erik Tillberg received a present they weren’t anticipating would come until 15 weeks later — their first child.

Emery Tillberg is now a healthy 5-year-old. But the Rock Island youngster spent more time in the neonatal intensive-care unit than he did in his mother’s womb.

Sarah delivered him 27 weeks into her pregnancy. Emery spent the next eight months inside the intensive-care unit, as the hospital attempted to create a similar environment to his mother’s womb in hopes of aiding his development.

Now, the energetic little boy anxiously awaits Christmas. Emery was chosen to be the honorary Kid Captain for Hawkeye football’s postseason play. Although he won’t have a specific game to be captain for, he attended the Kids’ Day this past summer and enjoyed the experience.

“Everything they’ve done is way above and beyond,” Erik Tillberg said. “It’s a cool ending to a terrible start.”

Today, Emery loves to wrestle with his dad, seemingly unaware of the struggles he faced before his birth. After all, Sarah Tillberg’s first pregnancy seemed entirely normal.

She faced the discomfort of nausea, but during the second trimester of her pregnancy — dubbed the “honeymoon phase” because of the disappearance of morning sickness — her sickness instead got progressively worse.

Other problems arose. Her blood pressure eventually reached a scary 160 over 100 — dangerously high.  She spoke to her doctor about other symptoms, such as shortness of breath and extreme fatigue, and he put her in the hospital.

“If I’d have never said those things, he would’ve sent me home on bed rest,” she said. “And it’s a good thing he did. I gave birth three days later.”

Emery’s father didn’t quite realize the gravity of the situation when he received the phone call as he left work.

“You don’t know how to feel until you get that phone call and she says, ‘They want you here now. They’re going to take the baby,’” he said.

Doctors referred the Tillbergs to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. Sarah Tillberg was diagnosed with preeclampsia, a problem with an unknown cause that leads to dangerously high blood pressure in the mother, causing problems with the baby’s growth.

The only cure for preeclampsia — a potentially life-threatening condition for both mother and child — is delivery.

So at 27 weeks, Sarah gave birth.

At this stage of the pregnancy, the lungs and eye retinas aren’t developed. The intestines don’t work normally and neither do the kidneys, said John Klein, a UI adjunct clinical assistant professor of family medicine.

Developing a baby’s body outside the womb proves to be a difficult task.

“It’s hard to have a baby’s brain develop as well in [the intensive-care unit] as compared with inside the mother,” Klein said.  “No one can match the mom.”

Today, Emery lives a healthy and active life.

When asked this week what he wants for Christmas, Emery said, “A windmill,” before sprinting across his living room to play with his leap pad.

“He has a lot of personality,” Sarah said.  “He likes to make people laugh and he loves to be the center of attention.”

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