He was supposed to be born on June 1st— Telethon Weekend. But he came into this world three months early weighing less than two pounds, with a 50-50 shot at survival.
His mom Terri had faith, and help from the experts at All Children’s Hospital. “For some reason,” she said, “I was not afraid. I never feared that my baby would not be okay.”
Throughout the spring, Stephen Paul gave everyone plenty of scares. He experienced many of the problems preemies may face. But Telethon dollars had outfitted his “second home” in All Children’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit with up-to-date technology. Ventilators assisted his immature lungs; monitors warned when his breathing occasionally stopped.
And on Telethon Weekend, his parents proudly told viewers the good news—Stephen Paul would be going home later that week.
That was in 1988—twenty years ago. “Seems like the blink of an eye,” to dad Steve.
“On the other hand,” mom Terri chimes in, “sometimes I think back and it seems so long ago we were in All Children’s.”
So much has happened since then. Some typical preemie fears—bonding issues, impaired eyesight, a need for speech therapy—never materialized. But there were years of physical therapy for the cerebral palsy that makes it difficult for Stephen Paul to walk.
For every faltering step, he’s always been able to run circles intellectually around his peers. That paid off last year when Stephen Paul enrolled as a freshman at Eckerd College with 80% of his tuition covered through academic scholarships. Carrying a 3.5 GPA after his first semester, Stephen Paul is planning to major in theater. It’s a career choice first kindled by his role as the Mysterious Old Man in a high school production of the Steven Sondheim musical “Into The Woods.”
“I was the young man who was very good at playing old men,” Stephen Paul explains. “I’ve always been called a bit of an old soul. For goodness sake, I own a gold pocket watch—I listen to Nat King Cole! Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I can work my voice to sound 80 if I want to. Plus, I know how to use a cane believably.”
“It was during that show—‘Into the Woods.’ I’d just gotten off stage and I realized I could do this quite happily the rest of my life. And a couple of seconds later, I resolved to try!”
He’ll bring a unique depth of life experience to any role he plays.
“I know what it’s like to go through problems, to be perceived as different—being out of the stream of normalcy that most people seem to spend their lives swimming through. That’s what the theater is supposed to do—make people look. Make them stop looking in the mirror and look at somebody else’s face, somebody else’s problems, somebody else’s life, and feel.”
For their part, Stephen Paul’s parents feel a range of emotions as their only child turns twenty: Admiration for the young man he’s become— “so open and honest,” says mom. “And to watch that grow and develop through the years is a great source of pride and pleasure for both of us.”
Gratitude for the hospital and caring staff that helped him—“Every time I drive by it, I thank God All Children’s was there,” says dad. “I hope they get a nice warm fuzzy feeling from seeing that good things do happen—and continue to happen—because of their hard work.”
And hope for families who are just now facing the challenges they faced in All Children’s NICU back in 1988—“Their hope for success should be even greater today,” says dad. “Just look at our son. He made it. He’s 20 years old and back then, they didn’t have so much of the technology and new developments that they do now.”
Telethon support has helped our NICU stay state-of-the-art throughout these 20 years as high-frequency ventilators, Giraffe incubator beds and surfactant medications for underdeveloped lungs improved the odds for preemies. Today’s Telethon support (and a substantial donation from the All Children’s Hospital Guild) will help to build one of the largest NICUs in the Southeastern U.S. when the new All Children’s Hospital is completed in late 2009.
What will the All Children’s Hospital Guild Neonatal Intensive Care Unit be able to accomplish in the future with your Telethon support? If stories of past NICU graduates like Stephen Paul are any indication, the future is full of hope.
“I don’t think, if given the chance, that I would change anything,” says Stephen Paul. “I don’t think I would be the same person without what I’ve been through. And that means all of it. I like who I am, like it enough that I don’t think I’d want to take the risk of losing any of it.”
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