MILFORD, Maine — Brandy Harding of Milford has three very good reasons to volunteer as the 2009 March of Dimes Ambassador mother to raise awareness about the risks associated with premature birth — Joseph, 12, Samantha, 10, and Wyatt, 20 months.
Premature birth affects more than 1,500 babies born in Maine each year, said Gene Staffiere, director of the Northern Maine March of Dimes in Brewer. Premature birth is the leading cause of death in the first months of life. Babies who survive may have lifelong health problems, including learning disabilities, cerebral palsy, blindness, hearing loss or asthma.
All three of Harding’s children were born early as a result of pre-eclampsia and toxemia, pregnancy conditions that pose serious health risks for both mother and child. It was during pregnancy with Samantha, however, that the going really got tough.
“Samantha was born nine weeks early and weighed 2 pounds 15 ounces at birth,” Harding said. “She was in the NICU [neo-natal intensive care unit] for five weeks. She had breathing difficulties and other medical problems. It was a very difficult time.”
Harding had spent the last two or three months of her pregnancy with Samantha on bed rest at Eastern Maine Medical Center. It was during that ordeal that the March of Dimes became her ally.
“March of Dimes helped because they gave me someone to talk to, somebody who was there with me and for me,” Harding said. “It was good to have other parents around who had gone through what I was going through.”
It was not the first time Harding had encountered difficulty during pregnancy.
“My first was a very rough pregnancy, and my son didn’t make it,” she said. Harding developed pre-eclampsia and toxemia at 15 weeks gestation — so unusual, she said, that she became a case study at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore.
Doctors told her that a subsequent pregnancy would carry a very small risk of a repeat of the conditions, but that turned out not to be true. Both conditions complicated all four of her pregnancies.
Her son Joseph arrived four weeks early, and son Wyatt made his debut several weeks early. Both baby boys had normal birth weights and were not considered premature as Samantha was.
“In 1998, Samantha was the smallest baby ever released from EMMC at that time,” Harding said.
The anxiety that accompanies premature birth and the issues surrounding it put a great deal of stress on marriage and relationships, Harding said, having gone through the breakup of the family herself. She later met her current husband, Charles, and together they formed a blended family.
Today, Samantha is still tiny at 58 pounds and has asthma. But that doesn’t stop her from being active in gymnastics and Girl Scouts.
“She has a ‘leader of the pack’ personality,” Harding said, describing her daughter as a “social butterfly.”
As a March of Dimes Ambassador mother, Harding will tell her story at the March of Dimes March for Babies in May and take part in the walk.
Samantha will participate in the walk at the Libby School, where she is a fifth-grader.
“The Libby School is a great supporter of the March of Dimes walk,” Harding said.
Besides working for March of Dimes fundraising events, Harding volunteers with the Milford Parent Teachers Organization, is a Girl Scout leader and a member of the committee planning to resurrect Milford Days celebration.
The March of Dimes March for Babies, three miles long, will take place at 10 a.m. Sunday, May 3, at Brewer Auditorium. Registration is at 9:30 a.m.
Staffiere said the walk is the March of Dimes’ major fundraiser of the year, both locally and nationally, pulling in $600,000 in Maine.
Last year the walk in Brewer with some 250 participants raised $74,000, an increase of $16,000 from the previous year.
“I’m amazed at the generosity of the people of Maine,” Staffiere said. “It’s unbelievable.”
The March of Dimes is a major advocate for women and children, Staffiere said, and lobbies for legislation at the state and national levels on issues affecting women and children.
The March of Dimes will hold an Ecumenical Memorial Celebration Service at 1 p.m. Saturday, April 18, at Bangor Baptist Church to remember infants who died as a result of premature birth and to celebrate the lives of babies who are thriving despite coming into the world too early.
To register for the March of Dimes March for Babies or to learn more about the work of the March of Dimes, call 989-3376 or visit www.marchofdimes.com.
Samantha Harding, who was born prematurely, is shown (above) in the neonatal intensive care unit at Eastern Maine Medical Center, and today as an active 10-year-old. (Photos courtesy of Brandy Harding)