Jonathon Whitehill has worn hockey skates the past three winters — a big stride for the 7-year-old Fargo, N.D., boy who at birth weighed less than two pucks.
A micro preemie, he weighed 10.9 ounces, just more than half a pound, placing him in a six-way tie as the 27th-smallest surviving baby in the world, according to the University of Iowa’s registry, which shows births as far back as 1936.
“It’s hard to believe I was that small,” Jonathon said while taking a break from reading a book at home.
Born at 25 weeks’ gestation at Abbott Northwestern Hospital, Jonathon’s eyes had difficulty seeing his parents, doctors, anything due to retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), which is caused by underdeveloped blood vessels in the retina, the lining in the back of the eye where images are formed and sent to the brain. His skin was so new part of it was transparent and provided views of his internal organs.
The first five months and 10 days of his life were spent in the neonatal (NICU) and pediatric (PICU) intensive care units at the Minneapolis campus of Children’s Minnesota. The boy whose diaper was a cotton ball — and even that was too big — tussled with several opponents simultaneously, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) — a type of staph infection — hernias and a fractured femur.
“We couldn’t touch him for months,” Eric Whitehill, Jonathon’s father, said his and wife Carrie’s time after their son’s birth. “Any sensation that we could give him could have possibly hurt him.”
In March and April 2009, North Dakota’s Red River rose to levels not seen in 100 years, and residents near it experienced flooding. Eric logged thousands of miles during that time, driving to Fargo and back to fill sandbags and move the family’s belongings to the top floor of their house while trying not to think about what he was leaving behind in Minneapolis. The sandbags held, and the Whitehills’ home was spared.
When Jonathon was well enough to see Fargo for the first time, he didn’t leave the hospital empty handed. With him came heart and apnea monitors, oxygen tanks, a food thickener and fortified formula, all put to work daily for this fragile boy. He couldn’t go to a daycare due to a compromised immune system. Instead it was done in home with the help of specialists.
Today Jonathon is a happy and healthy first-grader who loves hockey — especially the Minnesota Wild — music, school, reading and going to the lake. He spent last summer playing tee-ball, and he’ll play soccer this spring.
And what makes him amazing?
“Everything,” Eric said. “It would take me too long to name individual qualities.”
“It would take four days,” Jonathon said.
“He’s always smiling, always happy and always on the move,” Eric said. “Everything we were told that he couldn’t do, he’s doing.”
Eric said his family is thankful for the love, care and support they received from the NICU team and Drs. Ronald Hoekstra, Nina Perdue, Bonnie Landrum, Diane Camp and Bruce Ferrara.
“The work that Children’s is able to do exceeds anything that I have ever seen or have talked to people about,” Eric said. “They’re specialized in kids, and that sets Children’s apart from any other hospital system.”