Parents of preemies share their experiences as March of Dimes ambassadors

When Carrie and Mike Sacuskie thought about having a baby, they feared their child could have cleft lip and palate — like Mike.

Instead, the couple's first pregnancy — and, later, their second — came with a different complication: preeclampsia. That's extremely high blood pressure that can force premature birth.

If not treated, it can cause the death of both mother and baby.

"With cleft lip, we figured that was totally fixable," said Carrie, 30. "This was different."

Different, but survivable. Carrie delivered both babies early, and now she and Mike, 32, along with daughters Michaela, 4, and Brooke, 13 months, are serving as ambassadors for the March of Dimes Modesto March for Babies.

The Sacuskies are the public face of the march, which raises money to prevent birth defects and premature birth.

That's something the Sacuskies have come to learn quite a bit about. But they haven't always been experts on preemies. Back in 2005, when Carrie was pregnant for the first time, she read everything she could on cleft lip and palate on the Internet.

Mike, an engineering assistant, endured 27 surgeries for this when he was a boy. He had pieces of bone grafted to his jaw. He had dental implants, each individually screwed into his jawbone.

He looked different from most kids.

"It was trying for him," Carrie said. "He didn't want his children to go through that."

The couple were relieved when a sonogram showed no sign of the condition. But then deceptively small health problems started to surface. Carrie's feet swelled, which she figured wasn't unusual. Then she got headaches. Her wrists became so large she couldn't bear to wear a watch.

Her fellow teachers -- most of them moms -- suspected trouble. They told her to call the doctor.

Carrie, who had 13 weeks left to go in the pregnancy, ended up being rushed to the hospital with preeclampsia.

Doctors told her they would deliver the baby in two days -- the time needed for a steroid shot to help the baby's lungs and brain develop. The shot, by the way, was invented during research funded by the March of Dimes.

Michaela weighed 1 pound,

11 ounces, when she was born. She remained in the hospital until a few weeks before her due date. She's now a healthy 4-year-old who loves preschool and gymnastics.

Michaela's good health helped convince the Sacuskies to make the difficult choice to try for a second child.

Preeclampsia doesn't always surface during a second pregnancy -- but often it does. This time, the couple studied up on the disorder. Carrie took blood-pressure medication. Doctors checked her blood and urine often. She underwent stress tests three times a week.

Still, Carrie's blood pressure soared. She ended up delivering Brooke nine weeks early. The baby weighed

2 pounds, 10 ounces.

Brooke is now a beaming toddler, getting into everything. But the girls' stories would not be so positive if it weren't for March of Dimes and the research it funds, Carrie said.

"I wouldn't have a child, or maybe even be alive, if it wasn't for the technology, the modern advances, the research," she said.

An epilogue to this story: This year's chairman for the March for Babies events -- there's also one in Stockton -- is Modesto City Manager Greg Nyhoff. Mike works for the Modesto engineering department.

"It's just a coincidence," Mike said, "but I'm glad the city of Modesto got involved."