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POSTER CHILD - Oakdale Family Selected March Of Dimes Ambassadors
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Young RaeAnn Rodrigues is all smiles as mom Kirsten sends her skyward as the two enjoy some mommy and me time recently. Born 14 weeks premature, RaeAnn is the poster child for the March of Dimes March for Babies this year, with the Rodrigues family serving as ambassadors for the Modesto and Stockton events. - photo by Marg Jackson/The Leader

To look at her now, you would never know that RaeAnn Victoria Rodrigues overcame tremendous odds just to take her first breath.

Now, the almost 2-year-old (her birthday is coming up May 17) and her parents will be serving as the March of Dimes Ambassadors for the April 27 ‘March for Babies’ at Modesto’s Graceada Park and the May 4 event in Stockton.

RaeAnn, the daughter of local residents Paul and Kirsten (Cordoza) Rodrigues, was born on May 17, 2011 – 14 weeks early.

Born at just 26 weeks, RaeAnn weighed only one pound, 14 ounces on arrival and mom Kirsten said it was definitely touch and go more than once, even as the tiny fighter received expert medical care at the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Doctors Medical Center.

“There were two times for sure, we thought we would lose her,” Kirsten said, admitting that doctors told them to say their goodbyes.

But RaeAnn defied the medical establishment from the start, surviving the early arrival and, amazingly, said Kirsten, having to only be on a ventilator for one day.

That, Kirsten said, is directly attributable to the use of surfactant therapy, a procedure developed through March of Dimes-funded research, that allowed the medicine to be delivered directly into RaeAnn’s underdeveloped lungs.

“It is super special,” Kirsten said of the honor of being named the Ambassador Family for this year’s March of Dimes signature fundraiser. “A lot of babies that were in the same position (preemies) as RaeAnn didn’t make it … We are very blessed to have her, very lucky.”

With estimates of having to stay in the NICU through Labor Day, 2011, RaeAnn again took matters into her own tiny hands, reaching the milestones required of preemies before they can be released. She met the criteria after 73 days in the NICU, coming home the end of July, 2011.

“Essentially, they have to breathe on their own, maintain their own temperature, plus eat and gain weight,” Kirsten explained of the requirements for preemies being released. “Normally it’s not until they go over four pounds but RaeAnn was three pounds, 13 ounces.”

Still, considering her size when she was born, that three-plus pounds made her look like a giant, said Kirsten.

Now, she is reaching the ‘norms’ for a child her age, in terms of growth and development. She had had some delays but is very much a “normal almost 2-year-old,” said Kirsten.

Another reason RaeAnn was allowed to come home so soon was that Kirsten and Paul spent nearly every waking hour with her in the hospital, and were very aware of the issues she faced and able to handle her care.

One of the nurses in the NICU nominated RaeAnn and her parents for the Ambassador Family honor.

“We have a team, we are raising money as a team and our goal was $500,” Kirsten said of the event, which will run from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday. “At last count we were at $1,500 and we still have some money coming in.”

Along with participating in the March for Babies, the family will serve as guest speaker at the opening ceremonies, has done pre-event publicity and will also speak and be involved in the Stockton Walk on May 4.

“We also spoke at Modesto’s kick off lunch, in February,” Kirsten said. “We’re just promoting the event and having her face out there, having a team.”

Kirsten, who has been involved in the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life for years, said it’s going to be a busy Saturday for the family, as they have the March of Dimes event in the morning and then plan to attend the Oakdale Relay For Life later in the day.

She and Paul, a truck driver, said they will always be grateful for the support and lifesaving research that March of Dimes helped provide.

“She’s pretty much on target, she’s had physical therapy, a few things that we are still working on,” Kirsten added. “As far as being a normal kid, she is, she has hit almost all of her milestones for her age, she talks and runs … sometimes it seems like just yesterday we were going through it, and sometimes, when I look at her now, I don’t even remember it, it’s hard to believe this was the same baby fighting for her life.”

The family will be on hand throughout the March for Babies event, with money raised going to fund research, education and outreach programs that benefit all babies.

“We’re extremely honored,” Kirsten added. “March of Dimes will always be a part of our lives, we will always be grateful that they helped fund all the research to get us to where we are today.”

And that is with a happy, healthy, smiling RaeAnn, ready to hit the ground running whenever and wherever she can.