'One Tough Cookie': Not Even 1 Pound at Birth, Nathan Teply Is Still Fighting 4 Years Later
Published: July 20, 2020
Mary and Eric Teply knew their son was going to be a fighter even before he was born.
Experiencing complications in her pregnancy, Mary was admitted to Methodist Women’s Hospital at 24 weeks. During an ultrasound with Brendan Connealy, MD, the couple were inspired by what they saw. Tiny Nathan “had his hands up, kind of like a boxer protecting his face,” Eric said.
“I told Dr. Connealy, ‘You watch. He’s a fighter. You’ll see,’” Mary said. “And I’ve said that ever since.”
A few days later, Nathan was born. At 14.99 ounces and 10.43 inches, he is the smallest surviving baby to be born at the hospital since it opened 10 years ago.
He’s been fighting and overcoming the odds ever since.
“I knew he was in the best place”
Mary and Eric were married in June 2015 and knew they wanted kids. They didn’t have to wait long.
“Everyone says we got pregnant on our honeymoon,” Mary joked.
The pregnancy went well early on, and the couple had a gender reveal party in early December of that year. But soon after, Mary started experiencing headaches and swelling in her feet. After a coworker at the pharmacy they work at took her blood pressure, Mary called her OB/GYN on Dec. 11. Aimee Probasco, DO, prescribed blood pressure medication and began monitoring Mary more closely. A test soon revealed that she was spilling protein in her urine. Mary had preeclampsia, a serious condition that can jeopardize the health of mother and baby.
Dr. Probasco had Mary admitted to the high-risk obstetrics unit at Methodist Women’s Hospital on Dec. 15. She and Eric met with the hospital’s maternal-fetal medicine specialists, including Dr. Connealy. For her health and Nathan’s, the plan was to keep her at the hospital until her April 8 due date.
Over the next couple days, the couple prepared for the long haul. Mary’s symptoms improved somewhat, and they saw their little fighter with his hands up during the ultrasound.
But on Friday, Dec. 18, the Teplys’ world changed forever. That morning, Mary “swelled up from head to toe” and had fluid on her lungs. “I wasn’t doing well, and Nathan wasn’t doing well either,” she said.
As the day went on, it was clear to Dr. Probasco, Dr. Connealy and the rest of the staff what had to be done.
Eric remembers being scared by the speed at which things were unfolding.
“It was a rushed ordeal, so you didn’t really have that much time to think or anything,” he said. “You kind of just had to do it. That part of it was stressful.”
Mary felt something else.
“The day we delivered, I was calm,” she said. “I knew he was coming, and I knew he was in the best place and was going to be taken care of. And he was going to defy the odds and come out swinging.”
A roller coaster of emotions
Moments after Nathan was born via emergency cesarean section, staff intubated him and took him to the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Over the next 307 days, the family experienced ups and downs as Nathan slowly but surely grew stronger.
At two weeks old, Nathan developed pneumonia, but staff caught it early with help from Heart Rate Observation (HeRO) system and started him on antibiotics.
“I believe that pretty much saved his life,” Mary said.
Because he was so small, Nathan was intubated for six weeks. At one point doctors wanted to remove his breathing tube and switch him to less-invasive nasal prongs, but none were small enough to fit him.
The family had another scare on Valentine’s Day when Nathan, whose brain was underdeveloped, stopped breathing. Eric, distraught, left the room as staff used a bag valve mask to help Nathan start breathing again.
“That was the scariest thing, to see your child be bagged,” Mary said.
April 8, Mary’s due date, was also challenging.
“They usually say you go home around your due date,” Mary said. “It came and passed. It’s like, ‘OK, are we ever going to go home? What’s going to happen?’ Not knowing is the hard part. The roller coaster is the roughest part.”
As the weeks and months wore on, it became clear to Brady Kerr, MD, and the NICU staff that Nathan needed more specialized care for issues with his heart and lungs. On April 28, he was transferred to the Children’s Hospital & Medical Center NICU. He’d stay for another six months for treatment – including surgery to repair a hole in his heart – before heading home.
“That really was the best decision,” Mary said. “We are truly thankful for that. Even though it was really hard for us not to go home, it was best for Nathan.”
Lifelong friends and memories from the NICU
For all the Teplys’ challenges during Nathan’s hospitalization, there were unique thrills as well. Eric said experiencing some of Nathan’s earliest milestones are his favorite NICU memories. Hearing Nathan for the first time was something he’ll never forget.
“Obviously, he was hooked up to machines, so it took a little while for us to actually hear his squeaks and things like that,” Eric said. “And being that he was born that early, we got to experience something that a lot of parents don’t get to, and that was him actually opening his eyes.”
The Methodist staff, especially the NICU nurses, also left their mark on Mary and Eric with their care and support.
“They were there for us when we needed somebody, and there to talk to us and comfort us,” Mary said.
In fact, they were always there.
Mary remembers the picture collages and banners the nurses would leave on their NICU room door to mark milestones: 1 month old. 100 days in the NICU. Passing their due date.
When a snowstorm kept Mary from seeing Nathan – the only visit she missed in 307 days – nurses sent her photos of him wearing a onesie that read: “I love my NICU nurses.”
“Those little things make a huge difference with your journey,” she said.
Even after they left Women’s, the Teplys kept in touch with many of the staff members they’d grown so close with, including Chinyere Oarhe, MD, and nurses Brianna Grindstaff, Becca Franklin, Natasha Cardona, Amanda Lovercheck, Katie Maas, Tim Black and Tressa Greer.
And when Nathan’s little sister, Harper, arrived this past January and spent five weeks in the Women’s NICU, it was essentially a reunion. Dr. Kerr and many of the same staff members were by the family’s side again, guiding them through delivery and NICU stay.
“Just to have those same people around and still remember you after all this time, it’s pretty amazing,” Mary said.
The Teplys said they are forever grateful for all the nurses, doctors and staff members who helped them through their journeys with both children.
"The doctors and the nurses, they were awesome,” Eric said. “It’s that sense of them looking out for the families. Not only the child that’s there, but making sure the family is OK as well. We have a lot of lifelong friends there.”
Ready to change the world
Nathan’s challenges didn’t end when he came home in the fall of 2016, but he’s met them all with the same fighting spirit his parents saw early on.
Mary said his doctors are surprised by his progress.
“He had the sickest lungs and the sickest heart, and you would never know it,” she said. “How do you go from being that sick to hardly having to see those people that saved your life? It’s crazy.”
His latest milestones are walking and eating on his own. A spine surgery in January 2019 improved his mobility, and he’d take some steps with a walker. But after a skull surgery in October, he began to gain confidence and walk more.
“It’s exciting to see that big milestone of walking. And he’s eating a little bit more now,” Mary said, explaining that Nathan has relied on a feeding tube. “It’s like a light bulb went off in his head and everything is clicking for him now. It’s exciting to see his little brain grow and for him to be able to do this stuff now like a normal kid.”
In so many other ways, Nathan is a typical 4-year-old. He dotes on his little sister. He plays with a collection of cars, firetrucks and dinosaurs. He can get lost in Blippi educational videos. And he has a “wild personality.”
“He’s always happy,” Mary said. “He’s just one of those kids that will put a smile on your face no matter what.”
He has work to do on his speech – developmentally he’s closer to a 2-year-old – but his parents see his potential.
“He learns things really fast,” Mary said. “He may verbally not be there, but he’s really smart. He’ll get there.”
Nathan’s parents have no reason to doubt it. From his earliest moments at Methodist Women’s Hospital, he’s been overcoming challenges.
“From the beginning I said he’s going to change the world one of these days,” Mary said. “He just surprises you with everything. He’s one tough cookie, and we couldn’t be more proud of how far he has come.”