When Kodiak residents Courtney Ann and Colin Spencer found out they were expecting a child, it was one of the happiest days of their lives. But when their son Percival was born just 22 weeks and two days into the pregnancy, it was one of the scariest.
The couple struggled with fertility and wanted nothing more than to become parents. After four years of treatments, they learned Courtney was pregnant. But early in the pregnancy, Courtney showed signs of complications and was ordered to go on bedrest by her doctor. Around the 17th week, she awoke to realize that something was very wrong.
Courtney called Colin, a Coast Guard aviation maintenance technician at Air Station Kodiak, and he rushed home to take her to the emergency room, where doctors told Courtney to fly to Anchorage for specialized treatment.
“I loved the health care I was receiving from various people in the community,” Courtney said. “We went to the ER that morning at 9 a.m. They were really calming, but they said we need to get to Anchorage.”
Most flights were grounded in Kodiak that day due to winds gusting to 70 mph. Their medevac to Anchorage was delayed until 11 p.m. While flying through blinding snow, the couple did their best to suppress their anxiety.
In Anchorage, doctors told Courtney she would need a fairly simple operation to prevent her baby from being born far too early, by sewing two stitches to help keep him in the womb. The surgery was a success and Courtney was free to leave the hospital, but doctors insisted the couple remain in the Anchorage area for the duration of the pregnancy.
They stayed at the Fisher House on Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson, a military facility in Anchorage. The Fisher House Foundation builds homes in which military and veteran families can stay free of charge while a loved one is in the hospital or needs to be close to one.
The program has saved military and veteran families nearly half a billion dollars in costs for lodging and transportation since its inception, according to the foundation website.
“Fisher House is amazing. It’s a home away from home,” Courtney said. While living there, the Spencers had their own bedroom and access to a fully stocked kitchen. Fellow house residents included military families and veterans from across the state. “It was like having 30 roommates at times, but it was a home.”
While in Anchorage, Colin was able to work at a job site arranged by Coast Guard Sector Anchorage, while Courtney remained on bedrest.
The pregnancy was a roller coaster for both parents, who were terrified they would lose their son. Courtney continued to have complications that landed her in the emergency room about once a week.
Just two days past the 22-week mark, Courtney went into labor.
Doctors at the Providence Neonatal Intensive Care Unit determined that Courtney needed an emergency cesarean section. Percival made his way into the world on Jan. 13, more than four months before his May 17 due date. He weighed only 1 pound, 3 ounces.
“I did not know it was medically possible until it happened to me,” Courtney said.
The youngest baby ever to survive was born at about 21 weeks.
“We were told Percival was about the fifth youngest baby ever to be born in Alaska. Some doctors may have decided not to try to save a baby as young as Percival. Statistically speaking, odds were not in his favor,” Courtney said. “Viability has everything to do with the baby’s lungs. A normal baby’s lungs are actually the last thing to develop, and they typically don’t begin to develop until the 21-22 week mark.”
The Spencers said the Providence NICU in Anchorage has a reputation for trying to save babies born very prematurely.
“Percival came out, took two gulps of air and screamed,” Colin said. “They looked at him and said ‘this kid’s a fighter — let’s do it.’”
“I called our families and said ‘Hey, guess what? You’re all going to be grandparents today!’ I was elated, I was a dad,” Colin said.
Six days after he was born, the Spencers got to hold their son.
“It was likely, but not confirmed, that he was the youngest gestational baby to be held skin-to-skin by a parent at just 23 weeks,” Colin said. “We actually sent off to Guinness to find out.”
After he was born, Percival was placed on a ventilator to help his lungs continue to develop.
He stayed in the NICU for 169 days.
The Spencers attribute their strong bond with Percival to his exceptionally early birth.
“I’ve literally known Percival since he was a second trimester fetus,” Colin said. “He’s held my hand since then.”
Lt. Cmdr. Gary Pepper, a Coast Guard chaplain, visited with the Spencers often during their time in Anchorage.
“When I went in to visit the family, what stood out to me most was how Colin would diligently monitor all the readings on the life support equipment, constantly keeping tabs on his vitals and notifying doctors of anything that didn’t seem right. The professionalism and expertise of the medical staff, and the love this couple has for one another and for their son all resulted in his miraculous survival,” he said.
The Spencers returned to Kodiak on July 3. They had only one month back on the island before moving to their next home. The Coast Guard considered Kodiak too remote for Percival’s needs. After four years in Kodiak, the Spencers moved to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, earlier this month.
Courtney said she will miss the warm embrace of the Kodiak community.
“I don’t know if it’s because everyone knows everyone, but there’s definitely that personal touch in the community,” she said, recounting a story from ordering baby clothes before Percival was born.
“I found something I loved, so I ordered it in a six-month size,” she said. When she returned to Kodiak after her long stay in Anchorage, the onesie was still in the shop, waiting for her.
The expanded Spencer family is settling in to life on the East Coast.
“The doctor here is flabbergasted. This is his youngest preemie,” Courtney said, speaking from her new home Thursday. “He described him as ‘thriving.’”
Percival is on oxygen around the clock, but Courtney said his doctors think he could grow up to be a high school track runner. Percival has been meeting all the milestones for a typical 3-month-old. Right now, he is practicing sitting up and holding his head up, Courtney said.
Both parents hope to return to Kodiak some day.
“We might come back when he’s 4 or 5 to Kodiak, because I’d be happy with him in the Kodiak school district,” Courtney said. During her time in Kodiak, she worked for the school district as a middle school special education aide.
“If we get to come back to the island, it would be my third tour in Kodiak,” Colin said. “We’d move back there in a heartbeat.”
People can follow Percival’s story at www.facebook.com/percivalthemicro/.
Coast Guard PA3 Lauren Dean and PA1 Nate Littlejohn contributed to this story.