Willow Hope Spilker was never expected to be born alive. But today she sits snuggled in her mother’s arms in their South Hill home, the oxygen tubing that runs to her nose is the only sign that something is unusual.
“I never would have expected her to be doing so well,” said her father, Wil Spilker.
She was born 13 weeks early on Oct. 25, weighing only 13 ounces. Her father accompanied her to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit after she was born via cesarean section.
“I remember seeing a team of specialists surrounding my daughter, who was the size of the palm of my hand,” he said. “I remember just huddling in the corner of the room, waiting.”
Wil and his wife Whitney married in October 2017 and happily postponed their late honeymoon to Spain when they discovered they were expecting. When Whitney was 13 weeks along, her ultrasound was normal. At 20 weeks, her amniotic fluid was low and the baby was too small. Then things got worse.
The phrase that doctors told them repeatedly is still burned into their minds: “imminent stillbirth.”
Whitney had intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR) and the baby wasn’t getting proper blood flow. She was no longer growing and was very small for her age. “Her placenta was failing her,” Whitney Spilker said.
Doctors said they couldn’t deliver the baby until she weighed at least a pound. “They didn’t have tubes small enough to intubate her,” she said.
She was put on bed rest and given two steroid shots to help the baby’s lungs develop. Doctors said the stress of labor would likely kill the baby if they induced Whitney and that there was nothing they could do but wait.
“It was hard to swallow that truth,” Wil Spilker said.
With the phrase “imminent stillbirth” echoing in their minds, the couple tried to prepare themselves.
“We prepared for the worst,” he said. “We planned for her funeral. It was not a pleasant experience.”
The couple was told that there was a less than 10 percent chance their baby would live, but they tried to hope for the best. “We figured, if she’s still fighting, we’re not going to stop her,” he said.
Then one day an ultrasound showed that the baby’s estimated weight had reached a pound. Doctors moved swiftly to deliver her.
“Her heart rate was starting to drop,” Whitney Spilker said. “They thought she would be stillborn in hours.”
As Wil Spilker huddled in the corner of the NICU, doctors told him his daughter was OK and that he should go tell his wife the good news. Then followed months of watching and waiting as baby Willow slowly and steadily improved.
Whitney Spilker took leave from her job as a Certified Nursing Assistant so she could spend her days in the NICU. Wil Spilker went back to his job as a Jimmy John’s manager in Spokane Valley.
Along the way, baby Willow seemed to dodge all the major pitfalls that are common in premature babies. She didn’t have any brain bleeds and there was no problem with her heart. “Her only complication is she needs a little bit of oxygen,” Whitney Spilker said.
Both the couple and their doctors consider baby Willow to be a miracle. “They have no way of explaining how she survived,” she said. “I’ve heard from several doctors and nurses that she’s a true miracle. She goes against everything they learned.”
Baby Willow came home on Jan. 26, two days after her due date. She weighed 4 pounds, 10 ounces then and now tips the scales at 6 pounds. She has nearly doubled in height since she was born, but newborn clothes are still large on her.
“I can’t stop holding her,” her mother said. “We weren’t able to hold her for so long.”
Whitney Spilker is still on leave from work. She said Willow’s health is too fragile to be attending a daycare during cold and flu season. “For now I just like being a stay-at-home mom,” she said.
The couple has settled into a routine with baby Willow. “She only cries when she’s hungry, she needs a diaper change or she just wants cuddles,” her father said. “She’s a pretty chill baby.”
He likes to say she’s growing like a weed, but the couple knows there may still be struggles to come. “She might have asthma,” he said. “She might have learning disabilities.”
The couple will accept whatever comes, Whitney Spilker said. “I just want her to be alive,” she said. “I’ll take whatever health issues she has.”
Her father likes to think that his daughter will continue to defy the odds. “I have hopes that she’ll grow up to be a normal little girl,” he said.
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