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April 24, 2014

From Anger to Activism: How a March of Dimes PSA Changed My Life

by Laura Malerba Williams, posted Apr 10th 2010 10:00AM
The shot in the public service announcement was unforgettable: an alien-like being hooked up to wires, tubes and monitors with audible whirs of machinery under a glaringly bright light. It's similar to the scene in 'E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,' after E.T. was captured by government scientists.

Only this "alien" was all too real. This alien was a premature baby, weighing no more than a pound and a half, on life support. The commercial was for the March of Dimes, and the message the spot conveyed was, "This is what happens when you drink and do drugs during your pregnancy."

I was overcome with tears, which quickly turned to sobbing. I had delivered my son 16 weeks prematurely just a few days earlier -- he weighed only one pound, three ounces. He was still in intensive care and I had just been sent home from the hospital without my baby. I connected with that PSA, but at the same time I was extremely offended. That is what had happened to my baby, and I had not done drugs or drunk alcohol during my pregnancy.

My doctors had expected me to miscarry at eight weeks. My baby, however, hung in there until his 24th week. And now he was hooked up to all those wires and tubes fighting for his own life. I resented the implication that all babies born prematurely were born because of a horrible mother's actions.

Note: This is not original March of Dimes PSA referred to in this article.


As time went on, I forgot about the March of Dimes PSA. My son grew stronger and eventually came home from the hospital. This was owing, in great part, to a medical advancement made possible by the funding of the March of Dimes. Thanks to the March of Dimes, a substance called surfactant had been developed that helped a premature baby's undeveloped lungs work.

Every once in a while I would see the spot again, and old feelings of anger and resentment bubbled to the surface. But one look at my baby's smiling face would cool me off.

Then the questions and comments started to come. Friends and complete strangers began to ask me if or why I did drugs during my pregnancy. I was shocked at the questions from my friends who I thought should have known me better. The complete strangers amazed me with their pure audacity to say something so incredibly personal.

It became my mission to help other mothers who had delivered babies prematurely without abusing drugs or alcohol. In fact, the majority of premature babies born in the U.S. have no connection to to drug or alcohol use. Nearly 40 percent of premature births are from unknown causes. Premature birth can be the result of multiple births, late-in-life pregnancy, fertility treatments, infections, genetic disorders, cervical and uterine abnormalities and a host of other medical, lifestyle and environmental causes.

It was 1996, and the Internet was a relatively new phenomenon. I hooked my old 486 processor up to a landline and entered the World Wide Web, where I found a support group of about 50 other parents who had also had premature babies, all of differing gestations and ages. My anger turned to relief as I realized there were so many more people just like me out there in the world.

The support group, Parents of Premature Babies, became my obsession, my safe haven and the source of so much information that helped me raise my medically fragile and developmentally delayed little boy. I was also given the opportunity to give comfort and advice to other parents. Eventually, a small core of the group's parents, including myself, established our non-profit standing, which gave us the opportunity to expand the web-based program and hold informational conventions that attracted parents and medical professionals from all over the world.

Since that fateful day in 1995, I have become an ardent supporter of parents of premature children. I have extended that work into a daily dedication to a variety of not-for-profit causes for children, whether in support of kids with learning disabilities, rare disorders or cancer, or promoting the education of all children. The March of Dimes has also made many changes as well. The organization has been instrumental in creating awareness of and advancements for all kinds of developmental and medical issues related to pregnancy, childbirth and infants -- no matter what the cause.

So, while the March of Dimes PSA angered me that day, it also launched me into a life of volunteerism -- a dedication that I have since passed on to my now vibrant, talented, caring 14-year-old son.

Did a PSA change your life? Let us know in the comments.

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