PEORIA, Ill. (AP) _ Christmas joy came a day early for Ron and Roz Helms - in the form of tiny Samantha, the last of their quintuplets to leave the hospital.

Wrapped in a blue blanket, Samantha was handed over to her happy parents Thursday afternoon by officials at St. Francis Medical Center. She has spent the past nine months in the center's newborn intensive care unit.

Samantha went home to join her brother and sisters, Benjamin, Shannon, Bevin and Meredith. The babies, born 12 weeks premature on March 2, had battled viruses and other problems associated with immature lungs, hospital officials said.

''It must be the happiest day of our lives,'' Mrs. Helms said, shortly before leaving home to pick up Samantha.

''It was like Christmas morning. You lay in bed and knew you should sleep more, but the adrenalin is pumping through you.''

Mrs. Helms said Samantha had not been doing as well as expected at Thanksgiving, and it was a surprise for the family to be told she could come home Thursday.

''We always feel a vacuum is pulling on us when a baby is still in the hospital,'' Mrs. Helms said. ''Samantha has been a baby in the waiting. Now, it will be neat to watch her turn into a real baby.''

Of the 13 sets of quintuplets living in the United States, the Helms quints had the lowest aggregate weight at birth.

Bevin was the heaviest of the five at birth, but even she weighed only 2 pounds, 3 ounces. Samantha and Meredith weighed only 1 pound, 12 ounces each.

''They've had different health problems, almost all of them relating to the immaturity of their lungs at birth,'' said Chris Lofgren, spokesman for St. Francis. ''They were 12 weeks premature.''

Samantha suffered from hyaline membrane disease, a common problem for premature infants. She spent most of her time since birth on a ventilator, but began breathing well on her own two weeks ago, the hospital said.