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Tiny Baby Home, Thriving

August 7, 1989

PRINCETON, W.Va. (AP) _ Kari Nicole Whitlow, once as small as a Barbie doll, is home after spending her first 2 1/2 months in the hospital, but a medical school teacher says her battle is just beginning.

West Virginia’s smallest resident was 10 inches long and weighed 13.9 ounces at birth. Now 15 3/4 inches and about 3 pounds, Kari rests quietly in a bassinet at her parent’s apartment, connected by a synthetic umbilical cord to a dictionary-sized blue monitor that sets off an alarm when her heartbeat or breathing becomes erratic.

Other than the threat that her tiny, underdeveloped body might forget to breathe, Kari is doing nicely, says her mother, Tracey Whitlow.

″People laugh at me when I say she’s big,″ Mrs. Whitlow said. ″They should have seen her before.″

Kari was born by Caesarean section May 15 after doctors determined she had mysteriously stopped growing at 22 weeks, six weeks earlier. Forty weeks is considered normal gestation, and anything less than 38 is considered premature, said D.M. Jayaram the Whitlow’s doctor.

″They can’t explain it,″ said Mrs. Whitlow, 20. ″At 22 weeks everything was fine. But at 28 weeks, she was still at 22 weeks.″

Kari was so small she couldn’t wear diapers for premature babies.

″We were scared - scared to death because the doctors couldn’t guarantee anything,″ Mrs. Whitlow said. ″But she let out a little half-cry before they could put the respirator on her.″

Kari came home July 28, and Mrs. Whitlow says her doctors are optimistic, saying the only ill effect so far seems to be the likelihood she will be smaller than average.

″We can live with that,″ she said.

But Martha Mullett, a neonatologist and instructor at the West Virginia University School of Medicine, wasn’t optimistic.

″The likelihood is that this baby will have lots of problems, and it is possible they could be very severe,″ said Mullett, who noted she has not examined Kari. ″What this child is like at 10 years of age - it’s highly questionable this child will be normal.″

The Guinness Book of Records lists the smallest surviving baby at 12 3/4 inches and 10 ounces, in 1938 in South Shields, England. Mullett said the smallest baby she’s treated weighed 600 grams; Kari weighed about 390.

″In general, under 600 grams I’m not generally interested in taking care of it because of the cost,″ Mullett said. ″I can’t begin to describe to you the cost in money and stress with it very, very unlikely to have a normal child at age 10. This baby’s hospital bill must be well over $200,000.″

Kari’s father, Tim Whitlow, is unemployed, and the hospital and doctor’s bills have been picked up by the state Medicaid program. Mrs. Whitlow says she has no idea how high the bill is.

Mrs. Whitlow said Kari’s physical movements - moving her head, pushing with her knees - are consistent with a 3-month-old. Her cry is surprising loud for someone so slight.

″She’s doing the same things a regular newborn can do,″ Mrs. Whitlow said. ″She’s very active and alert.″

Kari woke briefly and grasped her mother’s finger with her hand, her palm the size of an adult’s fingernail.

″Instead of holding her in the palm of your hand,″ Mrs. Whitlow said, ″you have to use two palms now.″

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