DIXON – Inside an incubator, a tiny preemie named Rayden once was surrounded by tubes, cords, and John Deere toy tractors.
Now healthy, he rides on a real tractor with his daddy, smiling from ear to ear.
“It's amazing to see where he started to where he's at today,” said his father, Ryan Appelquist. “It's a miracle; that's for sure.”
Ryan, 30, and his wife, Cassi Appelquist, 26, of Dixon, attribute their son's success largely to March of Dimes. The nonprofit organization developed Surfactant, a drug that helped Rayden's dangerously small lungs mature.
“Without that,” Cassi said, “we probably would be in trouble.”
To show appreciation, they will be the ambassador family at the Sauk Valley March for Babies May 4 at Page Park. The nationwide fundraiser supports research and efforts to prevent birth defects, premature birth, and infant mortality.
Ryan, co-owner and operator of Appelquist Farm & Trucking Inc. in Franklin Grove, encourages other couples to take part in the 3.1-mile walk, and help the next family affected by premature birth.
“You never know if it's going to be you or not,” he said. “It's unexpected.”
The Appelquists will share their story at the fundraiser, marking the 75th anniversary of March of Dimes.
It all started when Cassi, 26, developed preeclampsia while pregnant, a disorder that skyrocketed her blood pressure. It causes the death or illness of thousands of women and babies each year, according to the Preeclampsia Foundation.
Cassi, a 2004 graduate of Dixon High School, was forced to deliver 10 weeks early, via C-section, on Feb. 25, 2012, at Rockford Memorial Hospital. Her family feared for her safety, but Cassi worried only about her son, she said.
Ryan, a 2000 DHS grad, feared the worst.
“I was nervous that he wasn't going to make it.”
Rayden weighed 2 pounds, 15 ounces – “a string bean with big feet,” his mommy said. He was cute on the outside with serious health problems on the inside.
His lungs were far less developed than doctors expected, so Rayden spent 67 days in the neonatal intensive care unit. March of Dimes helped to regionalize NICUs so babies from all towns can receive specialized care.
Cassi, a file room specialist at KSB Hospital, once worked in the intensive care unit.
“I knew what to expect,” she said, “but when it's your baby, it's overwhelming – very overwhelming.”
Cassi saw Rayden once after surgery, but her out-of-control blood pressure kept them apart for 2 days.
“I was living off of phone pictures.”
Yvette Sellers, community director for the Northern Illinois Division of March of Dimes, knows all about the hardships families like the Appelquists face. Several of her relatives were born prematurely, including a sister who died.
She loves working for an organization that prevents such losses.
“I find it very rewarding,” she said.
Eventually, Cassi and Ryan took their baby boy home. The premature birth left scar tissue on his lungs, and he suffers from chronic lung disease. Doctors also are monitoring elevated liver enzymes.
For the most part, though, Rayden is healthy; and he is definitely happy. The goofy little guy will do anything for a laugh.
“You think you're pretty funny,” his mommy told him.
He is a busy boy, always on the go – wheeling around toy tractors and cars and fearlessly climbing on top of the couch, falling backward into the arms of whoever will catch him.
Rayden gets into everything. His mommy once caught him playing in the toilet. His partner in crime is his adoring big sister, Ava, 5.
“They like to get into a lot of mischievous things lately,” Ryan said.
When asked what Rayden likes, his daddy replied, “What doesn't he like?” Rayden loves to learn and try new things.
His mommy agrees.
“He is happy and wild; and he is just too much to love,” she said.
Rayden started walking, and recently celebrated his first birthday with friends, family, and March of Dimes' Sellers.
The party theme? John Deere tractors, of course.
About the walk
The goal of the Sauk Valley March for Babies is to promote full-term pregnancies and healthy moms and babies.
Go to marchforbabies.org to start or join a team and receive fundraising tips. To register, type “61021” under “Find an Event.” Donations also may be made online.
The 3.1-mile walk will start at 9 a.m. May 4, with registration the hour before, at the Page Park Lions Shelter on Page Park Drive in Dixon.
March of Dimes has given more than $100,000 to programs, awards and medical facilities in the Sauk Valley. Call the Northern Illinois Division, 815-397-0097, for more information.