A homecoming like no other

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Thirty years ago, babies like Maria Sottosanti rarely survived. Born January 9, 1980 at only 26 weeks gestation and weighing a scant 1 lb 15 ozs, the tiny infant’s chances were grim.
But Maria hung on – with much hope, prayer and expert care in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at St. Joseph’s Hospital in London. Her ever-optimistic father, Peter, drove from Sarnia most evenings to deliver milk expressed by his wife, Rosa, and to stare at his precious daughter. When the infant no longer needed assisted ventilation, an exuberant Peter announced to the neonatologist looking after her, Dr. Graham Chance, “My Maria, she’s going to be great!”
He was right. His Maria, by all accounts, is awe-inspiring.
In July, Maria, 30, came back to St. Joseph’s Hospital to an emotional welcome from many of the NICU staff – past and present – including three of her original nurses and Dr. Chance. But this wasn’t an ordinary visit by an NICU graduate. Maria was returning as Dr. Maria Sottosanti, a neonatology fellow who will work in the very unit where her life was saved.
“It’s something I always thought about,” says the young physician. “I feel like I’ve come full circle. I’m so grateful to be here.”
In Grade 3, Maria decided she wanted to be a pediatrician and she never wavered. “Now she wants to be a neonatologist, and that’s a miraculous cycle,” said Dr. Chance, a Canadian pioneer in the care of very low birth weight babies and St. Joseph’s director of nurseries during Maria’s shaky beginning in the NICU.
At the homecoming, Dr. Chance, who retired in 1997, reminisced about the evolution of neonatology as a specialty, in which he played a major role. When Maria was born, there were no neonatology fellows at St. Joseph’s. He recalls presenting Maria’s case, along with others, as evidence that babies born at 26 weeks gestation weighing as little as 800 grams can indeed do well with specialized perinatal care. At the time, there was a movement not to save such tiny infants to control increasing costs. It was a battle for life that Dr. Chance and his colleagues would win.
“This is why Maria’s presence here is not only miraculous but a great joy for all of us.”
To Maria, Dr. Chance added, “in choosing neonatology, you have chosen wisely because of the possibilities for preserving healthy and effective lives and the happiness you will gain personally from doing so.”
A teary Maria thanked all who cared for her 30 years ago. She is now eager to do the same for others born too early and too small.
“This is where I belong. I’ve come back to the place it all began.”