When Alissa Sustarsic learned she was pregnant with twins, she never expected that they’d end up in a neo-natal intensive care unit.
That’s what happened after her twin boys, Aiden and Carson, were born eight weeks early in 2006. The boys each weighed 4 pounds, 4 ounces and spent weeks hooked to ventilators and feeding tubes.
“I didn’t even get to see Aiden after he was born because of his breathing issues,” said Alissa, who was 29 when she gave birth. “I never saw him until two-and-a-half hours after giving birth to him.”
The boys were hospitalized at Shands Hopsital in Gainesville for four months. During that time, they suffered from minor brain bleeding and jaundice.
The first two years of their lives were spent in and out of doctor’s offices to ensure they were developing appropriately. Both boys underwent occupational therapy, and Aiden underwent speech therapy, as well.
Thinking back, Alissa says the March of Dimes program was instrumental in helping her cope through challenging times and emotional stress.
“They gave me and my husband, Jeff, pamphlets so we could understand all the medical terminology concerning premature babies,” says Alissa, a mathematics professor at Lake-Sumter State College. “They also gave me a camera so I could take pictures of the boys and gave Aiden and Carson a teddy bear while they were in an incubator. But the thing I appreciate most is that the program connected us to other parents who have been through premature births. Being able to talk with people who have walked in our shoes was invaluable.”
Alissa has returned the favor by participating in March for Babies, the organization’s largest fundraiser. She spearheads a team from Lake-Sumter State College and has raised $35,000 since 2007.
“The event means a lot to me because it helps fund research to prevent premature births,” she says. “It’s also a way to celebrate life.”
Certainly, celebrating the lives of Aiden and Carson is something Alissa does daily. The 9-year-old boys are now third-grade students at Treadway Elementary. Both play baseball and soccer and enjoy swimming, bicycling and video games.
This year’s local March for Babies event is being held May 9. Registration begins at 7 a.m., and the walk starts one hour later. The 3.5-mile course begins on Leesburg Regional Medical Center’s wellness trail, winds through downtown Leesburg and makes its way back to the hospital. A cheering crowd waits at the balloon-arched finish line, and each walker receives a T-shirt.
Weeks before the event, teams conduct fundraisers and collect pledges to raise as much money as possible. Last year’s event netted $172,000. That money helps support research and programs to help prevent or treat premature birth, birth defects and other threats to a baby’s life.
“The U.S. has one of the highest numbers of premature births in the world,” says Don Henderson, chief executive officer of Central Florida Health Alliance and voluntary chairperson of the event. “There needs to be a strong effort in every community to combat this problem.”
He hopes this year’s event raises $180,000.
“We set the bar higher every year to challenge ourselves,” he says. “It’s important because the March of Dimes provides counseling assistance and support to families in any way it can. When you help raise money for March of Dimes the funds stay local to help with intervention. We’ve seen numerous local families benefit directly from the organization’s programs and services.”