TERRE HAUTE —
From polio to premature births, one organization has come to be known for its life-saving achievements and the help and hope it’s given to families nationwide.
That organization, the March of Dimes, has reached a milepost this year, marking its 75th anniversary in 2013.
Leaders of the Wabash Valley chapter of the non-profit organization celebrated locally on Jan. 3, when Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett proclaimed it March of Dimes 75th Anniversary Day.
“Throughout its history, the March of Dimes has supported many important research milestones that have benefited newborn and child health,” said Nikki Simpson, Wabash Valley Division director of March of Dimes, during the ceremony at City Hall.
“For example, in 1953, James D. Watson and Francis Crick identified the double helix structure of DNA, announcing, ‘We have found the secret of life.’ Watson had received a grant from the March of Dimes that helped support his research on ‘protein patterns.’ The team’s work won the Nobel Prize in 1962 and paved the way for modern genetic medicine, including the mapping of the human genome.”
Another research breakthrough came in the early 1960s, when Dr. Robert Guthrie — supported by a grant from the March of Dimes — developed the first screening test for PKU, or phenylketonuria. That discovery resulted in prevention of intellectual disabilities caused by PKU through diet.
Since then, the March of Dimes and supporters have campaigned for expanded newborn screening. Today, every baby born in the U.S. receives screening for dozens of conditions that could cause catastrophic health problems or death, if not detected and treated promptly at birth. Indiana now screens for 46 conditions.
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, affected by polio himself, established a foundation in 1938 to “lead, direct and unify” the fight against polio. In FDR’s day, polio was an epidemic disease. The March of Dimes got its name when comedian Eddie Cantor asked Americans to send their dimes to FDR at the White House to help defeat polio.
Since its founding, research has been a key strategy that led to many new treatments for polio. These days, the organization is working to prevent the epidemic of premature birth, which affects nearly a half-million babies each year.
Several families in the Wabash Valley can attest to the benefits they have received through the research and fundraising efforts of the March of Dimes, from its early days to today’s new families.
Tiny but tough
Mark and Sara Collins believe that the research supported by the March of Dimes saved the life of their daughter, Zoey.
Born premature at just 26 weeks, Zoey weighed a little more than 2 pounds and was 10 inches long at birth. Her first-time parents did not get to hold her for four days, and they were amazed at how tiny, but full of life and strength, their daughter was.
Mark and Sara enjoy telling their story.
“It’s very important to us,” Mark said. “Before Zoey was born, we had never heard of the March of Dimes, had never donated a penny, never volunteered.”
But that has changed.
Zoey was born March 14, 2008, at Union Hospital, and she spent three months in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NIC-U.
A week after she was born, Mark and Sara found a gift basket from the March of Dimes on top of Zoey’s crib. They asked the nurses about the organization, met Wabash Valley Division Director Simpson, and learned how the research funded by March of Dimes has worked to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects, premature birth and infant mortality.
“It’s important to understand what the March of Dimes has given us,” Mark said. “The research they’ve done and they do now for pregnancy means a lot.”
That is why the family has entered Team Zoey in the annual March for Babies, and served as the sponsor family in 2011.
Zoey means ‘life’
The couple had experience trouble conceiving before Sara became pregnant with Zoey. They originally had settled on the name Piper, but the Wednesday before their daughter would arrive, Sara heard the name Zoey and they changed their minds.
“Zoey translated means ‘life,’” Mark said, “and that was perfect.”
When Sara went into labor just a few days later, the couple had no guarantee that their daughter would live. And the doctors could not tell them if her premature birth would cause any lingering effects, such as blindness, deafness or developmental delays.
“Every day it was something new,” Mark said of the medical concerns.
However, the NIC-U nurses provided great support, according to the couple, who often arrived at the hospital to find new photos of their daughter in her crib. One of those photos shows a tiny Zoey nestled inside a basket between two small stuffed animals. She appears only slightly bigger than the 9-inch-tall monkey doll next to her.
But after 66 days and growing to 5 pounds, Zoey made it home that May.
“She was my Mother’s Day gift,” Sara said.
“The March of Dimes gave us Zoey. They saved her,” Mark said. “We’ll forever be supporters of the March of Dimes because of that.”
Ready for kindergarten
Numerous medical visits followed, and Zoey has overcome the obstacles of her premature birth.
She will turn 5 in March, and Mark said her preschool teacher recently reported, “Zoey is a handful. She’s ready for kindergarten!”
The couple later became pregnant with their son, Zane, now age 1. He arrived at the 39 weeks mark, a full-term baby, weighing 5 pounds, 16 ounces.
Sara had taken shots during her pregnancy with Zane to help her carry him to term. She credits research funded by the March of Dimes as helping to make the shots practical for her during her pregnancy with Zane.
“We are fortunate the March of Dimes didn’t have to be as involved with Zane as Zoey,” Sara said. “But, the organization has linked us with families who have gone through the same thing.”
When LaNee Pfeiffer was almost 6 years old, she came down with a dreaded childhood disease that was sweeping through the small Illinois community of Paris.
She remembers it as the hot August of 1952. Her family was moving to a new house down the street when she and her brother came down with blinding headaches, alerting her parents that there was something wrong.
“That summer, there was a huge epidemic,” Pfeiffer said of polio, a disease that paralyzed or killed thousands of Americans, mostly children.
“I am very, very fortunate,” she said last week from her home in Paris.
Today, Pfeiffer has no visible aftereffects from polio, though she still has some weakness in her left arm and leg, and she doesn’t have the agility or muscle strength of most people.
But her battle with polio left her unable to walk for two years. She also underwent physical therapy for several years into her teens.
‘I cried for five days’
Her memories of that period of her early life are vibrant.
“I can still close my eyes and see my mother putting me in a tub of water,” she said of the treatments in nearly scalding hot water, followed by forced movement of her legs.
“And, I can see my parents on the other side of the glass wall.”
That memory stems from her isolation in the polio ward at a Decatur hospital, where she was taken by ambulance. She recalls a long room with several beds along the wall, and she was taken from her father’s arms and put in quarantine for five days. She could only see her parents through a glass wall, and remembers that no one could touch her.
“I cried for five days,” she said, adding that the nurses were aggravated by her constant crying.
When she was finally released from the hospital, her parents had to take her back to the medical facility regularly for treatment that included being submerged in hot water, and hanging weights from her ankles and trying to move her affected legs.
“The pain was excruciating,” she said. “Walking was excruciating.”
After being homeschooled for all of first grade, and being able to return to school for part of second grade, Pfeiffer regained the ability to walk. She was fortunate not to need leg braces, she said, and she did do physical activities — such as rollerskating and bicycling — to strengthen her legs.
March of Dimes
But she never got good grades in physical education class, she recalls.
Fortunately for her brother, Steve Benefiel, who now owns Pearman’s Pharmacy in Paris, his bout with polio only resulted in the extreme headache on the same day as his sister’s illness. He had no other physical side effects. But Pfeiffer can name other children from that time in the Paris community who came down with the debilitating disease.
“Everybody was so scared of it [polio] and what it could do,” Pfeiffer said. She remembers her father isolating the family somewhat — not allowing his children to go swimming or be at large public gatherings, for fear of catching polio.
During her illness, the March of Dimes played an important role for her family, Pfeiffer said, because the organization paid for her ambulance transport to Decatur, and for the physical therapy that followed.
“I know the March of Dimes was very instrumental,” she said. “My parents never had a lot of money, but they always contributed to the March of Dimes.”
Vaccine on a sugar cube
Even when her mother’s memory was being lost to Alzheimer’s disease, Pfeiffer said, her mother remembered her daughter’s polio, and how she had to help her child go through the dreaded physical therapy.
“I just remember my mother talking about the March of Dimes,” she said.
A few years later, Pfeiffer recalls getting the polio vaccine administered on sugar cubes at the Paris hospital. That was probably 1956 or 1957, she said, and the threat of polio was not over.
“I’m very fortunate and very blessed to have had it as seriously as I did, and not have any side effects of it,” she said.
Today, more than 60 years later, she and husband, Fred, remain active in the Paris community.
March for Babies
The March of Dimes began conducting a fundraising walk in 1970. That premiere fundraiser was dubbed March for Babies in 2008, to better reflect the organization’s commitment to healthy babies.
This year, the annual March for Babies is set for Saturday, April 27, in Terre Haute. It begins with registration at 8:30 a.m. and the walk at 9:30 a.m., starting at Indiana State’s Memorial Stadium on Wabash Avenue following a two-mile route.
Teams and individuals can sign up now for the walk by going online to www.marchforbabies.org and filling out the online form.
More information is also available from the Wabash Valley office at 1345 Ohio St., or by calling 812-234-2736.
Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at (812) 231-4254 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.