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?WalkAmerica' kicks off

By Ed Brock

When Michelle Dewhurst and her husband underwent in vitro fertilization procedures, they were pleasantly surprised when she became pregnant with triplets.

"I always say we bought one and got two for free," said 31-year-old Dewhurst of Rex.

But when she was 24 weeks into her pregnancy Dewhurst was admitted into Southern Regional Medical Center in Riverdale and at 25 weeks and three days she went into labor. Shortly thereafter the triplets, Maggie, Christopher and Sarah, came into the world, each weighing about a pound and a half.

"They stayed in the (neonatal intensive care unit) for a very long time," Dewhurst. "There were several scares along the way."

The story of the triplets' survival makes the Dewhurst family this year's ambassador family for the March of Dimes WalkAmerica campaign in Clayton County.

Well over 100 volunteers and potential participants in the walkathon, scheduled for April 24 in Forest Park, attended the breakfast at the Pristine Chapel on Mt. Zion Boulevard in Jonesboro. For the 34th year, WalkAmerica will raise money for the treatment of premature babies like Maggie, Christopher and Sarah and to fund research into the causes of premature birth.

"We need the help of everyone in the south metro area," Richard Adams, co-chair of the WalkAmerica event, said. "Until we have the answers anyone's baby could be next."

Dewhurst said the money is sorely needed.

"My children are definitely examples that they need lots of care and with that they can survive," Dewhurst said.

Shortly after his birth, Christopher needed an operation to close a heart valve. Then the children developed hydrocephalus (water on the brain) and, while doctors were able to drain the fluid from Maggie's skull with a simple procedure they had to install a shunt in Christopher running under his skin from his skull into his abdomen.

He'll have the shunt for his entire life, Dewhurst said.

Add to that the fact that all three children had to get laser surgery on their eyes and that Christopher will need glasses, Dewhurst said.

The Dewhurst family is far from being alone. Every year more than 470,000 babies in America are born prematurely, according to the March of Dimes, and in 2001 the cost of treating premature and low birth-weight babies was more than $13.6 billion. Since 1981 the rate of premature birth has increased 27 percent.

In half of premature births the cause is unknown.

Tammi Kelly, the Coweta County ambassador, spoke at the breakfast.

"I was very healthy (during her pregnancy.) I did everything my doctor told me to do. I had no reason to believe my babies would be born premature," Kelly told the audience.

But in August Kelly went into labor eight weeks early with twins Courtney and Cristen. When the babies were born they weighed a little more than four pounds each, and they had to be whisked away to the neonatal intensive care unit immediately after their birth.

"It would be hours before we would know what was going on in their tiny little bodies," Kelly said.

The girls survived and thrived, thanks in part to medical technology supported by the WalkAmerica campaign, Kelly said. Swaddled in matching pink outfits, they joined their mother for the breakfast.

Registration for the walk begins at 8 a.m. at Starr Park on Forest Parkway and the walk begins at 9 a.m. The 3?-mile course goes through the neighborhoods near the park and there will be music, entertainment and refreshments available at the park after the walk.

Each year the walk raises more than $250,000 and the local sponsors are Kaiser Permanente, Fresh Express, Southern Regional Health System, the News Daily, Clayton County Tobacco Reduction Alliance and the 17th Division Kiwanis Club.

Team and individual registration information for WalkAmerica is available online at walkamerica.org or by calling 1-800-525-WALK.