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Beating the odds: A premature baby’s journey to kindergarten

Brielle Karppinen weighed less than 2 pounds when she was born and spent three months in the NICU. Today, her mother tries to help other parents struggling through the same ordeal.

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Brielle Karppinen is ready for the first day of kindergarten. Her mom, Jean, is overjoyed this day as come after Brielle was born premature and fought for her life in the neonatal intensive care unit for three months. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Back in 2014, Jean Karppinen wasn’t sure this day would come.

But after 90 days in the neonatal intensive care unit and weeks of being told her baby wouldn’t make it through the night, Karppinen’s now 5-year-old daughter Brielle is starting kindergarten.

“She’s just a little bit tiny, and she’s got a few lung issues, but she’s doing amazing,” Karppinen said Friday, Sept. 4, as Brielle sported her backpack and outfit planned for the first day of school Sept. 8.

Brielle weighed just 1 pound, 9.8 ounces when she was born Dec. 13, 2014. She was due the following April.

After battling gynecological issues for much of her life, including blood clots in the uterus, Karppinen should not have been able to get pregnant in the first place. Her pregnancy was the first miracle. Brielle’s successful fight for life was the second.

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Born at 24 weeks and three days, Brielle had not fully developed her lungs and experienced severe bleeding for about a month. She had a hole in her heart and clumps of veins outside her skull. She couldn’t be on a breathing machine, leading the doctors to believe she wouldn’t make it very long. But the tiny little baby fought for her life and made it home after three months.

“That was also miraculous because they told me to expect her to be up there until almost her first birthday because of her lungs and how bad her lungs and her breathing was,” Karppinen said. “Once she had her little turnaround moment, she just did amazing. So that was awesome.”

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Jean Karppinen and her 5-year-old daughter Brielle are prepared for the first day of kindergarten at Pillager Elementary School. After Brielle was born premature, Jean is grateful her daughter is still here to experience her first day of school. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

At her first eye appointment, doctors told Karppinen Brielle would likely be blind and deaf. Because of how many times Brielle coded, or went into cardiopulmonary arrest, at the hospital, doctors also said the lack of oxygen to the brain could leave her with a learning disability.

“But she’s been doing awesome so far,” Karppinen said.

Today, Brielle has severe scarring in her lungs and lives with chronic lung disease, which means she has a hard time breathing after strenuous exercise. Other than that, though, she’s a typical little girl. She’ll even tell you she’s got eagle eyes.

But her daughter’s health conditions still weighed heavily on Karppinen’s mind when it came to Brielle’s schooling this year, given the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The decision: she will attend in-person classes at Pillager Elementary School.

Other parents have questioned her decision, Karppinen said, but she truly believes it’s best for her daughter, especially because she’s an only child.

“I really think, especially kindergarten, they need interaction with others to actually learn valuable social skills and sharing and all of it,” she said.

While raising Brielle, Karppinen has learned she can’t let the disease rule.

“For the longest time I didn’t let her play at playgrounds, and she was begging to play at playgrounds. Well, now we just put hand sanitizer on, play at the playground and wash when you get home,” she said. “But I can’t just have her not doing anything.”

Sports might not be in Brielle’s future, but that’s not a pressing concern right now.

Little Brielle is just excited about getting to ride the bus to school and said she is looking forward to art class.

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Brielle Karppinen sports her "Class of 2033" shirt ahead of her first day of kindergarten. Karppinen was born premature in 2014, and her parents weren't sure if this day would come. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Paying it forward

Looking at Brielle today, her past health struggles are not evident. But they certainly were when Karppinen and her husband Jason watched their tiny daughter battle the odds in the NICU for three months. That experience sparked a desire in Karppinen to help other parents going through the same struggle.

Several times a year she makes the trip down to St. Cloud to give snacks, encouraging notes and other helpful items to parents bound to the NICU by their premature babies. As a certified massage therapist, Karppinen will sometimes offer free massages to mothers to help alleviate some stress.

“Also, in this area, I have somehow become like an advocate or something for this,” she said. “And when anyone knows a cousin or a friend of a friend or something that ends up having a premature baby, they call me.”

She also communicates with other moms through Facebook groups and shares her story, spreading her belief in miracles and encouraging them not to give up when things get tough.

When Karppinen’s water broke at just 22 weeks, she was told she would go into labor within 24-48 hours and her baby would not survive. But she forewent the doctors’ suggestions to terminate her pregnancy, and somehow she made it 17 days before Brielle was ready to be born.

“There’s a lot of people who want to give up — like when their waters break, they just want to terminate,” Karppinen said of the women she meets in Facebook groups. “And I’m always on there messaging saying, ‘Don’t, there’s still a heartbeat.’

“Even though every doctor was telling me to terminate … don’t always just listen because nothing’s 100%. Nothing is.”

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Karppinen still keeps in contact with some of the NICU nurses from Brielle’s time in the hospital, too, as well as some of the parents who were there alongside her.

“It’s quite an ordeal to go through with people,” she said. “It’s kind of like you were soldiers in a war, honestly. And I think a lot of people do get PTSD from it. It’s a hard situation when they’re telling you that you’re child’s not going to make it through the day or the night constantly every day.”

The experience sticks in her mind this month especially, as September is NICU Awareness Month. Though COVID-19 restrictions mean she can’t visit the NICU in person as she would like, Karppinen still wants to help. She encourages any NICU parents out there who need any kind of support to reach out to her on Facebook.

And with school starting back up during a global pandemic, causing more obstacles for parents everywhere, Karppinen has another message to share: “Whatever choice any parent out there is making, is the right choice for you and your family, and I just wish that everyone would be kind to each other because we’re all trying to do what is best for our child, honestly.”

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa .

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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