From Micro-Preemie to ‘Super Sam’: One Boy’s Incredible Odyssey
Dec 7, 2021
Sutter Health
Boy standing next to sign

By Clayton Warren and Monique Binkley Smith, Vitals contributors

Sam Harris spent the first three months of his life in a Bay Area neonatal intensive care unit undergoing surgery and treatment for one medical challenge after another. Born 16 weeks early at 24 weeks (a typical pregnancy lasts 40 weeks), Sam was a micro-preemie who weighed just 1 pound, 12 ounces.

But together with their medical team, Sam and his mother persevered. Fast-forward 11 years, and “Super Sam,” as his mother Melissa Harris calls him, is now a healthy 4 feet, 10 inches tall and 103 pounds.

Sam and his mother recently returned to Sutter’s Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley, where Sam spent the first 95 days of his life, to thank the staff who cared for him.

“Sam is bilingual, funny, caring, smart and quite musical. He loves F1 racing, all his pets, but especially his grandfather’s dog Vinny. He is a total book nerd and he loves to help cook,” his mother says. “Bringing Sam back to the NICU was really important. He wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the Alta Bates Summit Labor and Delivery and NICU nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists, social workers, and everyone who was responsible for caring for both of us. Having him come back at age 11 to say thank you is invaluable to me.”

As an infant in the Alta Bates Summit NICU, Sam had procedures to treat a heart problem and an eye condition—both of which are common for premature babies. To avoid moving Sam for these surgeries, his room was turned into a surgical suite and the surgical teams came to him.

Alta Bates Summit Medical Center staff gathered for a reunion with “Super Sam” Harris who had spent the first 95 days of his life in the hospital’s NICU

For his part, Sam couldn’t wait to meet the nurses and physicians who cared for him. The reunion proved an uplifting moment for mother and son, as well as the NICU team.

Watch video of the reunion here.

“It’s remarkable when families want to come back to the NICU and bring their growing child and we see the transformation from this micro-preemie to this eloquent, funny young man of 11 years old,” says Clinical Nurse Specialist Alison Brooks of the Alta Bates Summit NICU. “It means a lot to us and it gives us a sense of purpose that we are doing the right thing.”

Saying a Special Thank You to Nurse Laura

Harris developed a special bond with Laura Rutherford, who was Sam’s primary nurse for more than three months. Rutherford has been a registered nurse in the Alta Bates Summit NICU for more than 35 years, and she was extremely happy to reunite with the Harris family.

“It’s the greatest gift to see a small child like Sam flourish,” says Rutherford. “It takes a long time for these children to grow and be able to move on in their lives. Our NICU team is incredible. We all work together in harmony, and it means so much to me to reconnect with this family. This has been my life’s work and I’m so proud of what we do.”

Nowadays, you would never know by looking at Sam that he was a micro-preemie. He does need glasses to see the whiteboard at school and the TV when he is playing video games, and he is on the Autism spectrum –but nothing slows “Super Sam” down! He is healthy and has no need for medical specialists.

Mother’s Book About Experience Celebrates Sam and the Alta Bates Summit Staff

In addition to reuniting with the Alta Bates Summit NICU staff, Sam and Harris also came to celebrate the publishing of her book about their experience. In “One Pound, Twelve Ounces: A Preemie Mother’s Story of Loss, Hope, and Triumph,” Harris tells the story of her determination to give her micro-preemie a fighting chance, and the story of Sam’s remarkable battle to survive.

“Much of the book comes across as a love letter to the amazing staff in the Alta Bates Summit NICU,” says Harris. “Part of the reason I wrote the book was to help other people going through the NICU experience understand what they might be facing—and to give some hope that they can survive it.”

Said Brooks, the NICU clinical nurse specialist: “The fact that Melissa has written a book about her NICU experience at Alta Bates Summit and all her experiences makes it extraordinarily special.”

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