CHAPEL HILL -- Rita Robbins displays a pink beribboned birth announcement on her mantel, announcing the birth of her twin granddaughters, Catherine Merle Kelly and Elizabeth Ann Kelly. All the vital statistics are there including height, weight and birth date: Aug. 8, 2007.
But this birth announcement has an additional line not usually seen in the traditional message of celebration -- death dates.
Catherine, who weighed 1 pound 4 ounces, lived only 10 days. Her sister, two ounces heavier, lived a month.
To honor the memory of her "girls," Robbins and her fiance, Arthur Coston, recently hosted the first family team corporate kick-off dinner on behalf of the state March of Dimes. Team Catherine and Elizabeth, N.C., will be a part of the organization's April 19 March for Babies at the Nortel campus in Research Triangle Park.
"I've never walked for anything before," Robbins said. "But I feel called to do something."
Robbins has dedicated 2008 to "giving each child nine months" by increasing public knowledge and raising money for research and prevention of premature births.
"Well-meaning people say we would have lost them anyway, but that's not true," she said. "We need to keep premature births from happening."
Robbins knows the statistics and rattles them off regularly. She knows that North Carolina has the fifth worst infant mortality rate of the 50 states. She also knows that pre-term births lead to 37 percent of infant deaths. Survivors often suffer from cerebral palsy, mental retardation, chronic lung disease and vision and hearing loss.
Research results, recently released by study leader Geeta Swamy of Duke University Medical Center, indicate that these babies also have higher death rates in childhood and are more likely to be childless in adulthood. The average lifetime cost to care for one premature baby can run as high as $500,000.
"And those numbers don't even begin to cover the immeasurable emotional costs to families," Robbins said.
Surprisingly, premature birth rates in the United States climbed steadily during the past two decades, affecting approximately one in eight births in 2006, according to government figures.
This isn't the first time Robbins has crusaded for a personal cause. A real estate agent and mother of four grown children, Robbins has been a single mother since her three girls and one boy were teenagers. When one of her daughters nearly died while battling an eating disorder, the mother fought back by founding a board that raised $1 million for research and education efforts.
Robbins, who tends to dress casually in soft colors that enhance large engaging eyes, can be very persuasive: "I've had donations of $10 and donations of $5,000," she said.
Among the attendees to the kick-off dinner was Mickey Jo Sorrell, who, like Robbins, knows about premature twins. Her grandson Sebastian and granddaughter Sophia were born on Sept. 2, 2007. Sophia is now thriving at 6 months and 15 lbs., but 26 days after his birth, Sebastian didn't wake up. His death was attributed to sudden infant death syndrome.
Sorrell knows what Robbins is going through as a grandmother, and she also wants answers. But she doesn't know whether she will be able to do the walk with Robbins on April 19: "It is so hard to watch your child suffer through the agony of losing their child. I still cry in the shower, I still go to work, and we are raising a baby. But I'm not sure I want to get over it. I don't want to forget (Sebastian)."
In 1996, Robbins suffered a severe brain injury when she slipped on ice at the airport. She sometimes seems to search for the right word to complete her thoughts and has trouble multitasking.
"But I can still get things done," she said.
No one who has met Robbins would bet against her. So far, Team Catherine and Elizabeth are the frontrunner in the southeast region of the March of Dimes for fundraising. The team hopes to raise $30,000 while Robbins has set her own personal goal at an additional $20,000.
Three weeks before the April 19 walk, she was already three-quarters of the way to that goal, and a representative for The March of Dimes has approached Robbins about implementing her model of family team fundraising into 25 additional states. Editor's note: This is Sharon Swanson's last regular Neighbors column for The Chapel Hill News as she begins focusing on a documentary film project. If you are interested in meeting and writing about interesting people in Orange and northern Chatham counties, contact editor Mark Schultz at 932-2003 or email@example.com.
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