IDAHO FALLS — He was the smallest baby his parents had ever seen.
Less than 11 inches long and weighing 435 grams — a little more than a can of soda — Kaio Abel Doxey entered the world 16 weeks before he was supposed to.
His eyes were sealed shut. His skin was red and shiny. His mother says he looked more like an alien than an infant.
Yet as tiny as baby Kaio was when he arrived, his will to live has been bigger than just about anything you can imagine.
Kaio was supposed to be born Oct. 27 and his parents, Kaio and Jessica Doxey, along with his 2-year-old sister, Stella, were thrilled to welcome a boy into the family.
But at the beginning of July, Jessica felt sick.
“I felt really unwell. I was seeing spots. I had pre-eclampsia with my first, so I recognized some of the similar symptoms,” Jessica recalls.
Preeclampsia is a pregnancy complication that causes high blood pressure, kidney damage and other problems. It can be deadly and affects about 5 percent of pregnant women in the United States, according to the World Health Organization.
Jessica’s doctors were concerned and she was immediately admitted to Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center.
“They told me to stay pregnant as long as I can. He was really small and he was really close to not being able to make it,” Jessica says.
The 26-year-old mother received a variety of drugs to keep her and baby Kaio healthy, but nothing worked. Her organs were shutting down and on July 7, nearly four months before her original due date of Oct. 27, doctors said Kaio needed to be delivered immediately or they would both die.
“It was overwhelming. I could possibly lose my wife, I could possibly lose my son and getting all that together and being able to come to grips with what could possibly happen was difficult,” Kaio Sr. remembers.
At 24 weeks pregnant, Jessica was rushed in for an emergency C-section. Doctors told her not to hope for more than a stillbirth and around 11 a.m., the Doxeys’ son quietly arrived.
“He looked so skinny and non-babylike. It was really scary,” Jessica remembers.
Specialists began working on the tiny premie as other doctors treated Jessica.
Kaio Sr. prayed for his son.
“I saw him be passed through the window. He was put in his isolette and they started to resuscitate and get everything going,” Kaio Sr. says. “They get him in a stable place and Dr. Cheatham says, ‘Why don’t you come over and say hi.’ So I went over and got to hold his hand for a little bit.”
A photo taken at that moment shows that baby Kaio’s hand was the size of his father’s fingernail.
Dr. Wyc Cheatham was the neonatologist working at EIRMC the day Kaio was delivered. He was aware the boy’s father was watching the medical team as they tried to keep the baby alive.
“At that point in time, you could just see that he was desperate for any kind of interaction with his baby,” Cheatham says. “You try to be aware of that, and you also try to be focused on the baby’s needs. Everyone around understands that this is a significant event in not just the baby’s life but the family’s life too.”
The Doxeys were told that if baby Kaio could survive 72 hours, his chances of making it long term would increase dramatically.
“Kaio (Sr.) and I basically counted every hour for those first few days, and we felt every hour because it was really scary,” Jessica says.
Cheatham says premature babies often aren’t born with a lot of medical issues but the stress of fighting every day to survive can take a toll on their tiny bodies.
“The big concern in the babies born that early is they often have events or problems that lead to permanent disabilities – strokes and heart conditions and other things that can complicate the rest of their lives,” Cheatham says.
When he was a few days old, Kaio caught an infection that worried his parents and doctors. He was able to fight it off, and at day eight, his mother was finally able to hold him. A few days later, it was daddy’s turn.
“It was such a cool feeling to finally be able to hold our baby,” Jessica says. “They put him right on my chest, and he was just so small.”
Newborns 23 weeks and younger rarely survive, but nearly 90 percent of babies born after 24 weeks live, Cheatham says.
“I would say that we have half a dozen 24 weeks-and-under born every year (at EIRMC), and maybe one or two 23 weeks-and-under,” Dr. Cheatham says. “We’re the only hospital in eastern Idaho that does care for such a small baby.”
The Doxeys visit the hospital every day and sit with Kaio in his room at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. They’ve documented important milestones – putting on his first diaper, giving his first bath, watching him open his tiny eyes and hearing him cry for the first time.
“The nurse showed me the signs that he’s crying and that he’s feeling pain,” Jessica says. “It’s really hard to sit and see a baby in pain and not be able to comfort him.”
Jessica and Kaio Sr. says it’s helped to have a hospital close to home, and they’ve been impressed with the care they’ve received at EIRMC. They’re thankful they don’t have to travel to Salt Lake City or Boise for Kaio’s medical treatment.
“The nurses here have worked with so many small babies and micro-premies that they’re experienced,” Jessica says. “You can see the doctors’ care. When we’re here at 2 a.m., you see the doctor walking around at 2 a.m. too.”
Baby Kaio continues to show progress, even though he should still be inside his mother’s womb for another nine weeks.
If all goes as planned, he’ll be weaned off his machines and he’ll grow into a healthy baby boy who should be able to go home around Halloween.
“You need some kind of fight in you to keep going,” Kaio Sr. says. “I’ve never experienced anything close to what he’s experiencing, and I’m hoping he doesn’t have to remember this the rest of his life. There’s a lot of pain and suffering just to go through the effort of breathing and to not give up shows he’s a little fighter.”