HUDSON VALLEY, NEW YORK (The Journal News) - Michael Santoliquido still tears up when he talks about his baby girl, Gabriella, having to spend the first 41/2 months of her life inside an intensive care unit for newborns.
She was born 16 weeks early and, at 1 pound and 4 ounces, was smaller than her mother’s hand.
“Gabriella was given such a small chance of survival,” her dad said. “But now we have a thriving, young child. We felt we had to share our story.”
The Santoliquidos served Sunday morning as the “ambassador family” for the March of Dimes’ annual March for Babies, which drew more than 4,000 people to the starting line at Saxon Woods Park. Santoliquido and his wife, Isadora, were there with Gabriella, now 8 years old, her sister, Samantha, 7, and their little brother, Michael Jr., 2.
They were happy to tell their story to anyone who would listen. Samantha and Michael Jr. were also born somewhat premature, but both pregnancies were watched closely by doctors who had benefited from the March of Dimes’ research over seven decades.
“We wanted to share a good outcome,” Isadora Santoliquido said. “They couldn’t tell me exactly why I had Gabriella so early. But then we were much better prepared.”
Lots of families with stories to tell — many wearing matching T-shirts with the name of a child who was born early — came out to take part in the 5-mile walk, a signature event for the March of Dimes. The organization, which was founded by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1938 to combat polio, has its headquarters in White Plains.
Everyone looked to be in great spirits, in part due to the perfect midspring weather. The event’s master of ceremonies, Mary Calvi of WCBS News, introduced the Santoliquidos. Gabriella took her microphone and yelled out a big “Hi!,” which was met with sustained applause.
Martin Ball, chair of the walk and a vice president at Customers Bank, said that people often mistakenly believe that the March of Dimes focuses only on premature babies or babies born with birth defects.
“So much research done on the front end affects full-term babies,” he said. “The March of Dimes really affects every baby born.”
The research done to date could not save Gabriel Dante Abanto, who was born at only 22 weeks and 5 days on Sept. 19. He lived for only 70 minutes. But his mother, Jeremy Abanto of Port Chester, came to the march with a crowd of family and friends to remember Gabriel’s short life and to bring attention to the need for continued research on premature births. Abanto said that she had a weakened cervix and a mild infection in her placenta.
“These are things that you can’t explain,” she said. “My son was a fighter. He lived for 70 minutes. I miss him every day, every minute. I wanted to do something in his name. It makes me feel good to be here, to do something positive.”