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17th November 2015

The ‘preemie’ that beat the odds

Lucille Horn’s parents were told to plan their baby girl’s funeral – that ‘baby’ is now 95!

In the early 20th century, preterm babies – or ‘preemies’ – rarely survived. In fact, most doctors thought it was pointless to try because the chances of success were low and babies born before 37 weeks were considered weaklings.

Tell that to Lucille. At 95 years of age, she has raised five children and lived a full and active life.

Born prematurely in Brooklyn in 1920, Lucille benefited from a dramatic leap forward in medical technology: the neonatal incubator. When her twin sister died shortly after birth, doctors advised their parents that Lucille would not survive the day: they were to prepare for a double funeral.

Lucille’s father refused to accept this and took her to a pioneering doctor who had been promoting incubators across the United States.

“He said: ‘Well that’s impossible; she’s alive now. We have to do something for her,'” Lucille told the Associated Press. “My father wrapped me in a towel and took me in a cab to the incubator.”

A history of saving lives

The history of the incubator begins in Europe. It was first seen at the Berlin Expo in 1896 but it was decades before its full potential was embraced by hospitals. Now, no hospital would be without one (or, more likely, several of them!).

The principle behind the incubator is simple – even if the technology has advanced to develop increasingly sophisticated versions of the original idea.

Babies born before 37 weeks can have difficulty staying warm; they struggle to regulate their own temperature. Keeping them in an incubator keeps them warm, regulates their humidity and reduces the risk of infection.

The man that Lucille’s father rushed to with his sick preemie was Dr Martin Couney, a maverick physician with a passion for incubators that bordered on fanatical. Born in Germany and trained in France, his methods of promoting the technology were, to say the least, unorthodox.

Dr Couney displayed incubators alongside freak shows and burlesque performers at sideshows and expos across the US. He would even demonstrate their value by including live new-born babies in his ‘show’. It was at best bizarre and, at worst, unethical.

Nonetheless, his advocacy eventually helped spread acceptance of the technology and the rest is history. It is estimated that Dr Couney saved around 8,000 lives directly but the total impact of neonatal incubators is running into the millions.

Constant reinvention

Incubators have changed attitudes to preterm birth. Around 8% of babies are born before 37 weeks but, today, being a few weeks early is not the disaster it was 100 years ago. Even babies born at 24 weeks have a 50% chance of survival.

Of course, the glass case that saved Lucille’s life would look rather rudimentary in a modern maternity hospital. Not only do today’s incubators keep babies warm, they can facilitate monitoring and nutrition. Plus, most have hand-sized holes which allow skin-to-skin contact between parents and babies – known to be of emotional and medical benefit.

Incubators, along with other life-saving medtech found in neonatal wards, have benefited from wave after wave of reinvention and refinement – helping to save lives that were once viewed as a ‘lost cause’. As 95-year-old Lucille – and her children and grandchildren – can testify, this defeatist attitude met its match in modern medtech.