Looking at the happy, energetic Nelson-Sansone triplets today, one never would know they each weighed less than 3 pounds when they were born.
But Gabriella, Zachary and Jacob only were 24-weeks-old when they arrived at University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore on May 18, 2006.
To educate others about infant prematurity and share their story, the New Market family is serving as this year's ambassador family for the Western Maryland division of the March of Dimes, a nationwide nonprofit that supports neonatal research and enables mothers to carry their children to full term.
More than 500 people already have registered for the division's annual 5K March for Babies, which the family will lead. The organization is hoping to raise about $140,000 from the walk, which begins at 10 a.m. Sunday at Baker Park in Frederick. Proceeds collected help to fund neonatal research, advocacy efforts and education.
"We felt honored to [be the Ambassador family]," said Victoria Sansone, mother of the triplets and their older sister Alexa. "I want mothers to know that they can be optimistic if their baby is born premature. I don't want to scare them with our story, because our story is unusual, but I want them to know that things can happen."
After being diagnosed with a life-threatening complication of pre-eclampsia, Sansone, now a substitute teacher, and her husband, Kenneth Nelson Jr., watched as their newborns suffered through some of the resulting effects of their prematurity.
The triplets suffered multiple infections and respiratory issues, and the smallest baby, Jacob, pulled through several severe complications, including a lung infection and Necrotizing enterocolitis — a common condition in preemies in which some of the intestinal tissue dies.
Doctors had to remove 8 inches of the infantís intestine, leaving the rest outside of his body for more than a month while he healed.
"Talk about having a lot of faith that people are going to be doing the right thing to this little 12-inch body," Sansone said. "It was all kind of surreal. I never thought that my babies wouldn't survive, I never thought that they wouldn't make it. It was very stressful but you know what I just did it, I felt like these are my babies and they need me."
It was seven months before all three of the babies returned to their New Market home, in part because of research efforts of the nonprofit, according Nancy Wiley, March of Dimes western division spokesperson.
"Much of the treatments the triplets got were a result of March of Dimes research," she said.
In 2009, more than 12 percent of births across the country were premature, according to the National Center of Health Statistics — many with debilitating or fatal birth defects.
"About 60 percent of our walkers in Frederick County are directly affected by infant prematurity," Wiley said of Sundayís event.
Sansone said her triplets, who will turn 6 in May, will have long-term respiratory issues and some minor developmental delays. But overall they are fine.
"You look at them today and you'd never know that they were preemies," she said. "[Jacob] is adorable and sweet. He's going to be an amazing normal kid. We are just blessed."
Sansone said bringing awareness to infant prematurity and the March of Dimes mission is her way of giving back.
"Being in the multiples club, I've heard some sad stories," she said. "I feel sometimes a little guilty hearing that, but I try to be there as a support person for other moms."