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NEWNAN, Ga. -- Newnan residents Justin and Cati Rhodeswere March of Dimes Ambassadors for the Coweta County March for Babies walk on Saturday, May 11 at Carl Miller Park.

Parents to twin boys Cole and Tripp, the Rhodes never imagined the hardships that would follow upon delivering their first-born babies eight weeks early.

"I never totally grasped or understood the severity of premature babies," Justin Rhodes said. "When you see your children hooked up to what seems like millions of wires and breathing machines and sensors, you realize you don't know what's going to happen. It was the scariest time of my life."

Cati Rhodes had a healthy pregnancy up until her water broke at 32 weeks. Upon rushing to Piedmont Newnan Hospital, she was examined by Dr. Robert Whipple, IV, attending pediatrician. Dr. Whipple decided it was in the twins' and Cati's best interest to deliver at Piedmont Newnan Hospital, where there was a Level II NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) designed to care for premature and critically ill newborns.

According to the March of Dimes, babies born just a few weeks early are at risk of severe health problems and lifelong disabilities. Premature birth is the number one killer of newborns. With more than 4 million live births annually, the United States has one of the highest birth rates amongst industrialized countries in the world. It also, unfortunately, has a disproportionately high prematurity rate.

"Babies aren't fully developed until at least 39 weeks in the womb," Dr. Whipple, Piedmont Newnan said. "Important development of brain, lungs and eyes occurs in the last few weeks of pregnancy. If your pregnancy is healthy, mothers should wait for labor to begin on its own. Unfortunately, in the case of the Rhodes', they didn't have that choice."

Once the Rhodes' twins were born, they were rushed to the NICU at Piedmont Newnan Hospital where they could be constantly monitored by highly-trained neonatal nurses. Weighing less than five pounds, the twins were expected to remain in the hospital for about four weeks.

"We didn't know what to expect," Rhodes said. "The doctors and nurses were great about keeping us informed, but it seemed each day they would tell us the boys experienced another setback. The babies' lungs continued to collapse as they were fighting respiratory problems. Lungs are the last organ to develop during pregnancy, so the boys' hadn't had time to develop yet."

Four days after the twins were born, a call came in from Dr. Whipple saying Tripp had quit breathing. As a Level II NICU, Piedmont Newnan is only able to keep a newborn on a ventilator for 24 hours. Dr. Whipple told the Rhodes it was time to transfer the twins to the Level III NICU at a neighboring hospital, where they could receive specialized care. It wasn't until four and a half weeks later that the twins were released.

"We couldn't have asked for any better care of our family at both hospitals," Rhodes said. "My boys and my wife received excellent care at both facilities and we now have healthy nine-and-a-half month boys."

Recently, March of Dimes asked the Rhodes family to become ambassadors to share their story to inspire others and raise awareness about the importance of healthy full-term pregnancies and the support available for those who are unable to deliver full-term.

"We didn't want our story to end the day we left the hospital," Rhodes said. "We want to do whatever we can to help those families who have to go through what we experienced."

Piedmont Newnan Hospital is an official sponsor of the Coweta March for Babies. Since 1970, the March for Babies walk has raised more than $2.6 billion to benefit babies. The money raised supports programs in Coweta that help moms have healthy, full-term pregnancies in addition to funding research to find answers to the problems that threaten babies.

Amanda Bartlett, Media Relations Coordinator for Piedmont Healthcare contributed to this report.

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