COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Thanksgiving 1994 was supposed to be a cozy one for the Rulands.
Hether Ruland envisioned a turkey dinner and plenty of time with the couple’s newborn daughter on what was to be the family’s first holiday together.
Instead, the Rulands spent the day apart. Hether ate a turkey-and-gravy TV dinner alone at the family’s apartment at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Her husband was away for duty in Italy. Their prematurely born daughter Autumn was in a neonatal intensive care unit.
“I remember going home on Thanksgiving to an empty apartment and just feeling alone,” Hether said. “It was a feeling that had such a weight on me. I will never, never forget it.
“I did not want anybody to ever experience that.”
If she has her way, no military family in Colorado Springs will.
Hether and her husband, Peterson Air Force Base Air Force Master Sgt. Dustin Ruland, are working to launch a local support group for military families of preemies.
“I just want a place where preemie families can experience togetherness, bonding and hope — a place to energize them,” said Hether, who has parented children on both ends of the prematurity spectrum.
The Rulands’ first child, Autumn, weighed 1 pound, 13 ounces when she was born at 26 weeks.
“She was so early that her eyes were still fused shut,” Hether said. “She still had downy hair on her. You could see some of her organs through her skin.”
Autumn spent most of her first year of life hospitalized and endured two major surgeries before the age of 2: one to install a feeding tube and another to repair a hole in her heart.
It took years of physical, occupational and speech therapy for Autumn to fully catch up with her peers.
The Rulands’ second child, Mason, weighed 6 pounds, 8 ounces when he was born at 35 weeks of gestation.Considered a relatively late preemie, Mason’s NICU stay lasted only a week.
“When he came out of my womb and I could actually hear him cry and breathe, I wept,” Hether said. “With Autumn, she was gasping for air.”Mason has required less therapy than Autumn. Still, he walked later than her despite being born at a much later gestational age, a development that surprised the Rulands.
Each premature child has his own set of hurdles like medical conditions and delayed development that can create stress for a family, Hether said.
When you mix in military challenges like deployments and moves, the combined stress can either make or break a family.
“When there’s a new duty location, the reestablishment of relationships with pediatricians and therapists” can be tough, she said. “And the stress of a deployment takes a toll on a spouse who is left with extra responsibility. It also makes the active duty member tend to feel guilty.”
The Rulands have yet to settle on a time and meeting place for their support group, dubbed Preemie Like Me, which they began discussing via Skype when Dusty was deployed to Asia earlier this year. But they’re sure of the group’s goal: to infuse hope into the lives of military preemie parents through encouragement, resource referral and living proof. The couple plans to bring their children, now 18 and 15, to meetings.
Mason hopes to join the Marines and become a combat medic. Autumn will graduate high school this spring and hopes to study English abroad.
“Autumn is a walking miracle,” Hether said. “She’s a tangible picture of hope. You’d never be able to tell that Autumn was born at 26 weeks.”