Josie's Song

By Charlotte Bruce Harvey '78 / January / February 2002
July 1st, 2007

Coming to Term: A Father's Story of Birth, Loss, and Survival by William H. Woodwell Jr. '85 (University Press of Mississippi, 216 pages, $25).

In a routine checkup barely halfway through her pregnancy with twins, Kim Woodwell learned that her blood pressure was high and that she had protein in her urine, both signs of a potentially dangerous condition called preeclampsia. Her doctor ordered further tests, and within hours she was hooked up to an IV and given a shot of steroids to help mature her babies' lungs in case it became necessary to deliver them early. "Kim had just recently started to show," writes her husband, William H. Woodwell Jr., in Coming to Term. "How early a delivery were they talking about?"

Kim, it turned out, had a severe form of preeclampsia that threatened both her life and those of the twins. But although the only "cure" for her condition was to deliver the babies, she was just twenty-four weeks pregnant, and the local hospital couldn't handle infants whose gestation period was less than twenty-eight weeks. So by day's end Kim was raced in an ambulance from the Shenandoah Valley, where the couple lived, to the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville two hours east.

Two days later, Kim developed nosebleeds, which indicated that her platelet count was dropping precipitously. Doctors performed an emergency cesarean section, delivering two baby girls - sixteen weeks premature, they were the tiniest of preemies. The first, Nina, weighed just over a pound, or 500 grams; her little cap, Woodwell writes, floated on a head the size of a plum. Josie, born second, was a whopping 630 grams - lighter, her father observes, than a large drink at the 7-Eleven.

Coming to Term's hero turns out to be little Josie. Not only had she been wrenched into the world before her lungs could handle air and her skin was supple enough to sustain touch; by the time she was two days old, Josie had lost her twin, Nina, who'd died. Prevented from voicing her discomfort by the tube in her trachea, Josie does a remarkable job of communicating her needs by regularly setting off the alarms on the monitors attached to her tiny body. She is from the start a survivor.

Woodwell's book is a straightforward narrative of the medical and human trauma that he, his wife, and their two little girls experienced. In the course of telling that story, he also reveals, almost incidentally, his own growth from a young man fearful of parenthood and uncertain of his own utility on this planet, to a father awed by his tiny daughter's resourcefulness and will to live. That he tells this story plainly, without self-congratulation or self-pity, only adds to its appeal.


Charlotte Bruce Harvey is the BAM's managing editor.
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January / February 2002