Premature births

Fifty years ago the nation and the world mourned together the loss of a baby boy born too soon and too small. His name was Patrick. Patrick was born five and a half weeks early and weighed four pounds, 10 ounces. His lungs were not ready and he suffered from respiratory distress syndrome (RDS), the most common illness in the newborn intensive care unit. Babies with RDS struggle to breathe because their immature lungs do not produce enough surfactant, a protein that keeps small air sacs in the lungs from collapsing.

Patrick died at just two days old.

Hundreds of thousands of babies were born premature in 1963. Why did the death of Patrick capture the world’s attention? He was the son of President John F. Kennedy and his wife First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy.

Patrick Kennedy’s death inspired many researchers and doctors to find a way to treat babies with underdeveloped lungs of premature babies. Two decades later, March of Dimes research grantee Dr. T. Allen Merritt of the University of California, San Diego Medical Center, developed surfactant therapy to treat the disorder that accounted for thousands of deaths each year. Surfactant therapy is now the standard care for preterm infants with RDS and has saved tens of thousands of lives. If Patrick Kennedy had been born today, he likely would have survived.

The March of Dimes is hard at work on the next breakthrough. The March of Dimes established two unique, collaborative, transdisciplinary research centers in the U.S. to learn more about the unknown causes of preterm birth and how to prevent it: one at Stanford University School of Medicine in 2011, and one involving three universities and five hospitals in Ohio in 2013.

How big is the problem? Nearly a half million babies are born too soon in the United States each year. In Minnesota, that’s nearly 7,000 babies who face the risk of life-long health consequences.

How can you help? This year, the March of Dimes is asking families and volunteers to send friends a “virtual hug” to show they care about premature babies. More information is available on the World Prematurity Day Facebook page at:

Nov. 17 is World Prematurity Day. Send a virtual hug for babies like Patrick and a special baby in your life.