Grant Smithson, a Pre/K student at Lourdes Catholic School, Bettendorf is this year’s March of Dimes Ambassador. Larry Fisher

Grant Spencer Smithson arrived in the world nine weeks early, which made the next three months an emotional roller coaster for his parents, Linda and Jeff Smithson of Bettendorf, as their only child fought for his life amid the many challenges facing a premature baby.

Annually in the United States, more than 500,000 children, or 1 in 8, are born at least three weeks too early. Premature birth is the leading cause of death among newborns, and it poses serious health risks for those who survive, including intellectual disabilities, vision and hearing loss, and cerebral palsy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The March of Dimes is the nation's top nonprofit organization devoted to both premature births and healthy babies. The group's main fundraiser is the March for Babies, and the Quad-City event is set for April 25 in Bettendorf.

"Once Grant was out of the woods, I decided to volunteer for March of Dimes," said Linda Smithson, who teaches in the Davenport School District.

This year, the Smithsons are the 2009 March for Babies Quad-Cities Ambassador Family. "We invite all families to join with us and walk to help all babies be born healthy," she added.

Trying times

Linda tried to do "everything right" during pregnancy and was shocked to learn that she had developed a rare condition called vasa previa, which involves the umbilical cord and threatened the survival of the fetus. Despite the best efforts by the Smithsons and their doctors to delay his birth, Grant arrived Sept. 12, 2004, in Davenport, about nine weeks before he should have. He would not actually arrive home until Oct. 23.

One doctor thought Grant might have a brain disorder called hydrocephalus, so the little fellow was airlifted to University Hospitals in Iowa City. Doctors there eventually ruled out that problem, but the baby spent several weeks in neonatal intensive care 60 miles from home. He was transferred back to Genesis Medical Center in Davenport to complete his treatment.

It was a crazy time for the Smithsons, especially Jeff. Both of his parents were in poor health at the time. His mother, who lived in New Mexico, died right after Ambassadir

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Grant was born. His father, who lived in Georgia, suffered a massive heart attack and was diagnosed with cancer before dying a year later.

Further, Jeff worked in Geneseo, Ill., at the time, so he spent the weeks constantly on the road between Geneseo, Davenport and Iowa City, piling up hundreds of miles on the family vehicle.

"Nothing really prepares you for this," Linda said. The neonatal intensive-care unit, for example, is full of babies hooked up to medical equipment, and it hit the Smithsons hard to see Grant among them.

All better now

The couple went through months of turmoil before the situation stabilized. Grant was 4 pounds, 2 ounces at birth and remained undersized until he was about 18 months old. His parents found themselves endlessly explaining to others why their child appeared so small.

Grant "dodged a bullet" when his brain was found to be healthy, his dad said, but the boy was diagnosed with respiratory distress syndrome, which occurs when the lungs are not fully formed. That made him susceptible to respiratory viruses. At 14 months, for example, he developed pneumonia after contracting a respiratory syncytial virus.

But he has been pretty healthy since reaching the 18-month milestone and is now in the preschool program at Lourdes Catholic School in Bettendorf.

"We just feel extremely lucky," Jeff said. "You'd just never know, now, that he had any problems. He's caught up in just about every way."

The youngster will be an active participant at the March for Babies event, which will include a number of games, face-painting and other activities for kids. "He's really looking forward to it. He wants to lead the march," Linda said.