February 26, 1996 12:00 PM

His body was fragile, but he was a fighter

Melissa Gilbert and Bruce Boxleitner had been married only three months in April 1995 when they discovered—to their delight—that Gilbert was pregnant. Though both had children from previous marriages (Gilbert a son, Dakota, 6, with playwright Bo Brinkman; Boxleitner two sons, Sam, 15, and Lee, 10, with former actress Kathryn Ogilvy), they wanted a family of their own. But the pregnancy proved exceptionally stressful.

One problem was their schedules. Gilbert, 31, the onetime child star of Little House on the Prairie, had to leave their San Fernando Valley home shortly after learning she was pregnant for a three-month shoot of the NBC miniseries Danielle Steel’s Zoya in St. Petersburg, Paris, London, New York and Montreal, Boxleitner, 45, joined her after he finished his first season on the syndicated Babylon 5, which had been shooting in Los Angeles.

But work wasn’t the only thing on their minds. In July, just after Zoya wrapped, a front-page story in the National Enquirer quoted Brinkman as saying that Gilbert was a “deadbeat mother” because she ignored her son. Gilbert immediately sued the tabloid, charging defamation, invasion of privacy and infliction of emotional stress; the case is still pending. In September, Gilbert and Brinkman settled a brief custody suit, agreeing to joint custody. In the midst of all this, Gilbert and Boxleitner eagerly awaited the birth of their son, due Christmas Eve.

They decided to name him Michael Garrett, after Little House star Michael Landon and Garrett Peckinpah, the son of their best friends Sandy and David Peckinpah, who died of meningitis two years ago at the age of 16. But at about 8 a.m. on Oct. 6, while Gilbert was lying in bed, half-asleep, she suddenly felt her water break. Nearly 11 hours later, their baby was born—about 12 weeks prematurely. He weighed only 3 pounds. Michael Garrett was dependent on a ventilator for four days, and he was fed through a tube. But on Nov. 15, he came home from the hospital a healthy and happy 4 lbs. 2 ozs. Here is Gilbert’s account, as told to correspondent Craig Tomashoff, of what she calls “the most frightening adventure I have ever been on.”

When my water broke, I called downstairs for Bruce and then I fell apart, crying and shaking. We phoned the doctor, who told us to come right over. I tried to convince myself it wasn’t a big deal. I kept apologizing to Bruce, saying, “I’m sure there’s nothing wrong. I’m sorry I’m causing so much trouble.”

When we got to the doctor’s office, a 15-minute drive away, they confirmed that my water had broken. I started crying again—uncontrollable, scared crying. Tears just flowed, getting into my ears so I couldn’t even hear the doctor. An ultrasound showed that Michael was about 3 pounds—big for 28 weeks. That was good news. Bruce drove me to Los Robles Regional Medical Center, where I was shaking so much a nurse had a hard time finding a vein for an IV. They gave me magnesium sulfate, which slows down labor.

I was put in a bed with my head lowered and my feet raised, and I was turned on my side to take stress off my uterus. The magnesium sulfate made me feel flushed and gave me a headache. I was told that if things went well, the baby could stay in me for up to a week. Staying like that for a week would be torture, but I was willing to do it if I had to. I had another ultrasound and was put on a fetal monitor.

Bruce was in the room with me. So was my mother and my best friend Sandy, along with my labor coach and midwife, Sage Parker. Eventually I sent Bruce home. I felt it would do him some good to take a shower and go for a run because he might be up all night. Sandy insisted that I put on some makeup because later, when I looked at photos of the event, it would be hard enough to see me in labor—let alone in labor without makeup.

About lunchtime, the doctors said they might deliver the baby that afternoon. I was not in labor, but the doctors said I might be facing my second C-section because I was losing amniotic fluid and the baby’s heart rate was dropping. Dr. Paul Hinkes, head of the neonatal intensive care unit, came to tell me the baby probably wouldn’t be able to breathe, because his lungs would be underdeveloped, so they’d have to hook him up to a ventilator. He said the baby might have such problems as a heart defect or cerebral hemorrhaging, but there was a pretty good chance he would be okay because he was big. All I heard was that the chances were he would be okay. I didn’t realize how serious the situation was until I asked if I could hold the baby after he was born and was told no. They had to get him to intensive care immediately.

At about 4 p.m., the doctors and I decided to go ahead. I called Bruce, and he rushed back. I called his ex-wife so she could tell his sons. I tried to reach Bo so he could tell Dakota.

As soon as I saw Bruce, I started shaking. We held each other, and repeated over and over, “Everything is going to be okay. This baby will make it.” Bruce went off to get into surgical scrubs; I was wheeled into the operating room with my mom on one side and Sandy on the other. I was wide awake for the surgery, and Bruce never let go of my hand or stopped stroking my forehead. He kept telling me he loved me. I could hear the usual medical talk—”Give me this instrument, give me that”—and then somebody said, “There’s his hand.” The room got really quiet and the doctors started whispering. It seemed like it took forever for the whispering to stop. When it did, someone said, “We have the baby.” We later learned that they were whispering because they had trouble getting the baby out.

When Michael was finally born, at 6:42 p.m., there was an immediate flurry of activity across the room. I saw all these people over there, and a tiny blue foot sticking out. I kept waiting for that foot to turn pink, because I knew that meant he was breathing. After a couple of minutes, the blue turned to pink. Then I heard him cry, and everybody hollered.

“How is he?” I asked. Bruce said, “He’s beautiful.” They put a ventilator tube in his throat and brought him to me. He looked like a little bird that had fallen out of a nest. He was this skinny, scrawny little thing, but he was perfect. I couldn’t stop looking at him. Then they took him away.

I was finally able to relax a bit, but that night I couldn’t sleep. The nurse, Linda Robertson, brought me Polaroids of Michael. When I saw how pink he was, I knew things would be okay. Two years ago, Bruce and I grieved with Sandy and David when Garrett died. I knew God would not let us lose another Garrett.

I watched the clock. When it was early morning on the East Coast, I started calling friends and relatives there. I knew this was going to end up in the papers, so I wanted everyone to hear it from me first. (After all, my emergency appendectomy 10 years ago ended up on the nightly news. I think my internal organs actually get higher ratings than my face.)

After a breakfast of raspberry Jell-O, I was finally led into the neonatal intensive care unit. Michael was very, very tiny. He had a tube in his belly button, IVs in his ankle and hand, and the ventilator. There were bells and buzzers all over.

I reached down and touched his tiny hand, and he opened one eye and peeked at me. That’s how he got his nickname, the Peeker. I checked out his parts: his legs, his hands, his feet. His ears were amazing because they had no cartilage; they were like paper.

Two days later, at 9 p.m. on Oct. 8, I held him for the first time. He was wrapped in the bed pad and attached to all the tubes and wires, but I held him anyway. He did his one-eye peek. The next day, he had his first breath off the ventilator. Every step after that was a milestone. A head ultrasound showed he had no cranial damage. There were no heart problems. We were hopeful.

I went home from the hospital on Oct. 10.1 had to rest, but I didn’t want to be far from Michael. What if there was an earthquake? What if something went wrong? Every morning I would pump breast milk, be at the hospital by noon, come home around 3 p.m., pump milk again, go back to the hospital at 8 p.m., get homely 11 and pump one more time before bed.

By Oct. 15,1 thought Michael was progressing nicely. He was still being fed intravenously, but he was gaining weight. However, when I arrived at the hospital, I learned that the doctors had to put him on something called the CPAP, a special ventilator machine, because he had been breathing so hard the night before. I said, “Okay, just let me see him.” He had two-inch prongs up his nose, and a cloth diaper held his head in place so he would not pull out the prongs. He was foaming at the mouth, a side effect of the CPAP. He looked so miserable, I fell apart. I started weeping and couldn’t catch my breath. I wiped off Michael’s mouth and thought, “I have to get out of here.” At that moment, a nurse came in with a card from a patient saying how she loved Michael Landon and wished our Michael would be okay. That was it. I had to go.

I got home and went to bed. Bruce came in and I was hysterical. I couldn’t speak. I kept thinking, “What did I do wrong? This is my fault. This is Bruce’s fault. This is God’s fault. This is the National Enquirer’s fault. Somebody is going to pay for this.” I couldn’t snap out of it. I tried watching every comedy video I had—This Is Spinal Tap, Blazing Saddles. I had some fried chicken, a glass of wine. Nothing worked.

I went to the hospital that night and felt okay when I was with Michael. But after I left, I started crying again. I grieved because I missed having a normal, healthy baby. I grieved for what Michael was going through. Birth was supposed to be kisses and hugs. Instead it was tubes and wires and my son sprawled out like a frog.

On Oct. 17, Michael had his first feeding of breast milk through a tube in his nose because he couldn’t suck. On Oct. 23, he had a bottle. After that, he really started doing things early, like sucking on a pacifier and smiling. I told everybody it was because he was a neurotic overachiever like me.

Finally, we reached the point where he was more or less what they call a feeder-grower. All the tubes were gone, and he was in an open crib. I wanted him home. The intensive care unit is one big room, with little privacy. He had been there seven weeks. We were grateful to the nurses and doctors who gave us a miracle. But it was time for us to take over.

On Nov. 15, the doctor called and said Michael could come home. I was so happy, I screamed. We rushed to the hospital and they handed us our baby.

The most amazing thing was seeing him outside. We put him in the car seat, which he wasn’t even big enough to fill, and drove home. He was ours.

Since then, he has been growing at a tremendous rate. He is already 13 pounds. None of the doctors can find a cause for Michael’s early delivery, other than the emotional stress I was under at the time.

Doctors say Michael may be a couple of months behind developmentally. The way we look at it, we’re blessed because we get to have him as a baby longer. We think this is our last baby, though. His birth took a lot out of us, physically and emotionally. We don’t take anything for granted anymore. We just wish the people we’ve lost—his namesakes, Michael Landon and Garrett Peckinpah, and my father, Paul Gilbert—could be here with him.

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