Micro-Preemie Who Survived High-Risk Birth Is Now a Healthy High School Senior: She's 'a Fighter'

Doctors gave Courtney Jackson just a 50 percent chance of survival when she was born at just 23 weeks in 2001

Photo: Courtesy Jackson Family

Courtney Jackson was born at only 23 weeks in 2001, weighing just over a pound with only about eight teaspoons of blood in her body. Doctors gave her a 50 percent chance of survival.

Now, Courtney is a healthy high school senior preparing to graduate in May.

“It came down to Courtney’s will to survive and the blessings of God that she made it through,” Courtney’s father, Chris Jackson, of Bloomfield, Iowa, tells PEOPLE. “When she was born, she was one of the 10 smallest babies at the time to ever have survived there.”

Courtney was born a micro-preemie — the smallest of all premature babies — at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. Babies delivered so early are often born with skin fragile to the touch, trouble breathing, and underdeveloped eyelids.

Those who survive such premature births often suffer long-term health issues including intellectual disabilities, hearing loss, blindness, cerebral palsy and even chronic lung disease.

Courtney Jackson. Courtesy Jackson Family

Courtney’s mother, Jennifer, suffered eclampsia and had four seizures just days before Courtney’s birth. She was rushed to the hospital where she was induced and gave birth on June 19. To the parents’ relief, Courtney survived the birth and the baby spent five months in the hospital.

“She’s been a fighter since the beginning. The doctors at that time didn’t even really know what to expect. Then we really started to see her grow and she began to eat better and gain weight and maintain her temperature. Then you got excited to think, ‘We’re actually going to get to take her home!’ ”

RELATED STORY: Identical Micro-Preemie Twin Girls Among Youngest Babies to Be Born at Iowa Hospital

She required oxygen tanks for the first year of her life outside the hospital. Much to everyone’s surprise, Courtney continued to beat the odds over the years. Today, Courtney is a “normal teenager” who enjoys playing the flute and piccolo, Chris says.

Courtney Jackson (center) with parents Jennifer (left) and Chris. Courtesy Jackson Family

“She has no complications from her prematurity. To look back to when she started to now, it’s just amazing,” the father of four says. “We look back and we know that God blessed us with her. She’s here for a reason.”

As for Courtney, she says it’s “pretty cool” to see her story told in news articles over the years.

“It’s something that’s unique about me,” Courtney tells PEOPLE. “We’re just thankful that I’m here.”

Nearly two decades after Courtney’s birth, another family is going through a similar situation to the Jacksons’ ordeal. Last year, sisters Keeley James and Kambry Lee Ewoldt were born 18 weeks early, at just 22 weeks and one day gestation on Nov. 24 — placing them among the youngest surviving premature babies born at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, according to the Associated Press.

Jackson family. Courtesy Jackson Family

The girls remain hospitalized but are steadily gaining weight, a hospital spokeswoman previously told PEOPLE.

“I can understand what those parents are going through. Everything they’re going through, we’ve gone through those emotions,” Chris tells PEOPLE. “It’s always a good thing to hear these success stories. Normally you hear about the success stories, but you don’t hear about the kids who didn’t make it. It makes us feel blessed that we were able to get through in the way that we were.”

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