Former NICU family finds lessons among the blessings

January 05, 2022 | by Kate Gawlik, RN

Pictured above: The Koz family joined neonatologists at a past Edward Hospital NICU reunion. Left to right: Tammy and Faith Koz, Dr. Rajeev Dixit, Dr. Mike Fitzgerald, Zoe Koz, Dr. Leslie Farolan, Dr. Bob Covert and Eric Koz.

If you can walk away from an experience with a lesson and a blessing, you are among the lucky ones.

Eighteen years ago, Tammy and Eric Koz became parents when Tammy delivered a 27-week baby named Zoe. Due to growth restrictions and complications with the pregnancy, Zoe weighed less than 23- or 24-week babies; she was only 308 grams (10.8 ounces).

This makes Zoe the smallest surviving baby in the long history of Edward Hospital’s Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU). At her birth, Zoe also ranked as the third-smallest surviving baby born in the United States and the ninth-smallest surviving born in the world. She spent 153 days in the NICU.

Tammy remembers, "For me, mentally it seems like a lifetime ago, but emotionally it feels like yesterday. What I take from our experience is this: Life is precious. God is good. Nurses are amazing. And what matters most in life is the way you treat others. Kindness and respect go way farther than being at the top of your class or the best athlete on your team. The way you treat others and make others feel will always be the most important thing in life."

These life lessons can be seen in Zoe today, an 18-year-old senior at Plainfield Central High School. She is wise, tough and tender with a humble nature. She follows the rules and works hard. She is healthy with her own firm goals for the future.

"I would like people to know that I am strong and I don’t give up,” Zoe says. “Physically and emotionally, I am a strong person, and I don’t let things knock me down. A couple of years ago, I had three surgeries in one year to repair a torn ACL and fix two bunions on my feet. I healed from them very quickly. I feel that I am very determined, and this probably comes from everything I’ve been through."

Then and now

Tammy defines Zoe’s birth as a miracle. In fact, Zoe’s name was chosen by her parents because it means “life.” Tammy has lupus, which causes inflammation throughout the body and contributed to the growth restriction in Zoe. Tammy also had a clotting disorder during the pregnancy that restricted blood flow in the placenta, limiting Zoe's ability to grow. Faith, Zoe's sister who is five years younger, was a normal full-term delivery.

"Zoe came into this world fighting for her life and did nothing but fight through each obstacle that she faced," Tammy says. "There is no doubt that there was a lot of help from the amazing doctors and nurses who were caring for her too."

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Pictured above: Zoe Koz, born at 27 weeks, remains the smallest surviving baby in the long history of Edward Hospital’s NICU. Zoe weighed 308 grams (10.8 ounces) because of pregnancy complications that caused growth restriction.

Zoe went home needing oxygen. She had physical, occupational and speech therapies, but she quickly caught up and began meeting developmental milestones. Zoe has bilateral hearing loss that has been stable since first grade and corrected with hearing aids. She sees a pulmonologist twice a year and uses a daily steroid inhaler.

Zoe is bothered by one lingering factor, her size. She is 4 feet 10 inches tall and really wishes she was taller. "Even though there is nothing I can do to make myself grow taller, my height has always bothered me. But I’m learning to accept me for me," Zoe shares.

Zoe is loving her senior year of high school and is busy studying when she isn’t practicing her other passions: archery, video games, fishing, stargazing and American Sign Language (ASL) classes. Zoe wanted to be an ASL interpreter, but she was told her hearing loss might be a challenge in that career.

For now, Zoe plans to attend Joliet Junior College to study animals. Her three-legged cat, Macaroni, has been by her side for 11 years. She already works as a kennel assistant and is studying veterinary technology at the Wilco Area Career Center, an organization that develops skills for college or careers. Because every teenager needs multiple plans, Zoe says her other option is creative writing.

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Pictured above: Zoe Koz is a senior at Plainfield Central High School.

Loyalty first

For those who have not met Zoe, get ready. This senior is finding her way, with compassion and integrity well beyond her years. She says her greatest strength is being a loyal friend, a testament to who she truly is. It's possible her fight to thrive for the first months of her life had something to do with her outlook.

"I am enjoying my senior year in high school," Zoe says. "I feel grown up, and my confidence is stronger than ever. I feel like I can appreciate my birth story now that I am getting older and understanding it more. I now realize how much I went through and just how far I’ve come. But I must admit that I miss being a kid and not having to worry about so much. I feel sad that our world is the way it is right now. I don’t get why people treat each other so badly. I don’t get why we can’t all just get along."

Bob Covert, M.D., medical director of the Edward Hospital NICU for the past 25 years, has treated tens of thousands of babies in his career. Zoe remains a vivid memory not only because she is the smallest surviving baby in the Edward NICU but because of her awe-inspiring spirit.

“When I get updates about Zoe or see her in person it reminds me of the tiny baby who impressed us early on,” Dr. Covert says. “Even then she seemed to have a determination about her that has carried over into her teenage years. I wish Zoe all the best as she finishes high school and as she discovers some of the harsh realities of the world. I hope she remembers her positivity, kindness and strength will go a long way—for all of us.”

Some babies are born needing special care. At Edward-Elmhurst Health, we’re fully equipped to care for newborns who require special attention, such as extremely premature infants, infants on ventilators and newborns with congenital conditions.

Edward Hospital provides a Level III NICU—with the capabilities to treat the sickest and most fragile newborns of all gestational ages, including those with a variety of congenital and surgical conditions. Elmhurst Hospital provides a Level IIe Special Care Nursery with extended capabilities to care for low birth weight and premature infants, as well as infants on ventilators, at 30 or more weeks gestation.

Learn more about the NICU and Special Care Nursery at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

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