The family of a premature baby girl born the size of a soda can received the best Christmas present this year – the gift of having her come home.
Eliora Schneider was born at 21 weeks and six days gestation weighing just 13.6oz – the size of a can of coke – in mid-June this year.
Now despite massive odds, Eliora – or Ellie as she is affectionately known – is home in Kansas City, Missouri, with her parents Robin and Joel and her brother Elijah, two.
'It's such a dream come true to have her home for Christmas,' said Robin, a 30-year-old administrative assistant. 'We kept praying for this as she grew stronger as the days passed in the hospital.
'Christmas is such a special time of the year. It's all about a baby and his birth and we are so fortunate that we have our own baby girl home to celebrate the season with.
'It truly is a Christmas miracle.'
Tiny: Eliora Schneider was born in mid-June four months early, weighing just 13.6oz
It will be a very quiet, family Christmas since they still have to be careful that Ellie isn't exposed to coughs, colds and other viruses since she is still gaining strength
Baby Ellie wasn't supposed to be born until November 1, 2017.
Robin had a perfect pregnancy, just as she did with Elijah. She felt well and she and Joel, a 29-year-old professional photographer couldn't wait for their second addition to be born.
It wasn't until her first routine ultrasound scan to check the baby's anatomy at 18 weeks pregnant that a midwife spotted something extremely worrying.
She saw that Robin's cervix was shortened – or incompetent. The cervix is the opening to the uterus that sits at the top of the birth canal.
As the pregnancy progresses, it shortens, gets thinner and softer so that the baby can pass through the birth canal during labor.
Sometimes – and often for reasons unknown – the cervix opens way too early in the pregnancy without pain or contractions, so in this case, the mom-to-be doesn't even know it's happening.
'My cervix was about a tenth of the length it was supposed to be,' said Robin. 'The next day when I went back for a more detailed emergency scan, it had shrunk completely.
'This meant that I could have gone into labor at any second which would have been terrible because the doctors couldn't have helped her and she wouldn't have survived.
'It was a massive shock to us because I had thought me and the baby were healthy.'
Doctors used a cervical pessary – a small ring shaped device - into Robin's cervix in the hope that it would 'plug' her up and prevent premature labor.
Robin (pictured), 30, went into labor four months early because she had a short cervix and her waters broke while being examined
After a short, two-and-a-half-hour labor Ellie was born. It was fast because she was already in the birth canal and she was so, so tiny
But at 20 weeks, when Robin went into St Luke's Hospital in Kansas City to have her pessary checked, it failed and her waters broke.
'It was absolutely terrifying,' said Robin. 'I was put on 24-hour bed rest and intravenous antibiotics, which were known to actually prevent labor.
'We tried to remain positive but it was grim. I took solace in the knowledge of a friend whose waters broke at 18 weeks and who hung on to have her baby at 30 weeks.
'I just prayed and thought if she could do it, then I might be able to as well. Of course we were warned that it was a long shot but it was the hope that we needed – if I didn't have my faith I don't know how I would have got through it.'
Robin hung on for almost two weeks but by mid-June, the premature dilation caused when her waters broke had developed into a premature pre-partum rupture of the membranes (PPROM).
This led to an infection and with that, there was nothing the doctors could do to help. Robin and her child were at serious risk and even though it was so early in the pregnancy, she had to deliver her baby.
Her parents Robin and Joel and her brother Elijah, two, after the birth
Doctors in St Luke's considered a premature baby of 22 weeks 'viable,' but Robin and Joel were warned about the risks.
'We had talked to the NICU doctors extensively beforehand,' said Robin. 'They told us that 22 weeks is, of course, very young but that babies have survived such a short gestation.
'We knew the risks and we knew that the odds were completely stacked against our daughter. But in the end there was no choice – the infection meant that I had to deliver her or risk serious harm to us both.'
After a short, two-and-a-half-hour labor Ellie was born. It was fast because she was already in the birth canal and she was so, so tiny.
She was born weighing just 13.6oz and measuring 10.4 inches long. Robin and Joel saw her for a split second before she was whisked away to the NICU unit.
'I did not think that a human being could be so tiny,' recalled Robin. 'She weighed a little less than a can of soda and to be honest, it was scary to look at her.
'Ellie was like this tiny bird. She had not developed any body fat so we could see all her veins – her skin was like parchment paper and her arms and legs were so small and bony.
Elijah took to being a protective brother, spending the weekends reading to his sister as she recuperated
It was hard to see how she could possibly survive. Her lungs weren't properly developed so she was intubated to help her breathe.
'I cried and cried as soon as I saw her. Joel tried to be strong for me but I know that later he broke down. We didn't know if our baby would survive the night, let alone the coming days and that was a horrible place to be.'
Robin didn't see her daughter properly until the next morning. She had emergency surgery to remove the placenta and then she hemorrhaged after, so she was in no fit state to be moved.
It wasn't until 10 hours after she was born that Robin was able to get a closer look at Ellie, wrapped-up in her incubator and she was amazed at how strong she was.
Normally, such tiny babies rarely move but there was Ellie, squirming and moving her arms and legs. In fact she was so mobile that doctors had to sedate her because she kept breaking her fragile skin open.
'When I saw her moving around, I knew that we had a fighting chance,' said Robin. 'If she was literally fighting so hard to survive, then I believed that she would – she was so incredibly feisty already.'The next months were filled with ups and downs. Twice they almost lost her when she developed infections and her heartbeat dropped dangerously low.
Yet each time Ellie rallied back, stronger than before. Robin went back to work and she called staff in the NICU unit three or four times a day for updates, and she visited her daughter every night.
Ellie was hooked-up to several machines helping her to breathe, so Robin and Joel weren't allowed to hold her until she was five weeks old and she had reached 2lb in weight.
'I was terrified I was going to drop her and I cried more than she did!' said Robin. 'I have been around babies all my life but this was different – I felt like she could be broken if I wasn't careful.
'It was like holding the smallest kitten in the world but as time went on and she grew stronger, so did my confidence. Elijah was allowed to hold her when she reached 35 weeks gestationally because by then her immune system was stronger.
In early December, Ellie was finally allowed home for Christmas and it was a wish come true for the whole family
'He loved holding his baby sister – it was the sweetest thing in the world to see and such a significant moment. To see our two children together like that was incredibly special.'
Ellie was finally allowed home for Christmas and it was a wish come true for the whole family.
It will be a very quiet, family Christmas since they still have to be careful that Ellie isn't exposed to coughs, colds and other viruses since she is still gaining strength.
She is now 9lb 9oz and she is fast growing-out of her newborn clothes. She feeds well with a mix of breast and formula milk and she is thriving.
Ellie has chronic lung disease caused by her underdeveloped lungs, so she still has oxygen but as her lungs mature, she will need the help less and less.
For now, the family is grateful that Ellie has survived massive odds and they can celebrate the season with her.
'We know how lucky we are to have her,' said Robin. 'We are so grateful to the medical teams who have helped her through this and we are thankful that she is such a strong personality that she fought hard to be here.
'It's been a rollercoaster ride and it probably will continue to be so. Thanks to our faith and to God, we feel in our hearts that the only way is up for our Ellie, our beautiful Christmas miracle.'