PUEBLO — Strapped to a gurney in the back of a Flight for Life helicopter with the fate of the child living inside her hanging in the balance, a soul-settling calm set over 31-year-old Cori Levinson as she gazed at the sky and listened to the "chuka, chuka, chuka, chuka" of propeller blades spinning above her head.
Just moments before, Cori and her husband Dan Levinson had been surrounded by a small army of medical professionals at Parkview Medical Center.
"That was the most scared I had ever been," Cori recalled. "That overwhelming feeling of helplessness and fear. . "
But as she was loaded into the helicopter, a nurse advised her to stay calm, relax and just concentrate on the spinning propeller blades.
But the baby inside Cori was struggling to break free, despite the fact he wasn't due for another three-and-a-half months.
Ready or not, baby Ricki — the name had already been decided upon, boy or girl — was on his way.
Flash back one week earlier to, ironically, Labor Day Weekend.
A 23-week-pregnant Cori and Dan were enjoying the Colorado State Fair when Cori said she began to feel "off."
The feeling persisted the next day, so Levinson traveled to Parkview, where she was told everything, including the baby's heart rate, appeared to be normal. She tested positive for an infection, however, as well as pre-term labor.
Cori was told the infection was likely what was causing the pre-term labor, but it was nothing to worry about.
Cori was not convinced.
At 3 the following morning, Cori was awakened by severe pain in her stomach and abdomen.
She called a 24-hour help line and was told the pain was common for the infection for which she was being treated; Cori was advised to contact her doctor first thing in the morning.
At 8 a.m. sharp, Cori called her physician. Unfortunately, he'd gone on vacation.
Hospital staff told Cori the on-call doctor would contact her as soon as possible, but by 3 p.m., she still had not received a call, and her symptoms had only intensified.
It was at that point Cori knew something was wrong.
"So I said I'm just going to go... I'm going to drive down to Parkview and go to Labor and Delivery and demand to see a doctor."
That was the first of many decisions that ultimately saved her son's life.
A MOTHER'S INTUITION
On the way to the hospital, an ominous feeling swept over Cori that might best be described as an early case of mother's intuition. She had a feeling she would not be coming home, and packed a bag to take with her
Once at Parkview, Cori was once again hooked up to monitors and was told the pains she was experiencing were variables due to the infection, not contractions.
"And I just wasn't convinced," she said. "They were about to send me home, and I was about to get dressed, and I said, 'No. I want to see a doctor and I want an ultrasound.'"
The technician administering the ultrasound became concerned because Cori was leaking fluid. He sent a sample to the on-call doctor for testing.
"So (the doctor) goes to examine me and while she's doing that, she looks at (Dan and I), and her eyes are super wide, she's as white as a ghost and she said, 'You are 4 1/2 centimeters dilated. This is going to happen really quickly. . You are going to deliver your baby in less than 24 hours. Flight for Life is on their way.'?"
24: THE MAGIC NUMBER
While Cori found a sense of calm en route to St. Francis Medical Center in Colorado Springs, Dan followed behind in his car, white knuckling the steering wheel the entire trip.
Parkview doctors warned Cori she was likely to give birth during flight,
But she didn't experience even one contraction until the helicopter touched down.
Once there, Cori and Dan were greeted by Dr. Toby Genrich.
"And I'll never forget that when he greeted us, he said, 'You're going to be fine. We have you now. Twenty-four weekers live, and at this hospital they have all lived. You're going to be fine.'
"At the time, I was 23 weeks and 6 days pregnant and (Parkview personnel) told me that 24 is the magic number.
"They said, 'We have to get you to 24, because at 23 weeks, they usually don't resuscitate if you deliver.'?"
On Sept. 9, after a painful three-days during which Cori could not take medication and could rarely move in order to avoid inducing further contractions, she and Dan met with their doctors to discuss the possible outcomes of giving birth to Ricki at just 24 weeks.
"They gave us a ton of statistics. Statistics you don't want to hear because they're not looking good in your favor. But we didn't let that discourage us," Cori recalled.
A short time later, an examination revealed that Cori was 9 1/2 centimeters dilated.
It was time to bring Ricki into the world.
And boy, was he ready.
"At 9:35 a.m., Ricki came literally shooting out," Levinson said. "(The doctor) caught him one-handed in one arm like a football."
Ricki was born weighing just 1 pound, 10 ounces — slightly less than the average pineapple — and immediately taken to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
Later that day, the Levinsons got their first glimpse of not only Ricki, but what their lives would be like for the next 4 months.
"There he was in this little isolette, wearing these little glasses to protect his eyes, and he was just the most precious, smallest thing you would ever imagine seeing," recalled Cori.
"It was scary and exciting. It's both of those things because you want to celebrate because you just had a baby, it's your first child and you want to be so excited about it. But at the same time you're just so scared because you don't know what's going to happen."
HARD DECISION, EASY ANSWER
Reality hit a short time later, when the Levinsons were told Ricki had been born with a unilateral grade IV brain bleed and his lungs were severely underdeveloped.
"They said that would more than likely take a toll on his development when he was older," Cori said. "His cognitive development, there would be a chance for cerebral palsy, they had to give us all the statistics.
"And it was then when they asked us if we wanted to continue his life support.
"They said, 'You guys can come into the room, we can take him off of life support, and you can hold him for the first time and let nature take its course."
But the Levinsons never even considered it. Not for a single moment.
"There was absolutely no way we were going to let that happen," Cori said, "because every time we came in that room, Ricki just gave life. Whether that was in his movements or just the way he responded to things, we knew that God was going to give us a sign on what he wanted for Ricki and wanted for our family."
"We decided we were going to love him regardless," Dan said.
The Levinsons spent about two weeks at St. Francis, experiencing countless triumphs and setbacks while monitoring Ricki's progression.
One day, after Cori had spent days on end without venturing outside of the hospital, she left to go to lunch. But no sooner had she stepped out the door before receiving a call from Ricki's nurse.
"Ricki's OK, don't panic," the nurse said. "Just get here as soon as you can, we need to have a conversation."
The Levinsons were told Ricki had to be transported to Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children, to be treated for a bowel obstruction. Ricki would require surgery, one that would eventually beget two more.
"He's so tiny. I was like, 'How are you going to operate on him? How is he going to go under? How are you going to put him under anesthesia?'
"So all of that was very traumatic, but he made it through. He made it through each surgery."
99 MORE DAYS IN THE NICU
Ricki spent 99 days at RMHC, bringing his time in NICU to a grand total of 112 days.
The rest of their stay, much like the beginning of it, was filled with countless milestones and setbacks.
The surgery to repair Ricki's bowel eventually led to another, in which they placed an ostomy site to cut the perforation in Ricki's intestines and place them outside of his belly in a colostomy bag until his bowel started functioning properly.
After that, Ricki had to gain weight until he was able to reach 2 kilograms, in order to have a third surgery, in which he would be re-ostomized. Or, as Cori put it, "put back together."
"But he pulled through," said Cori. "This kid is just the strongest human that we know. He has been through more than most people will in their entire life."
BRINGING RICKI HOME
As Ricki grew stronger and healthier, the Levinsons knew his homecoming was finally on the horizon.
The day before Christmas, doctors told the couple that Ricki's departure could come relatively quickly.
He was finally sent home on Dec. 29 — his original due date.
"I hadn't been back to Pueblo in months, so it was kind of scary," Cori Levinson recalled.
"It was like, what are we going to do if we don't have his primary nurses readily available or his amazing team of doctors, who have been by our side with answers to every question that we could ever have? Or if Ricki's acting a certain way, the monitor isn't going to pick it up. If we go home, all of that is gone. And for me, that gave me anxiety."
But after another white-knuckle drive with Dan behind the wheel in rush-hour Denver traffic, the family made their way to Pueblo and braced themselves for an entirely new challenge: parenthood outside the NICU.
Ricki's grade IV brain bleed is still there, and he will require a slew of appointments to check his physical and cognitive development in the years to come
But much like he did for the 112 days he spent in the NICU, the resoundingly resilient infant continues to roll with the punches.
"He is adjusting and he's acclimating really well," Cori said. "Being here with Ricki with Dan and I and Banksy, this is what we have dreamed of for such a long time."