By Sean Barron
When he was born, Austin Bova was so tiny that his father, Don Bova, was able to place his wedding ring around Austin’s arm and slide it to his armpit.
“Those were the worst five months of my life,” said Bova, of Canfield, referring to when his son was on a ventilator and in an incubator shortly after his complicated birth.
Nevertheless, looking at 4-year-old Austin doesn’t reveal a clue that the healthy, robust boy had been born at 26 weeks, weighed 20 ounces and was 11 inches long.
That’s largely thanks to the efforts of the March of Dimes, which helped the Bovas tap into resources and programs that allowed their son to thrive, said Austin’s mother, Cindy Bova.
As a token of their appreciation, all three were among those who took part in Sunday’s 2013 March for Babies Walk that started at Youngstown State University’s Watson and Tressel Training Site.
The event’s main sponsor was ValleyCare Health System of Ohio.
The Bova family made up part of “Austin’s Army,” one of more than 120 corporate and individual teams that participated in the 1- and 4-mile walks to raise funds for the March of Dimes’ research and education programs. The goal was to bring in $175,000, noted Connie Knight, the Mahoning Valley March of Dimes’ communications director.
Sunday’s gathering also was to recognize the 75th year of the nonprofit agency, which President Franklin Roosevelt founded Jan. 3, 1938, to combat polio. Over the years, the organization’s mission shifted to perinatal health, including helping mothers deliver healthy, full-term babies while working to prevent birth defects and infant mortality, explained Simone Hayes, executive director of the Northeast Ohio March of Dimes.
“He’s in preschool and very smart. He knows all of his numbers, colors and the alphabet, and he knows how to write his name,” Cindy Bova said about Austin, who loves the Cleveland Indians and is able to name most of the Cleveland Cavaliers players.
“It’s God’s miracle that we’re here,” added Don Bova.
Thirty-five people, including Austin’s brother, Brenden, 12, walked for “Austin’s Army,” wearing T-shirts with Austin’s picture and date of birth affixed.
Joining teams such as “Ryan’s Our Reason,” “Team Megan G.,” “Team Lordstown,” “Gianna’s Light” and “Team Aiden and Alex,” many participants walked through downtown Youngstown to remember babies who died at or shortly after birth and celebrate those who survived various birth defects.
Nineteen family members and friends made up “Team Aiden and Alex,” including the twin boys’ parents, Mark and Allison Vistein.
The Visteins lost Alex when he was 6 days old because of necrotizing enterocolitis, a gastrointestinal condition most common in premature infants in which inflammation and infection causes tissue death in parts of the bowels.
Despite having been born at 31 weeks and 3 pounds, Aiden is thriving and has no developmental delays, Allison noted.
“Our way of dealing with grief is to give back in Alex’s name,” she continued. “Anything we can do in the community to keep Alex’s name alive helps me.”
The Visteins, who also brought their 5-year-old son, Caleb, were this year’s March of Dimes’ Ambassador Family.
After the walk, many people paused to look at a fence on which were hung a series of designs shaped like angel wings to remember babies who died from birth defects. Coming up with the idea were Sherri Horvat and Kristen Hankey, both of whom lost children.
“When this happens, you feel so alone and isolated. I don’t want any other family to feel this way,” said Horvat, whose daughter, Gianna Lynne, was stillborn at 28 weeks.
Compounding the problem, Horvat said, is many people’s reluctance to discuss feelings related to losing a child for fear of saying the wrong thing. Talking openly about such a loss helps with the healing, she added.
Don Bova advised parents of a child with birth defects to connect with support groups, work toward defeating defects and seek help.
Also, Knight praised the estimated 35 individual and corporate volunteers, including several YSU students, who supplied food and water, helped register participants and set up various exhibits.